Altar cloths, communion table cloths, covers for communion elements, decorative stoles for pulpit and lectern -- a wide variety of linens are used by Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches. Richly embroidered linens are often quite expensive. Making the linens is a traditional offering of one's talents for the glory of God.

Linens for Communion

Determine what traditional pieces your church customarily uses. Catholics and Episcopalian churches typically use all or most of these: A large cloth, called a fair linen cloth. that completely covers the altar; a somewhat smaller square called a corporal that the communion elements are placed on; a 4\"-9\" square called a pall that covers the wafer or bread; a similar square that covers the chalice or cup; a chalice veil that covers the whole communion set-up before and after communion; a purificator that is used to clean the chalice; a lavabo towel for the officiant to use when washing his hands and a cloth to cover the credence table where the elements are kept before being brought to the altar.

Many Protestant churches use fewer linens--perhaps a cloth to cover the communion table, individual cloths covering the plates and chalice or trays of cups and a cloth covering the whole setup. Or just a simple table runner to complement clay plate and cup.

Choose your fabric. High-church communion linens will be made of high quality white linen. Details in Design, a studio in Williamsburg, Va., that sells fine handmade church linens, advises using \"mid-weight\" linen, such as Irish linen.

Details in Design (www.communionlinens.com) is typical of online sellers of completed church linen sets, in that it sells fabric by the yard for those who want to make their own.

Another online source, Elizabeth Morgan, author of the book, \"Sewing Church Linens,\" offers appropriate linen fabric by the yard as well as pre-cut fabric for particular pieces and kits with instructions and embroidery patterns on her website, www.churchlinens.com.

Lacis.com of San Francisco carries many specialty textiles and embroidery thread.

Measure and cut the pieces. Following Morgan's measurements for precut linens, cut purificators in a square 13-by-13 inches, lavabo towels in a piece 13-by-18 inches, corporals in a square 22-by-22 inches and palls in a square that would cover the paten or plate holding the wafer or bread and the chalice or cup. This might range from 3-by-9 inches. ?

Fold and press the edges and hem by hand. Morgan, in her book and workshops, teaches a technique she calls \"convent hemming.\" Other decorative hand-sewing techniques are appropriate. Some sellers of church linens show tatting or lace inserts on the end of long pieces.

Add embroidery if desired. Protestant churches in the Reformed tradition may follow their Puritan forebears and downplay ornamentation. Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans often use white thread for a traditional white-on-white pattern. Orthodox churches often use colored or even metallic thread and other colored ornamentation.

In its section on the history of church linens Details in Design gives particular locations on each piece where embroidery traditionally goes, even down to the size and nature of the embroidered symbol. For example, on the fair linen cloth \"four 2”- 2½” crosses are embroidered at each corner. One 3”- 4” cross or sacred monogram is used in the center.\"

The websites that offer completed sets, fabric and kits often also sell embroidery patterns or pattern books. Satin stitch is the traditional method. Cross-stitch patterns would also be appropriately symbolic.

Paraments

Make paraments for the altar or communion table, the pulpit and lectern out of brocade or other heavy fabric. These stole-like pieces display the colors of the liturgical calendar: purple for Advent and Lent; white for Christmas and Easter; red for Pentecost; and green for the season after Epiphany and the season after Pentecost, also called \"ordinary time.\"

Cut two pieces for the communion table parament wide enough to cover about half or two-thirds of the surface and long enough to drape over the sides. Cut two pieces each for the pulpit and lectern paraments, about 4 inches wide and long enough to hang over the front and be visible to the congregation. If you wish, make the pulpit parament a little wider than the one for the lectern.

With right sides together, hand- or machine-stitch the two pieces of the parament on the two long sides and leave the ends open. For the altar piece, leave an opening of about 4 inches in one of the long sides at the corner for turning. Insert fringe in both ends of the altar parament and one end of the pulpit and lectern parament, keeping the fringe on the \"inside\" of stitching, which will become the outside of the finished piece. Machine-stitch the fringe in place. After turning and pressing, slip-stitch the opening by hand.

Embroider an appropriate symbol on the fringed ends. The Christ monogram is suitable, or a symbol of the season, such as tongues of fire on the red parament for pentecost, or a combination star and cross for the white Christmas/Easter parament. Denomination logos are also sometimes used. This embroidery is often done in metallic thread or in a contrasting color or colors.

Items you will need

  • Linen or brocade or other appropriate fabric

  • Hand sewing needles and scissors

  • Embroidery thread

  • Embroidery patterns (optional)

  • Fringe (optional)

  • Iron and ironing board

Tip

  • Many Episcopal and Catholic diocese offer workshops for parish altar guilds in the traditional hand-sewing techniques used for church linens. Notable church linen makers also offer workshops at their studios or are available to conduct workshops sponsored by church groups.