Monday, 7 August 2023

Vestment Relics

Ancilla writes: I had the pleasure of visiting Abbotsford being the home of Sir Walter Scott in the Scottish Borders right on the river Tweed. The estate was eventually inherited by his granddaughter Charlotte Harriet Jane Lockhart who married the barrister James Robert Hope. James was active in the Oxford Movement and became good friends with Cardinal St John Henry Newman. The couple converted to Catholicism and St Newman stayed at Abbotsford on several occasions.

Charlotte died in 1858 leaving a daughter Mary Monica whom Newman had known since her birth. They developed a close friendship, and it is to her that Newman left some of the vestments he had worn while celebrating the Traditional Latin Mass at Abbotsford. When Pope Benedict XVI toured Edinburgh these relics were displayed for His Holiness.

The Rose Vestments (could be Red maybe but as the ground fabric is a pinkish colour now it’s at least a way to define it) is thought to have a 16th Century embroidery on 18th Century silk fabric. The detail is exquisite. What now looks like grey threads is actually very fine gold thread, think imitation Japanese gold thread, and as far as I could tell this includes the floral details around the figures (the vestments are behind glass so difficult to inspect). Pity the front is not available to view. 

The Gold Vestment is 19th Century. It may not be visible from the photos but there is a bit of repair that needs doing on this set with threads frayed or missing and the stones falling off. The display included Newman’s biretta, a Roman Missal, and other relics.  

Thursday, 13 April 2023

Why does the Guild of St Clare make vestments by hand? An Apologia

Isaac Singer began manufacturing domestic sewing machines in 1851, and it was not long before they were to be found in practically every home. Since that time, sewing with a machine has become so normal that the skills of hand sewing are rare, and their value and importance has faded from the collective memory. The replacement of hand-sewing by machine sewing, at both commercial and domestic levels, radically reducing the cost of clothing in terms of money or time, changed the textile industry immediately and for ever. Many other hand skills such as lace-making, weaving, tailoring and embroidery, many of which had shaped and sustained communities over many centuries, also became obsolete at around the same time. However, out-dated as they must have appeared in the mid- to late nineteenth century, there were those who understood the importance of saving these skills and felt some urgency about it. As a result most of them do live on, albeit as niche rather than mainstream activities in the textile industry. 

Front cover of the Royal School of Needlework Exhibition Catalogue, 1876, from the RSN archive

To those accustomed to the quality and efficiency of products made by modern machines, hand techniques can seem like no more than a quaint hobby with no intrinsic value. It is, indeed, possible to take one of them up as a hobby and enjoy and value it without perceiving its superiority over the mechanized version. Lovers of the traditional Mass will fully sympathise when I say that the incomprehension, depreciation and even contempt levelled at the older liturgy is similar (though more visceral) to that often directed at traditional skills: and that sometimes, those slightly familiar with that liturgy, who feel affectionate towards it, can nevertheless trivialise its importance, and misunderstand and patronise those more deeply committed to it.

LMS Requiem for Prince Philip, 8/5/21: black High Mass set, the property of the LMS,
with black velvet ground and raised goldwork embroidery. Photo by Joseph Shaw

Close-up of the embroidery on the chasuble

It is perhaps natural that those who love the Traditional Mass should feel drawn to these old techniques. They have the same antiquity, stateliness and beauty, the same dignity, and bestow the same feeling of connection with both our recent predecessors and our far distant ones. The virtues required to practise them are old-fashioned: patience, concentration, perseverance. And they stand in opposition to all those things that the modern workplace esteems: they are slow, and difficult to master. So much, I imagine, will be readily understood as advantages by many. To understand that the final product is superior to its machine-made equivalent may need more explanation. In this essay I am considering principally vestment making, though in order to make my case I will draw on examples from dressmaking and embroidery. I hope that, having made it, readers will clearly understand that the principles apply not only to these disciplines but to others also.

In her magisterial book, Couture Sewing Techniques, Claire Shaeffer makes a direct comparison between a garment made with haute couture techniques, and those of high-end ready-to-wear. In practical terms, this should be understood as the difference between a bespoke garment, made to order for one particular client, from the atelier at Chanel, and one also from Chanel, but off the peg, from the boutique. She identifies 36 ways in which they differ from each other. These include especially clear-cut differences in the method of construction, as follows:

It will be observed, even by those unfamiliar with many of the technical terms used, that the difference in construction is most often that the haute couture garment is hand stitched, rather than machine stitched. Such garments come with a large price-tag: the lowest you might expect to pay for a haute couture dress would be in the region of £10,000, more than ten times more than you might pay even for a high-end ready-to-wear one. The difference, the reason why clients are willing to pay so much for them, and even more importantly, why the couturiers who make them are willing to subsidise them (the haute couture business is loss-making) is the innovative design, the custom fit and the outstanding skill needed to make them. The techniques used simply cannot be transferred to a machine: reproducing a haute couture garment on a sewing machine means a sacrifice of quality and finish. 

To illustrate, in my own lessons in haute couture (strictly for beginners, I should say) I was instructed on how to prepare thread for stitching: a length should be cut, not too long (the length will vary according to the stitch); it should then be passed once or twice through a small cake of beeswax, and then ironed to strengthen it. This gives the thread more body and strength, and less static; it makes it smoother, so it passes through the fabric more easily, and the stitcher has more control over it. In stitching the seams, I learnt how to align the grain of the fabric with a precision I had not imagined possible. I also learnt how to cover the "eye" of a hook and eye fastening on a dress with an exquisite, minute buttonhole stitch, so that no metal shows. It looks beautiful, and of course there is no risk of the fastening coming adrift. 

My miniature pleated couture dress, made entirely by hand

I am sure many readers, although grasping my drift, will nevertheless be picturing to themselves a perfect row of stitches created by a sewing machine, and saying to themselves that no hand-sewing could equal it for precision, regularity and strength. This, certainly, was my own belief until I started to understand the extent to which we allow machines to govern our measure of perfection. To help illuminate the difference, let us now consider the way in which vestments are traditionally made by hand, by contrast with machine manufacture. The principle difference is the sixth point on Claire Schaeffer's list: in a handmade vestment, the fabric is stitched right side up – a machine made one, with right sides together and the wrong side facing the stitcher. A fuller description of the different techniques will be necessary to understand the implications of this difference.


A vestment is made with the main fabric, usually a brocade or damask, decorated with a braid and sometimes with embroidery (applied before construction). It is lined with a different fabric, usually (but not always) a cheaper one: generally a cotton sateen, but sometimes with a silk twill. To make a vestment with a machine, these two fabrics are stitched right sides together: that is, with the presentation side of each fabric on the inside while it is being stitched. A small gap is left, so that when almost all the stitching is finished, it can be turned right side out again. The gap would then be closed up with a few hand stitches. This is what I call the pillowcase method: the result is very much like a pillowcase in that both the outside and the lining of the vestment will be exactly the same size and shape, and the seam where the two fabrics join will run around the exact edge of it. Vestments made in this way very rarely hang exactly as they should: there is often bagging round the bottom, where the lining is slightly larger than the main fabric: alternatively, the main fabric sometimes wrinkles where it is slightly smaller than the lining. This can be minimised or eliminated by very careful cutting and tacking. However, what cannot be changed is the position of the seam. Furthermore, the strength of the construction is entirely reliant on the one line of stitching provided by the sewing machine. 

Hand construction, on the other hand, is done as follows. An interlining, usually made of a heavy linen-like fabric called dowlais, is cut to the desired shape of the finished vestment. It is placed on top of the ‘wrong’ side (that is, not the presentation side) of the main fabric, which is the same shape but with a generous seam allowance. 

A quarter-sized chasuble, made as a sample piece: the interlining has been tacked inside the damask and the seam allowance pinned over it

Then, the outer fabric seam allowance is folded over the top of the interlining, and stitched on to it with a strong utility stitch called herringbone. This is done without the stitches penetrating the front of the vestment - the stitches go through the seam allowance and the interlining only. 

The seam allowance is herringboned to the interlining, without encroaching on the surface of the vestment

When this has been done, the lining is applied, as follows: its seam allowance is pressed to the wrong side, and then the lining is laid over the interlining so that the three layers of the vestment are in the position that they are finally destined for. It is pinned in place, leaving a small margin (or rebate), so that the edge of the lining sits about a quarter of a centimetre inside the vestment, and is therefore slightly smaller than the main fabric. This means that no seam is visible on the outside of the vestment, and also makes a pleasing finish on the inside. It is slip stitched into place: slip stitching is an almost invisible stitch, where most of the thread is concealed inside the fabrics. In this way, the construction is far stronger than it would be with a machine, as it has two sets of stitches holding it into place rather than one (one of which is a particularly robust one), and the whole thing lies completely flat, without a wrinkle. And since vestments are made to last not simply a lifetime, but for generations, the strength of the stitching is indispensable.

A handmade maniple, with the lining slightly inset and slip stitched in place

One of the reasons why people are amazed when I assert that hand-constructed vestments are not only prettier but also stronger than machine-made ones is because they do not realise that the whole method of making them is different. They imagine simply an attempt to make a vestment using a technique designed for a sewing machine, but done by hand. In fact, the herringboning of the interlining to the seam allowance is something a sewing machine cannot do, and so a less satisfactory method has been adopted for the sake of the machine. This explanation of the two different techniques is enough to show the superiority of hand construction. But to those readers still enamoured of those perfectly regular machine stitches, let me persuade you further. One of the skills of hand embroidery is to adjust the length and tension of each stitch relative to its position in the overall scheme. Where the handstitcher will manipulate the fabric in order to ensure that the needle passes through the precise place where the stitch should go, easing and stretching it to guarantee a perfect join, the virtue of the machine is the opposite: that the stitches do not vary. Our enthralment to the machine means that we have forgotten the extent to which hand sewing techniques had to be adapted, and bastardised, in order to make it possible for a machine to execute them. 

Preparations for cutting a maniple: the pattern outline is tacked on to the fabric, for greater accuracy. 
These stitches are later removed.

The apostolate of the Guild of St Clare is in large part founded on our love for traditional hand-embroidery, and it was through this route that we learned the hand construction techniques that we use. These are still in use in the studio at the Royal School of Needlework, and it was an RSN tutor who has taught them to us. As the Guild has grown, and the skills and knowledge of our volunteers have developed, we find that we are all in agreement in this matter. The reason is not confined to the excellence of hand-stitching techniques, but is also connected in a very important way to the spirituality of the sewing we do. Devotional sewing is not merely the exercise of a skill, nor yet a means to an end. It is the expression of a prayer, and of a commitment to the service of the Church. The meditative beauty of it is intimately related to the work of the hands, and the peace and serenity of the working environment. Therefore, although we never hold a vestment workshop without taking a machine along with us, it is rare for us to use one.

A hand-constructed burse: the fabric is laced to the board before the lining is applied

As the National Coordinator of the Guild of St Clare, I have an obligation towards the people who volunteer to use their time wisely: it is essential that so many hours, willingly given, should not be wasted or used frivolously, and I try to exercise prudence in the matter of how best to mend or make a vestment. But having decided on the value and likely lifetime of a vestment, we count no cost in the matter of making or restoring it. To us, our “client” is the Lord God, and we are the “petites mains”, working to the highest possible standard to make the vestments intended to glorify Him as perfect as may be possible.

Latin Mass Society Easter Vigil 2023: Roman Purple High Mass set, property of the LMS,
made of handwoven silk lamé,
extensively repaired by the Guild of St Clare

Monday, 10 April 2023

Easter Vigil at St Mary Moorfields: the story of the vestments

Lucy writes: Every year I attend the Easter Vigil at St Mary Moorfields, organised by the Latin Mass Society, with my family. The older children attend all of the Triduum with my husband, and the little ones and I join them for the final marathon liturgy. This is the story behind the beautiful Roman Purple High Mass set, the property of the LMS, which is always used on this occasion.
The set was among the first things belonging to the Latin Mass Society to be repaired by the Guild of St Clare. It probably dates to the early twentieth century, and is made of handwoven silk lamé. Incidentally, there is a very similar set at Westminster Cathedral. It’s a beautiful and striking fabric, not easily obtainable now. Our first task was to re-stitch the braid down. The existing thread was perishing, and although at first we thought only obviously loose pieces needed attention, in the end we realised that every stitch on all the braid needed to be replaced. On a High Mass set, that’s a lot! At some earlier point in their history, some other person had attempted to do this, using a sewing machine. On the front it wasn't obvious, but on the purple lining it was painful to see lines of yellow machine stitches dotted about at random. Naturally we got rid of all those, replacing them with hand stitching invisible from both the front and the back. We had completed the chasuble, dalmatic and smaller pieces, when we came across what turned out to be by far the biggest challenge of the undertaking. The braid on the sleeves of the tunicle was gaping considerably, and the lining was oddly wrinkled inside the vestment. We didn’t want to stitch the braid down without first ensuring that the lining was hanging correctly, so we unpicked a portion of the sleeve with a view to straightening it. And then we made our discovery. This vestment had clearly been left till last during the cutting and construction of the set, and there hadn’t been sufficient fabric for the sleeve length - it was an inch short. Instead of adjusting the pattern, or sourcing more fabric, the maker had simply pressed on regardless. So the sleeve lining was the same size as that of the dalmatic. But the lamé was an inch shorter. As it was the heavier of the two fabrics, the lining had at first wrinkled, but the two fabrics were in a permanent fight with each other which ultimately resulted in a divorce. As the thread on the braid perished, there wasn’t anything else to keep the two fabrics together, and gaping holes appeared. I suppose we could have forced them back together into the same unsatisfactory arrangement that had existed for the previous 100 years, but that would have been utterly alien to the Guild of St Clare ethos. We resolved to reconstruct the sleeves as they should have been. The difficulty was how to patch them. Usually we try and find a liturgical fabric sufficiently similar to be unnoticeable, or at least inoffensive. But that was impossible with this set (short of ordering more lamé from Gamarelli’s, at heaven knows what cost). We needed only a strip about three quarters of an inch wide, and the length of the sleeve. After much measuring and further exploratory unpicking, we worked out that we could cut the necessary piece from underneath the braid, which could easily be replaced as it wouldn’t be seen. Cutting it out was nerve-wracking - cut too much, and there might be too little seam allowance left to keep the main piece secure: cut too little and it would all be in vain, and we would have to use a clashing fabric to make up the shape just the same. We were twice successful, however, and the patches for both sleeves went in beautifully. If you look at the tunicle closely, knowing what to look for, you’ll spot the patches: the grain of the fabric runs the wrong way. But to all intents and purposes, it’s an invisible repair. It all took a lot longer than we had envisaged: countless hours, in fact, by several different volunteers. But seeing it in use at the Vigil, whole and undamaged, there’s no doubt it was worth every minute of it. In marked contrast is the white High Mass set, also owned by the LMS, which the sacred ministers change into for the first Mass of Easter. This is one of the few sets which have needed no repairs. It was purchased in 2012 from Luzar by the LMS in honour of the visit to the UK of Archbishop Rifan of Campos. It is machine embroidered with floral motifs and will be going strong, I have no doubt, 100 years from now. But if any problems do develop in the meantime…the LMS will know who to call!
Photos by Joseph Shaw

He is risen indeed: Close of the Lenten Vestment Mending Challenge

Regular readers of this website will know that, at the beginning of Lent, the Guild of St Clare launched its annual Lenten Vestment Mending Challenge; and this year, we made a specific prayer intention for the Liberty of the Traditional Mass, offered as a contribution to the Appeal for Prayers by Una Voce International. The Lenten season started very ominously for lovers of the Traditional Mass, with the publication, by the Dicastery for Divine Worship, of a Rescript, concerning the interpretation of the Apostolic Letter Traditiones Custodes, which deprived local bishops of the authority to provide traditional Masses in their own parish churches.

Rumours had, previous to this, been very widespread as to the publication of a further document, issuing yet more restrictions, or perhaps even a complete ban on celebrations of the Latin Mass: and a particular date, Holy Monday, had been suggested as a possible occasion for it. Prayers were therefore urgently necessary, and it was heartening to witness the strength and enthusiasm of the supporters of the Guild of St Clare as they responded to the Appeal for Prayers. Repairing (or making) vestments is a double prayer: not only is it in itself an alms to the Church, but when undertaken prayerfully, it is also a spiritual offering.

More than thirty stitchers joined our effort for this intention. I attach a few photos of some (by no means all) of the things which have so far been finished. I am enormously grateful to all those who assisted in this great endeavour. There can be no doubt that the many prayers offered for this Lenten intention have been heard: no document was issued on Holy Monday, and perhaps our worst fears will not be realised. They have certainly, at least, been delayed.

Our prayers continue for the freedom of the faithful to attend the Old Mass, and our vestment-mending also goes on. 

A new Ciborium veil, made of silk charmeuse

The lace protector is re-attached to this exquisite black velvet chasuble covered in raised goldwork

This is a new stole, to match (and complete) a black Low Mass set belonging to the LMS

This chasuble has been completely re-lined

The London (St Bede's) Chapter collaborated to make this altar frontal for Laetare Sunday at St Bede's

This maniple has been made to complete a red Low Mass set

Tuesday, 4 April 2023

Vestment Mending Workshop in Oxford

Lucy writes: As Lent neared its close, the Oxford Chapter met on 1st April to consolidate our progress on the various projects we have undertaken for the Lenten Vestment Mending Challenge. We were very grateful to Fr Daniel Lloyd for offering us the hospitality of Holy Rood, the chapel of ease under his care, for our gathering. Prayers continue for the liberty of the Traditional Mass.

Work begins on covers for kneelers at Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane

Creating a pattern for a maniple

Repairs are ongoing on the goldwork decorations on this humeral veil: every spangle must be re-stitched into place, as the existing threads holding them have perished.

Repairs to goldwork decorations on a lavishly embroidered gold chasuble

Making a maniple

Another maniple under construction

Thursday, 30 March 2023

Apply now for our Royal School of Needlework Sponsorship Scheme

Since 2019 the Guild of St Clare has offered an annual award of sponsorship through the prestigious Certificate Course at the Royal School of Needlework: the scheme continues, and we invite candidates to submit their applications by 23rd June 2023.

Burse-Making, March 2020: our annual Guild of St Clare workshop at the RSN, Hampton Court Palace

The Royal School of Needlework is an international centre of excellence for hand embroidery, and the skills it teaches are essential to the work of vestment making and repairs. The Certificate Course is a flexible course which can be completed at a pace to suit each student. It teaches four core techniques: Jacobean Crewelwork, Silk Shading, Goldwork and a choice of either Canvaswork or Blackwork. It is taught in various locations across the UK: at the main teaching apartments at Hampton Court Palace and also at satellites in Bristol, Durham, Rugby and Glasgow.

Jacobean Crewelwork, completed by James Sharpe, our first sponsorship winner

With the assistance of the Latin Mass Society and also a private benefactor, the Guild of St Clare offers sponsorship which contributes 50% of the fees. For more information, including how to apply, click here.

Monday, 6 March 2023

The Oxford Chapter on Pilgrimage

 Clare of the Oxford Chapter writes: It was a somewhat chilly morning on Monday 27th February, when 3 members of the Oxford Chapter of the Guild of St. Clare met on the platform of Oxford Parkway Railway Station. This was the start of our Pilgrimage to the Church of Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane in London, via a number of sewing related retail establishments.

We spent the hour of the journey into London discussing our hopes and aspirations for the day - and, of course, doing some sewing. We arrived at Marylebone Station and walked the short distance to our first port of call; Joel and Son. This is a veritable cornucopia of rolls of fabric, reaching from the floor to the ceiling. Nothing leapt out at us, demanding to be purchased, so we moved on to the next establishment on our itinerary.

After a somewhat circuitous route, we found ourselves at V. V. Rouleaux - another cornucopia, this time of braids, ribbons, trims and other bits and bobs. It was getting towards lunchtime, so we MacCulloch and Wallis our last stop of the morning. We dramatically reduced their stock of needles, thread, marking pencils and calico, among other things, after which we had a well earned cup of tea and a sandwich.

Liberty’s was just a short walk from the café, with its large collection of cotton prints and sewing accessories, made in some of their more popular prints. A number of items in the latter category were delightedly purchased. While investigating the sales items, we came upon a rather spectacular model of the shop in LEGO!

Our final retail establishment was Watts and Co, where we were shown their extensive range of glorious liturgical fabrics, and came away with some samples for matching various projects.

Two further Pilgrims then joined us at the Clermont Hotel, Charing Cross for afternoon tea. We spent a very pleasant hour or so chatting and enjoying the tea, sandwiches and cakes.

After tea, we made our way to our final destination and the purpose of our Pilgrimage; Sung Mass at the beautiful Church of Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane, to pray for the special intention of the Liberty of the traditional Mass.

We have been commissioned to make covers for the kneelers for Corpus Christi, for use at Pontifical Masses, and took this opportunity to check the measurements. We are looking forward to beginning these as part of our contribution to the Lenten Vestment Challenge.

Friday, 3 March 2023

A visit to the Northern Chapter

Lucy writes: It was a marvellous treat for me to attend the most recent meeting of the Northern Chapter, very kindly hosted by the priests at the York Oratory. 

What a powerhouse! The meeting was extremely well-attended: the Upper Room, which is the parish hall of the York Oratory, was as full as it could hold. I was impressed by the wide range of projects under repair, from a baptismal gown with a hole (a new panel of needle lace is being made specially to replace the damaged section) to several large and magnificent banners, some owned by the Canons at St Walburge's, nothing is too complex for the highly-skilled needleworkers gathered last Saturday.

One of the special things about the meetings at the York Oratory is that the day begins with Mass, at 9.15am. There is also Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at lunch time, so that the whole day becomes a spiritual retreat as well as a workshop. 

I was very touched by the very warm welcome I was given by the Chapter members, and awe-struck by the sheer quantity of work that they are tackling. They are anxious to be as useful as possible to the traditional communities that they serve, especially to the priests, and are continually seeking them out to offer their services.

The meeting took place on the same day that news broke about the suppression of almost all traditional Masses in Leeds, which is the neighbour to Middlesbrough diocese where we were gathered. It was a great shock to us all, especially as the blow seemed to fall so close to us. The attack on the traditional Mass feels very personal to those attached to it, and we are very hurt by it: but it was notable that there was no bitterness. There is anxiety and distress, but no anger: only a determination to continue to serve the Church as well as possible. Mending vestments is not only a practical answer to the latest onslaught from Rome, but also a great comfort.

The next meeting of the Northern Chapter is at St Augustine's, Manchester: for more details contact the Chapter Co-ordinator, Clare Megarity on

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

Launch of the Lenten Vestment Mending Challenge

Our Lenten Challenge launched over the weekend before Ash Wednesday, with a vestment mending workshop at St Mary Moorfields, London (thanks to the kind hospitality of Fr Christopher Vipers). The Lenten Vestment Mending Challenge is an annual enterprise for the Guild of St Clare: this year it is being offered as a contribution to the Appeal for Prayers and Penances for the Liberty of the Traditional Mass, organised by Una Voce International. Nearly thirty people are officially signed up to our Challenge this year, with others participating through their local Chapters. This translates into a considerable quantity of work, mostly repairs, which we are undertaking as an alms to the Church, and in particular to traditionally minded priests. Here is a sample of the projects that are in progress.

A new maniple is being made to match a Low Mass set: the shape and design will imitate the stole

The lining is adrift from this chasuble: it is being stitched back down 

This is a pattern I have made for a new maniple to match the stole of a red Low Mass Set

This beautiful embroidered chasuble was coming apart at one of the seams: it has been carefully reinforced

A maniple under construction, to go with a chasuble which had no matching pieces

This chasuble is in perfect condition except for the lining which was badly stained: we are re-lining it

There is a lot of damage to the gold work on this humeral veil: the spangles are being painstakingly replaced

Bias strips of cotton sateen, being cut and pressed before being stitched to the fraying neckline of a chasuble

We often add a lace protector to the neckline of fragile chasubles, to give them a longer life expectancy

This banner needs a new ground fabric

One of our younger members is making a burse to go with this stole

Frayed patches are being carefully darned on this chasuble, and the whole thing re-lined

The London (St Bede's) Chapter is making this altar frontal as a group project, aiming to complete it in time for Laetare Sunday

This banner needs extensive repairs: re-touching to the painting, and a new ground fabric