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

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