Most Catholic altar cloths are made by hand.
Most Catholic altar cloths are made by hand.

Altars are made of slabs of rough stone with smooth tops, carved and polished wood, marble or other precious stone or metals. Catholic altars are usually uncovered when there is no service in the church, but they are always covered for celebration of the Mass. On Church holy days, colored trims may be added to the altar "vestments," but for most occasions they are all white. Often a church will have its own guild or volunteers to hand-sew and embroider altar linens.

Covering the Altar

There are strict rules for covering a bare altar that must be observed for proper celebration of the Mass. Three top cloths are required in the event of spills of any of the wine, which is transformed into the blood of Christ during the Eucharist portion of the Mass. Consecrated wine is not permitted to touch the altar stone and ignoring the mandate for three altar cloths is said to be a sin. Both lower cloths must cover the altar surface and the top cloth may have a lace border embroidered with crosses, chalices or other holy symbols.The border cannot cover any of the surface of the altar. These cloths must be blessed before they are used for the first time.

Altar Cloths for Mass

All altar linens -- the three main cloths and several smaller, individual cloths -- have a specific place and role in church services and in the Mass. Most are handmade, always from mid-weight linen or hemp, because they have to fit the altars precisely and there is no standard size for an altar or the containers used for the Eucharist. In addition to the main cloths, the corporal covers the area under the Eucharist or Communion implements. It may have embroidery along two or three inches of the bottom front but is never to be embroidered in the middle where the chalice and the paten -- a shallow plate to hold the hosts -- are placed. The pall is a linen square that may be embroidered in the middle and is mounted on plexiglass for stiffness. It sits on top of the chalice veil over the mouth of the chalice. The chalice veil drapes over the chalice and down the sides and may also be embroidered in the center. The purificator is a small cloth used to clean the Communion cup. It has a cross embroidered in the center and is folded in three on top of the pall and under the paten after Communion.

Material and Care

All cloths should be made of either fine linen or hemp to ensure that they are clean, white and substantial, not limp. Embroidery is typically white-on-white but a colored lining may be used to back the border of the main altar cloth. Batiste -- a light, sheer linen -- is used for the chalice veil. Since altar linens are fine fabric, custom-made, blessed and in contact with consecrated objects that are believed to be the body and blood of Christ, special care is taken to keep them spotless and clean them reverently. If any of the consecrated wine is spilled on the cloths, they are rinsed clear in a sacrarium, a special sink in the sacristy off the altar that drains directly into the earth under the church. Other cloths may be hand-washed or gently machine-washed with mild detergent, partly dried and ironed while still damp to avoid the creases common with hemp or linen.

The Cere-Cloth

In addition to the three main altar cloths, a chrismale or cere-cloth is laid directly on the altar table under the others. The cere-cloth is made of linen, waxed on one side with the waxed side against the altar surface. It protects the three top cloths from any oil residue left from the blessing of the altar. It also keeps dampness away from the blessed altar cloths. A cere-cloth is not blessed. It is hand-made from a sheet of linen dipped in melted wax and then ironed between two plain sheets of linen when the wax hardens. The underside when ironing is considered the waxed side.