The Art of Making Altar Linens – As Described By A Marian Sister of Santa Rosa

And taking him down, he wrapped him in fine linen, and laid him in a sepulchre that was hewed in stone, wherein never yet any man had been laid. (Luke 23:53)

Let us be glad and rejoice, and give glory to him; for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath prepared herself. And it is granted to her that she should clothe herself with fine linen, glittering and white. For the fine linen are the justifications of saints. And he said to me: Write: Blessed are they that are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith to me: These words of God are true. (Rev. 19:7-9)

The following is a description by a Marian Sister of Santa Rosa (which is in California) of the art of creating and preparing linens for the altar. I asked her to write a description of what she does for an essay for a class she is taking with us at Pontifex.University. I was so taken with what she presented to me, I thought you would enjoy reading this too. One point that struck me particularly, was the importance to her of the symbolism of using linen. There might be other fabrics that have all the properties to create the same aesthetic, but use of linen connects the altar with scripture in a special way. I have done my best to format it for a blog. It is a long essay for a blog posting but I hope you will feel it is worth it. Tomorrow I will post more pictures of her work.

Sister writes:

Linen: The Liturgical Fabric

In the Sacred Liturgy, we worship God with our whole beings, our bodies as well as our souls. Each physical element of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has a role in drawing us closer to God. This involves many things that affect our senses, including the choice of fabrics to be used in the Liturgy. Since the beginning of the Church, the linen fabric has had a special place in the worship of God. In my experience of making the Altar cloths and other cloths needed for Mass, I have come to appreciate the particular role of linen in serving the Liturgy.

Linen is a natural fabric made from the flax plant. Through a long process, parts of the flax stems are separated from the roots, seeds, and woody outer stems. The result is long strands of “flax strick” which are spun into linen thread, then woven into fabric.(Footnote 1) Depending on the thickness of the thread and the tightness of the weaving, linen material can be of higher or lower quality. New linen may be stiff at first, but over time and with wear it becomes a beautiful soft fabric that is useful for many purposes.

In the Old Testament, linen was used as one of the fabrics approved for use in the Temple. The priests’ holy garments were to be made from fine linen and not from wool or other material.(Footnote 2) After Christ, the tradition of using linen in the worship of God was continued, but with a new significance. All four Gospels record that Our Lord was wrapped in a linen cloth for burial. (Footnote 3) Since the essence of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary (Footnote 4), it is significant that the only fabric which is associated with Jesus’ death is linen. In addition, linen is mentioned in Revelation as the “righteous deeds of the saints” which clothes the Bride of the Lamb, the Church. (Footnote 5) Throughout the history of the Church, writers have referenced these facts as the reasons for linen’s use in the Liturgy. (Footnote 6).

Until the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Mass by Pope Paul VI and the new General Instruction for the Roman Missal, linen or hemp were the only two fabrics allowed for the Altar Linens, the Corporal, the Pall, and the Purificator.(Footnote 7) If the Corporal or Pall were not made of linen, or the Altar was not covered with three linens, it could be matter for sin for the priest who celebrated the Mass.(Footnote 8) Other fabrics such as silk were approved for vestments and other liturgical items. In the current General Instruction for the Roman Missal (1969), the type of fabric for the one required white cloth covering the Altar is not specified (para. 304), nor the type of fabric for the Corporal, Pall, or Purificator. The only mention of types of appropriate fabrics is in reference to the sacred vestments, which requires that the materials, either natural or artificial, be in keeping with the dignity of the sacred action and sacred person.(Footnote 9)

The invention and common use of artificial fabrics is relatively new in the history of the world, and materials such as rayon and polyester are very accessible and can be made into exquisitely beautiful fabrics. Even though Holy Mother Church has allowed for the use of other fabrics, the significance of linen as related to Christ’s Passion and its Scriptural basis should not be overlooked when choosing material to use for the Sacred Liturgy.

Besides being the primary fabric in the history of the Church to clothe the Altar and come into contact with Our Lord and the Sacred Vessels, linen is practically a superior choice. In my fifteen years of experience in working with fabric and the few years I have served in the sacristy, I have seen everything from polyester to rayon to cotton as an alternative to linen. There are some advantages to an “easy-care” fabric such as polyester. It does not wrinkle as badly as linen, it can be dried in the dryer instead of by ironing, and it is durable. For an Altar cloth, it can seem like a good choice. However, it is not a natural fiber and melts, becoming plastic easily. If it is left in the dryer too long or too hot, it becomes permanently wrinkled. Wax stains do not ever fully come out, and it cannot be bleached or it will turn yellow. Rayon is similar in its advantages and detriments, but it is not as durable as polyester. Both of these fabrics are not useful for the smaller linens, such as Purificators and Lavabo towels because they do not absorb moisture well.

Cotton also seems like an advantageous choice because it is more readily available. It is a natural fabric and absorbs moisture better than polyester and rayon, although not as well as linen. Stains do come out of it and bleach can be sparingly used on cotton. To make it as unwrinkled as possible, it can be partially dried and then ironed, but it will never have the crisp, precise, and smooth effect that well-cared-for linen can achieve. In working with all of these fabrics, it became clear to me that God chose linen as the liturgical fabric for a reason. Wax and other stains come out more easily, it meets the needs of absorbing moisture efficiently, and is durable when cared for correctly. Linen takes a little bit more work to launder and iron, and needs ironing more often, but when finished, is more beautiful and satisfying than any other commonly used fabric.

I started to work with linen a couple of years before I entered the convent when a priest asked me to make him a few amices. Since this was the first time I had worked with linen, I had difficulty finding suitable fabric. The linen I bought was a large weave, and not of the highest quality, but adequate for my project. I learned that linen moves quite a bit as it is being measured, cut, and sewn, and even if it looks straight when it is cut, it may not be after it is hemmed. However, the weave is a very nice grid for embroidering a straight cross. I was thankful to start with amices, because they do not need to be as precise as other linens.

After I entered the convent, one of the first tasks I was given as seamstress was to make an Altar cloth for the new convent Altar. I had not received additional education on the construction of linens, but I realized that linen can be cut along one thread of the weave to make the edges straight. Since I did not know how to do this most efficiently, it took me many hours just to cut out the very long linen. Then, I painstakingly pinned a one-inch hem with a half-inch turn-under, again following the weave of the fabric. On the sides, I made the hem three inches deep with a half-inch turn under. I then machine stitched the entire hem. Since I had not learned the technique for mitering corners, I hand stitched the corners to make what looks like a normal mitered corner. The result of this process was a fairly accurate and even hem. The two long sides, called falls, were supposed to reach to just above the ground, and I measured accordingly. However, I did not realize how much linen can stretch and move depending on anything from the weather to how it is ironed. The finished linen drapes on the floor about a half-inch on each side, which makes it hard to keep clean, but it fulfills its purpose to clothe the Altar.

After I constructed this first large linen, the convent acquired a wonderful resource in a book called Sewing Church Linens. Elizabeth Morgan, its author, was very helpful in sending us her instructions and pictures of how to work with linen. From her, I learned to cut linens along the drawn thread, but in a much faster way than I had done it before. She also encouraged us to buy her “Golden Ruler”, which is an invaluable tool for marking hems in linen. It is a straight piece of clear plexiglass with a few lines drawn along its length for the different hem widths. Once the fabric is cut and ready for hemming, the edge of the Golden Ruler is laid over the fabric at the correct hem marking, and then the linen is creased along the ruler with a dull blade that does not harm the fibers, such as a butter knife. That crease in the fabric makes it very easy to fold the hem and pin it accurately. This method only works well on linen, because not many fabrics can hold a crease like linen does. The same property of linen that makes it wrinkle so easily, is one of its greatest assets when a straight hem needs to be folded and sewn. Morgan’s instructions and pictures also showed me how to hem linens by hand so that the stitches are invisible on the right side of the fabric, to hem corners on small linens in an unbulky way, and to correctly miter corners on larger linens.

Using these newly learned techniques, I made Purificators for our convent Chapel as well as for St. Eugene, the Cathedral of the Diocese of Santa Rosa. I was able to take the time to hem the convent Purificators by hand and became proficient in sewing the invisible hems and small corners. For the larger number of Cathedral Purificators, I neatly machine stitched the hem. On both sets of linens, I hand embroidered a simple red cross, counting threads and using the weave of the fabric to make sure the cross was straight and even.

After this, I received permission to make a set of linens as a gift from our community for the ordination of a priest of our diocese. One aspect of our charism as Marian Sisters is to support our priests, especially in beautifying the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, so this project was perfectly in concord with our life. From working in the sacristy and studying various linens, I noticed a beautiful way of stitching the hem to form a pattern in the threads along the edge. With little trial and error, I figured out a way of achieving this design on my linens. Once the hem is creased, the thread in the fabric that is directly above and parallel to the edge of the hem is pulled out. A few more threads above that one are pulled out of the fabric as well. (The number of pulled threads depends on the size of the linen and the size of the desired pattern.) This results in a very narrow strip of fabric that has nothing but perpendicular threads in relation to the hem. Then, the sides which do not have pulled threads are hemmed as usual, omitting the corners. The other hems with the pattern are finished by securing the hem and making the pattern at the same time. To do this, first, with the wrong side of the fabric facing up, one small stitch is taken in the topmost edge of the hem. The needle then separates a specific number of the perpendicular threads in the fabric, securely wraps around them twice, and returns to the hem. A very small stitch of the same number of threads as taken in the fabric is taken in the hem, and then the perpendicular threads are counted and wrapped again. This process continues until the end of the hem. The result is a border of bound fabric threads along the hem. If desired, this can become a double or triple row design by sewing a second time over the pattern, binding half of one set of bound threads with the half of the adjacent set of bound threads at a point above the initial pattern (see figures 1 and 2).

This same technique can be used to form patterns not immediately along the hem as well. For the set of linens for the newly ordained priest, I made a single pattern around the entire Corporal, a double pattern along the two short ends of the Purificator, and a double pattern plus an extra double pattern about a half-inch above it on the two short ends of the Lavabo towel.

Once I finished the hems, I embroidered the red crosses in the correct place. For a Purificator, the cross is centered on the fabric so that when it is folded, the cross appears on or just below the top fold in the center of the linen. On a Lavabo towel, the cross is placed in one of the corners. For a Corporal, a simple cross can be positioned near the front edge, but in such a way so that the priest will not have trouble collecting any Particles of the Blessed Sacrament with the Paten.

The cross pattern I designed was symmetrical, with the tips flaring out a few threads wider than the beams, then tapering into a point at the end. I used a variation of the satin stitch, which enabled the cross to be clear and neat on both sides of the linen. While embroidering the crosses, I discovered that the distance and thickness of the linen threads of the warp is slightly different than those of the weft. As a result, I had to count the threads differently depending on the direction of my embroidery to make sure the finished appearance was uniform both vertically and horizontally. The competed linens were beautiful, simple, and fit for use at the Altar.

A recent project has been to alter the Cathedral’s new High Altar linens. This Altar is one hundred forty-six inches long, and twenty-five inches deep. However, the Tabernacle extends four inches from the gradines into the mensa. Because of this, the Altar linens cannot be strictly rectangular. In the center of the linen on one side, there must be a cut-out for the Tabernacle. We ordered the primary set of linens from a lady named Lynne Smith before the Altar was actually completed, so our measurement for the width of the Altar was incorrect. When we received the beautifully hemmed linens, made exactly to the size we ordered, they were four inches too wide for the mensa at the center, where the Tabernacle is placed.

To fix this, I devised a way of sewing the cut-out in the linen to make it fit the Altar correctly. Even though I could have used a variety of materials and methods of doing this, I wanted to use the linen’s own fabric to bind the edge of the cut-out so that it would shrink and stretch in the same manner during washing, ironing, and general use as the rest of the linen. First, I cut a rectangle from the center of the linen one half-inch smaller in dimension than the finished need. The Tabernacle needs a four inch by twenty-three and one-half inch area, so I cut a rectangle three and one-half by twenty-two and one-half inches. This allowed for one half-inch seam allowance on each side.

Then, I took out the hem in the piece that I had cut, ironed it flat, and cut two “L” shaped pieces to be a facing for the cut-out. Each “L” was six inches in depth, thirteen and three-quarters inches in length, and two inches wide along the entire piece. After sewing the two facing pieces together at the long ends of the “L” to form a “[” shaped piece, I stitched the facing to the linen with the right-sides together. I then turned the facing to the inside, ironed the seam so that it lay flat, and turned under the raw edges of the facing to sew them down on the linen. On the right side of the linen, all that is visible is a line of stitching one inch from the edge of the cut out. The finished product was a linen that fit the Altar and Tabernacle perfectly (see below).

It is truly a privilege and a duty to use the talent God has given me for His greater glory. As Mary made Our Lord’s clothes, now I, too, have the honor of making the beautiful linens which serve Him and even touch His Sacred Body and Blood. The worship of God should use the best and most beautiful elements of His creation to reflect His majesty and beauty and to draw us closer to Him through our senses. In using linen as a primary fabric for the Sacred Liturgy, it is not only continuing the tradition of the Church, but also offering to God one of the finest fabrics for His greater glory.

Footnotes:

Works Cited

Part 2, tomorrow, will have a series of photographs of her work.

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