Shirley’s Beautiful Altar Cloth

hardanger embroidery with hemstitching on altar cloth point

After whining about my  communion cloth disappointment, I was so heartened and touched by the kind comments posted by several dear readers.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.

Terri’s words really struck home and I am holding on to it.  She said, “.. the day is not about your linens, but the Time with our Lord and the communion… Say a prayer and give it to God. HE is the only thing perfect!”

Then I followed  your unanimous advice and pressed the heavily starched “linen look” cloth.  These past few days, it’s been really hot here in Florida, so we’ve kept the air conditioning running non-stop.  I hope that helps the fabric maintain the artificial crispness from today’s session at the ironing board.

Without seeing it, the Worship Committee said to put the cloth on the altar this morning before worship service.  That will give me an opportunity to take pictures which I will post soon.  With the whole view of how it hangs, you can better judge if it is acceptable.

Shirley, who is extremely accomplished in a multitude of needlearts, wrote privately with sweet words of encouragement as well as some very interesting information about sewing church linens. Also included were these pictures of a spectacular altar cloth she just finished, one of a set of three.

She has been a church organist for many years and has been played in many sanctuaries.  She said:

As promised, I’m writing you with some of my experiences/thoughts on doing Altar Cloths for churches.

First of all, I want to reassure you that your cloth is beautiful and as someone has already suggested, I would think a good starch and pressing will suffice and hopefully they will take you up on your generous offer of caring for it yourself.

One big consideration here is also the regional location of the altar cloths in question…..yours is in the deep south where fine heirloom stitchery is a tradition and mine is a church that though it is in AZ, many of the members and winter visitors come from the upper Midwest and have a Norwegian heritage and their stitching traditions are mainly Hardanger. I think those regional considerations are huge…..both very beautiful…..both very different.

Now, on to an experience I had several years ago. The church where I was serving as organist was in need of a new altar cloth. Knowing a little bit about fabrics for hand stitching, I offered to make something for them that would be “easy care”.

At that time there was a fabric called Sal-em cloth and it was available in 26 ct in white and ivory. I think it was milled in  NC and usually only available in 1 or 2 yd lengths. By special order, they did mill a 5 yd piece for me and I did a very simple hand Hardanger embroidery on each narrow end and a mitered hem down the long sides.

I gave the Altar Committee careful instructions on laundering this piece but several months later,  I walked into the church one day and my eyes fell on that pitiful limp looking altar cloth and I was shocked! It looked like a pitiful dish rag that had been laundered way too many times and it was pathetic. 

Upon inquiry I was told that someone had taken it to a dry cleaning establishment, thinking they would know how to take care of it!!!!!  I imagine they subjected that poor cloth to VERY HOT water and therefore all the perma-press finish was gone and the cotton fibers nearly destroyed.

Thank goodness I was able to get more of the fabric and made them a new one which is still on the altar today and thank goodness it looks just like the day it was new. Sadly, I don’t think this fabric is available any longer but it truly was “easy care”. It was fabulous for tablecloths, placemats, napkins etc. and it was wonderful to care for. That Altar Committee learned a lesson through that bad experience.

Now, fast track to this year. That same Altar Committee approached me with the desire to have 3 table coverings made for 3 special communion tables that were specially constructed. The cloths were to be 60” long and about 15” wide. They liked a table runner that I had made that I use on my table at Christmas so it was agreed that I would do Hardanger Embroidery on these cloths.

They will be celebrating a 50 yr Anniversary for the church in November of this year so that will be my deadline. I did finish the first cloth and now I’m working on the other 2. I’ve enclosed pictures of the completed one. I suggested machine embroidery but they were not really interested in that. My goal right now is to finish all 3 cloths and then ask them whether there shouldn’t be some more added to the design. I’ll have time to add more to these cloths, even if it is after the November deadline but we’ll see what their ideas might be when they see what it looks like now.

perfect, classic hand hemstitching

I’m using Oslo Hardanger fabric which is a 22ct fabric and 100% cotton. It is 60” wide and they finish to exactly 15” wide. This fabric is quite easy to take care of….washing by hand of course in Orvus soap solution. It doesn’t have a perma-press finish but the material has a soft hand and drapes very nicely. I did the hemstitched hem along the long side using #12 perle cotton and the embroidery is done using #5 and #8 perle cotton.

This kind of a cloth might not be acceptable in your church at all due to the ethnic and regional traditions but it is one that is used in a great many of the Protestant (especially Lutheran) churches of the upper Midwest.

Isn’t this a unique project for church sewing? I love it!

I love the Christian symbol machine embroidery designs that you mentioned in your blog and I ordered them while they are currently on sale. I used a design from Sew Swell Designs for the Trumpet banner that I’m also sending you a picture for. I made that for Easter 2011 for the Herald Trumpet used by our Trumpet player that day.

The cultural differences in altar cloths had never crossed my mind.  Thank you, Shirley, for that insight, as well the photos of your beautiful church sewing projects.

5 responses to “Shirley’s Beautiful Altar Cloth

  1. How beautiful! You did a wonderful job.

  2. Beautiful work! What a wonderful way to glorify God.

  3. Will any of the estate items be sold on line? Could you give me more details,please


  4. Susan, right now I am working on a post about that sale. It should be on-line by 6 a.m. tomorrow. If there is anything that you would like, I can arrange for you to make that purchase. I’m posting some prices on the earlier post. Thanks for asking. This is a very rare opportunity.

  5. Hi Janice, I am in complete envy about your being in a 1920’s house. My fantasy would be just the same thing. To be in such a time capsule. Would like a couple of prices but can’t pull up your email. mine is

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