Embroidering: the Truth
Frances Luft

Because I am a member of a group of embroiderers at The Studio in the Metropolitan Cathedral, and through that connection the somewhat austere beauty of St Faith’s has been enhanced, Chris has asked me to write about the embroidered furnishings, banners and vestments of the church. This is quite a tall order, and I am by no means a Mistress of the Robes. I think George Goodwin (late and much-revered, Sacristan of St Faith’s. Ed.) qualified for that title. My husband (the late Revd Mark Luft, Headmaster of Merchant Taylors' School) used to say he wouldn’t let any priest out of the vestry door in vestments even slightly askew; he would give a tug here or an adjustment on the shoulders there. George was perfectly right of course, as the richness of worship we have here at St Faith’s in vestments and furnishings should be of the best, for they are to the greater glory of God.

The history of vestments, dress worn by the clergy, does not derive from the Aaronic priesthood, but grew from the ordinary clothes of all people in the early church. During the first centuries a better dress was set aside for the Sacred Rituals, but the development of a specific costume for priestly functions only took place between the 4th and 9th centuries, and one of the reasons for this was the abandonment of long mantles and tunics by the laymen, but they continued to be used in church. The present vestments and their use had been established in the Western Church by the 10th Century, with minor additions and alterations being made up to the 13th century.

I can’t find out much about the vestments at St Faith’s, except that Rita Woodley tells me that the High Mass set of red dalmatic and two tunicles was given by Mrs Foy and Mrs Scobie. They are used at the Patronal Festival High Mass. Most of the vestments are of the older type in richer brocades and heavier embroidery than used today. (In recent times, and since the coming of Fr Neil, the stock of vestments has been further augmented.)

The first product of The Studio was the new St Faith banner. A banner was originally the standard of a king or prince, providing a rallying-point for his forces in battle. Christians of the 7th century saw the symbolism of this and used crosses with red streamers attached for street processions in Rome.

Sister Anthony does the designing at The Studio herself, and she likes the modern and stylistic. The flaming gridiron of poor St Faith’s martyrdom was an inspired depiction. For the traditionalists, a vignette in the top right hand corner depicts St Faith receiving her crown of martyrdom, and the crucifix in the top left corner is also traditional. Details not to be forgotten are the roses on the left, the last piece of embroidery done by a member of the group who was seriously ill at the time; also the curving palm branches on the back were created out of the need to cover up what might have been a tragic accident.

This banner replaced the one now framed by Chris Dawson on the Sanctuary wall. Emily Conalty told me that was the Sunday School banner, but I think it was the original one from the time of the dedication of the church. I judge this from the kind of silk and stitching used, and the design. It is good that it is preserved behind glass: I tried to repair it but the silk was so fragile it split at the drop of a needle.

The banner in the Lady Chapel was, I believe, the Mothers’ Union banner. Someone formerly from the church told me that she was deputed to take off the Mothers’ Union symbol by the then vicar, who presided over the dissolution of that august body. The remaining small banner on the right of the High Altar must, therefore, be the Sunday School banner.

The Stations of the Cross are also Sister Anthony’s design, but the size and colour were Fr Richard Capper’s choice. The devotion of the Stations of the Cross probably arose out of the practice of pilgrims at Jerusalem following the traditional route from Pilate’s house to Calvary and wanting to reproduce at home a similar devotion. Its history dates from the late Middle Ages, but the final selection of the particular incidents was settled only in the 18th - 19th centuries.

The Stations of the Cross at St Faith’s are meant to be an embroidered version of line drawings, so the minimum of material had to convey the deepest impression. One needs to come close to see the full meaning of each station. I like them as a frieze in the Chapel of the Cross, but it is right to bring them into the church in Lent. Keeping them there at Easter takes the eye up from the back of the nave to the glorious reredos at the High Altar.

(In 1999 it was decided to re-site the Stations in permanent positions: the first two in the Lady Chapel; eight on each of the main nave columns, and the final four in the Chapel of the Cross: they are the focus of the regular Stations of the Cross devotions through Lent and Holy Week. Ed.)

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