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

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