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Linen: A Tradition
Why linen? Why not use some of the new, easy care, "miracle" fabrics for our fair linens, purificators, palls, and corporals? Is there a reason to use linen?
A reason, yes. A rule or requirement, no.
The reason is simple: our desire to use the finest, most beautiful materials available at God's altar. Beauty is not necessary. Beauty is not always even efficient. When we prepare God's altar, we are beyond the category of necessary and efficient. We do all for the utter joy of serving our Lord.
We are in error when we call the man-made fabrics "miracle fabrics." The true miracle fabrics were made by God Himself. They are wool, cotton, silk—and linen. In recent years some parishes have turned to the easy care, man-made fabrics for use on the altar. They are finding that these fabrics stretch out of shape, are not absorbent, hold stains and, oddly, hold wrinkles, too. The lower cost of these fabrics is proving to be money ill spent.
Linen is a joy to use and to behold. Linen launders superbly. Few things can compare with a beautifully laundered and ironed fair linen. Always rinse the holy linens before laundering. It is traditional to pour this first rinse water down the piscina or onto the ground. A moment's reflection on the fact that these wine stains are the precious Blood of Jesus will speak to the reason.
Can we use materials other than linen on the altar? We can, as the rubric on page 406 of our Book of Common Prayer states, "... a clean white cloth."
Scripture says, "Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth" (Matthew 27:59; see also John 19:40, Luke 23:53, Mark 15:46). Our Lord's body was wrapped in linen before it was placed in the sepulcher and all our holy linens remind us of this when we use them. Linen is the traditional fabric used at the altar. It is beautiful and its history is deep in the Scriptures. Let us give God's altar the best, the finest in whatever is used on it and in the loving service that we render our Precious Savior.
Adapted from an article by Marty Thompson of St. Patrick's Church in Atlanta, which came to me by way of Florence Joseph, who has served as a directress also.
The Holy Linens
I am a Christian of the Episcopal denomination, which means, in the context of this book, that I will be writing about the linens used in the Episcopal churches. Other denominations have different linens and give them different names: Methodists call our fair linen a communion cloth, Roman Catholics shape their purificators differently and call the equivalent of our altar guilds, rosary societies. Whatever the size, shape, or name, the techniques used in constructing these linens remain the same.
The church linens are not in themselves holy. They are holy by virtue of the purpose they serve. The holy linens are those that come in contact with the consecrated elements—the Body and Blood of our Savior, Jesus, who is the Christ.
Many books and pamphlets give standard sizes for the linens. I don't think we can establish standard sizes. Corporals, purifications, and chalice veils should be sized according to the size of the altar and chalice. Some priests prefer larger lavabo towels than others. These decisions can be based upon the needs and tastes of your own church. I would suggest, however, that you make a decision and stick with it. Many sacristies are plagued by "mystery linens." Mystery linens are the ones that appear this week as purificators and next week as corporals because their size and/or embroidery is ambiguous.
The purificator is used to wipe the edge of the chalice as the consecrated wine is being administered. Roman Catholic purificators are rectangular. In Episcopal churches the purificator is square and is folded in thirds twice.
The lavabo towel is used to dry the hands of the priest prior to the consecration of the elements. The lavabo towel is rectangular and sometimes serves double duty as a baptismal towel. It is folded in thirds and then in half.
The corporal is placed underneath the vessels containing the host and wine during consecration. Its purpose is to catch and contain any bits of the host so that they may be disposed of properly. (This is done by emptying them into the piscina or by taking the corporal out of doors and shaking the crumbs on the ground.)
The folding of corporals is an issue. I cannot tell you how often I have been asked by clergy to teach the altar guild how to fold corporals properly. It may appear fussy, but folding the corporal properly is important.
When our clergy celebrate communion, they not only prepare for us the holy feast, they are also in prayer. We must do all we can to support them during this time. A corporal that must be adjusted because it is upside down or wrong side up is not merely ungraceful and an inconvenience, it is disruptive to the worship of the priest. I have given a simple method for folding corporals in the chapter on Washing, Ironing, and Folding. It will be appreciated by every deacon and priest.
The chalice veil is a post-communion cover for the chalice used in place of burse and veil. Following the ablutions, the purificator is placed in (or on) the chalice, the paten (if used) is placed on top, and the pall is laid on top of the paten. The chalice veil then is laid over the top.
Although the use of a post-communion chalice veil is a time-honored tradition, we haven't seen much of it in recent years because it was supplanted by the use of burse and veil.
The burse and veil are processional vestments. They form a portable package in which the eucharistic vessels and elements can be brought to the altar in procession. As it becomes less common to process the vessels and elements, parishes are returning to the use of chalice veils.
I am not aware of any formal traditions attached to the use of the chalice veil. For instance: is it used only to cover vessels left on the altar, or may it be used to cover vessels placed on the credence table? As neither Leviticus nor Deuteronomy speaks to this question, the answer must be "whatever is reasonable and proper." My own sense would be that a chalice veil may be used to cover vessels when they are left on the altar but not when they are removed from the altar to the credence table.
As with corporals, the folding process should result in decorum rather than chaos. Lay the ironed chalice veil right side up, the cross away from you. Fold down the top third. Fold up the bottom third. Fold in the right-hand third. Fold in the left-hand third. This creates the appearance of a book.
When the first two folds are opened, the priest/deacon needs only to lift up the hem. The veil will open correctly to be laid neatly over the chalice with a minimum of fuss.
The pall is a square cover for the chalice made of lightweight Plexiglas covered with linen. Its original purpose was to keep unwanted litter out of the chalice. It also serves as a surface to support the burse (if one is used) or the corporal (if it isn't).
The credence cloth is the cloth that is placed on the credence table on which the vessels are kept before they are put on the altar for the Eucharist service.
The fair linen is the covering for the altar and is symbolic of the linen cloth in which the body of our Lord was wrapped when he was taken from his cross and placed in the tomb. From this comes the stress upon the use of linen for the holy linens. The word "fair" in this context means "lovely."
Materials and Equipment
Fabric: Both cotton and synthetic/cotton blends are used to construct church linens. And, in some cases they are appropriate: in hot, humid areas where mildew is a serious problem or in parishes that have no one to care for linen. I have placed in the beginning of this book a statement about linen that I enjoy and agree with. If you feel as strongly as I do about the use of linen, you will enjoy it also.
Because of the high cost of new linen fabric, many of our churches have been making new small linens out of worn large linens. Although this is acceptable, it is not desirable. Putting time into fabric that is already partially worn is not good stewardship. Our time, efforts, and talents are of great value. New linen is preferable, especially now that it is available at reasonable prices. Please write for information. (See the Sources and Resources.)
Holy linens may not have had a previous existence as table linens, bed sheets, or handkerchiefs.
When disposing of old linens, save the embroidery. These handsome old embroideries can be framed and given as gifts or used to decorate church walls. Be sure that the scraps are properly disposed of; burning is recommended.
Linen: Three characteristics come into play in choosing linen for church use: quality, weight, and density.
Quality is judged by the even-ness of threads and weave.
Weight is measured in ounces per square yard.
Density is determined by the number of threads per square inch.
We sell high-quality linen in three weights and densities:
Our lightweight linen is suitable for both small linens and fair linens. It has 141 threads per square inch and weighs 4.4 ounces per square yard.
Our batiste linen is suitable for small linens and especially for chalice veils. It has 136 threads per square inch and weighs 3.1 ounces per square yard.
Our heavyweight linen is suitable for fair linens (although I prefer the lightweight). It has 119 threads per square inch and weighs 4.6 ounces per square yard.
When acquiring linen for church use, ask for the weight and density numbers—it is difficult to detect differences in weight and density when looking at samples. You can easily see even-ness of thread and weave.
Measuring Equipment: The usual—ruler and yardstick. For fair linens, a four-foot rule and builder's square. Since the publishing of the first edition, I have invented a special ruler designed to make quick work of laying out small linen hems. It's called the "Golden Ruler" and you can order it from me. Members of the quilting community can achieve much the same thing with a 24-inch quilting ruler.
You will also need a creasing instrument (which comes with your Golden Ruler along with full instructions). You can purchase one made of bamboo or you can use any instrument with a smooth, blunt edge such as a butter knife or the rounded point of a medium-sized crochet hook. (See the chapter on Folding the Hem.)
Magnifier: A swing-arm lamp with a magnifying glass can be purchased for twenty to thirty dollars, and is worth it.
Neither starch nor size is used on the finished linens.
Construction marks: This is a problem. There are lots of products out there and none work as well as a soft lead pencil. The marks wash out fairly readily but will stain if left too long. Marks should be as small and as light as possible. Avoid the pens that contain disappearing ink or ink that rinses out; the marks come back and are stubborn. These marks (and some other stains) may be removed by soaking the cloth in a solution of one teaspoon cream of tartar to one quart of water. Bring the solution to a boil, turn off the heat, soak the linen until cool, rinse, and wash.
Needles: Needles are described by a number and a name. The number is related to the diameter of the needle: the larger the number, the more slender the needle will be.
The length and character of the needle are described by its name. There are three types of needles suitable for sewing church linens: betweens, sharps, and embroidery (or crewels). Number ten betweens, sharps, and embroidery needles will all be the same diameter but they will look different. Betweens are short and this makes them stronger and less likely to bend. They are the types of needle used by quilters. Sharps are longer and not so strong. A slender sharp will bend easily. An embroidery needle is also longer than a between and has a large eye.
Which type of needle you choose will be a matter of your own skill, preference, and the weight of your material. One person will prefer to work a heavier weight fabric with a number ten between, and another would choose a number eight sharp. I recommend that anyone who has difficulty threading a small eye use embroidery needles for all their sewing. I think a number ten embroidery is a great all- around needle. You will find a favorite that suits you.
Pins: Although there are many types of pins, pin manufacturers aren't as well organized as needle manufacturers. I do not know of a manufacturer that has managed to standardize its entire line of pins, let alone any sort of an industry standard.
I use two types of pins. My utility pins have yellow glass heads. The package says they are 0.6 mm in diameter. My light pins are considerably slimmer than my utility pins. While the package doesn't give the diameter, my guess is 0.4 mm. They have white glass heads (although I have seen them with multi-color heads).
When straight hems are the goal, thick pins that distort the line of the hem are to be avoided. Pins need to be strong enough to do the work without bending, yet slim enough to hold without distorting the work. It's a nice bit of balancing.
Thread: Cotton thread used to come in number 100, number 120, and even number 140. This type of thread is extremely difficult to locate now. Pat Crane, diocesan directress (emeritus) of Connecticut, brought to my attention Coats machine embroidery thread (lightweight, Dual Duty Plus). Although this is a cotton-wrapped polyester (and therefore heretical), it is also number 100, of extremely high quality, and strong.
My quilting days left me with a few tips about threading fine needles. Thread will enter the eye of a tiny needle more readily if it is cut diagonally. Thread will be less likely to twist and knot if the end that came off the spool last is the one that is secured. Also, cut your thread quite short—eighteen inches; because the stitches you will be taking are small, you will be taking many more of them and the thread wears more quickly.
Beeswax: Rubbed on the length of your sewing thread, beeswax will cut down on wear and tear on the thread as it is drawn through the linen fabric. I used to be quite enthusiastic about beeswax.
Thimble: Learn to use a thimble if you haven't already. Those tiny needles are very sharp even at the dull end. A thimble makes sense. Learning to use a thimble can be a funny business. No matter which finger you put the thimble on, it seems your hand wants to push the needle with a different finger! If you can't convince your hand that this is for its own good, purchase two thimbles and put one on each of your "thimble fingers." Your hand will then be forced to decide which finger it wants to use. When it has decided, take the other thimble off. I have a friend who needed to resort to three thimbles.
Scissors: Naturally, scissors should be very sharp. You will need at least two pairs: one to cut fabric, one to use in sewing. It is helpful if the sewing scissors have sharp, precise points for getting into small places.
Embroidery floss and floche: Embroidery floss is readily available at both craft and department stores. The DMC brand is excellent because it has been mercerized—it will not shrink. Embroidery floss commonly comes in a small skein. The skein is meant to be separated into single or multiple strands. A frequent embroidery error is the use of too many strands, which gives a heavy, awkward look. A good rule of thumb is to use a single strand for small linens, two strands for medium-sized linens, and three strands for large linens.
Floche is another embroidery thread that is especially good for satin stitch. I use it only for satin stitch.
Book of embroidery stitches: Embroidery is an integral part of sewing church linens, and we all ought to have a book of the basic embroidery stitches. Because small, inexpensive booklets of embroidery stitches are readily available, I do not include any stitch diagrams in my section on embroidery. If you haven't one, go and get one.
If you have problems locating any of these items, please write and I can help you find them.
Worktable: My worktable is a 4' x 8' sheet of half-inch plywood padded with cotton quilt batting. Using a heavy-duty stapler, cover the batting with 60-inch-width cotton duck. I cover the duck with cotton sheets that can be washed as necessary. I have set my worktable on an assortment of bureaus and bookcases that I have shimmed to a height of about 33 inches.
Because the sewing room at St. Luke's in Saranac Lake does double duty as a Sunday school room, the worktable is set on a regular church table with this clever innovation: a carpenter has constructed wooden "boots" for each table leg. This raises the level of the work surface to 33 inches. When the worktable is not in use, it stands against a wall.
If you are going to work with linen yardage (ours is 72 inches wide) and/or decide to make vestments too, you should have a worktable. I used my linoleum floor as a worktable for quite a number of years. I don't recommend it. In addition, if you have been ironing fair linens on an ironing board, you will love ironing them on a worktable. In fact, I have been known to iron three fair linens at once on my worktable!
Preparing the Linen for Cutting
Making holy linens involves three steps: preparation, construction, and embroidering. It is not mandatory that one person do it all. It is a great blessing to have one person who is good at preparation, another who enjoys the construction, and another who loves to do the embroidery.
Traditionally, preparing linens for sewing involved shrinking and drawing threads.
Purchased linen is not preshrunk. Linen shrinks a lot! And it shrinks a different amount across its width than it does along its length. You must take the shrinkage factor into consideration. When you buy linen yardage, ask for the shrinkage factors. If you don't know the shrinkage factors (for width and length) of the linen you are using, allow 10 percent. When you buy linen yardage from us, we will give you the shrinkage factors if you ask.
Traditionally, linen is shrunk by washing it in hot water, rinsing it in cold water, and drying it in the dryer. This is done twice. It is a good idea to baste up one-half inch of the raw edges to control the fraying that will occur. This may be done quickly by machine. Iron the linen (see the section on ironing).
New linen contains both size and bluing. After the first washing, the linen will look a little less white. I like to wash my linen using a product called "Tide with Bleach."
Excerpted from Sewing Church Linens by Elizabeth Morgan. Copyright © 1999 by Elizabeth Morgan. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Introduction to the Second Edition—1999
Introduction to the First Edition—1992
Linen: A Tradition
The Holy Linens
Materials and Equipment
Preparing the Linen for Cutting
Hems: Convent, Flat, and Rolled
The Flat Hem
The Convent Hem
The Rolled Hem
Folding the Hem
Stitching the Hem
Setting the Corners
Constructing the Small Linens
Ecclesiastical White-Work Embroidery
Church Linens: Washing—Ironing—Folding
Sources and Resources
Posted June 26, 2012
I have the original edition of this book. A Must if you sew church and altar linens!
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