Ecclesiastical Embroidery and Preservation

By Carlene Harwick

This article first appeared in the NAN newsletter in April 1988.


Embroidery has been an artistic expression for centuries, although it was not always so. For several centuries after the death of Christ, the customary vestments (an outer garment worn by the clergy during services and other occasions) were the unadorned everyday clothing of Roman citizens. The leaders of the church wore these clothes for liturgical worship and did not put on special vestments for the first three centuries or so. Only when fashion changed (to become more military) did the liturgical officers retain the older and longer flowing garments for ceremonial use. Beginning around the tenth century, it became common to adorn traditional robes with simple decorative embroideries. Then, what were ordinary clothes acquired a special significance in the context of religious worship. By the thirteenth century, churches and houses of worship had become rich and powerful and special liturgical clothing came to be more elaborately enriched: symbolic designs and motifs which had been used in other art forms (ivory, glass) came to be “translated” and developed in embroidery. Around this time “liturgical colors” came to be regulated and interpreted.

Early decoration was sparse and largely functional; and, apart from the use of the cross, only geometric designs were used. Symbolically meaningful designs eventually came to be part of the iconographic scheme for the decoration of churches, and were developed during the medieval period.

As part of the Reformation, Protestants, in general, discontinued the use of decorated medieval versions, while the Counter-Reformation church over-decorated its baroque vestments. In the nineteenth century, there was a revival of gothic style; and conventions concerning materials and colors were imposed in the course of commercial exploitation of the Victorian taste for romantic revivalism.

In our century, many aspects are undergoing change: (a) The function of symbolism and the emotional effect of color is better understood, (b) the character of worship is being radically re-examined, and (c) in the field of embroidery, a completely new approach to design is being combined with an unprecedented range of available materials and techniques.


Discussing preservation techniques with various churches, cathedrals and synagogues brings about a variety of preservation techniques, as well as some consistent methods.

We should mention, here, that the materials used in the majority of ecclesiastical vestments and ceremonial cloths are constructed of and decorated with natural fibers, i.e. linen, cotton, silk, and wool; their ability to withstand usage and natural deterioration (heat and light) is greater. (Linen thread or ground should be unbleached.)

Cassocks, copes and various priests’ vestments are usually dry cleaned. When they are cleaned in this country, the cleaning establishment usually follows a specified procedure so as not to damage any of the vestment material or decorative embroidery. Some of the vestments, particularly those used in the Episcopal cathedrals, are sent to England to be cleaned.

When not in use, altar frontals, pulpit frontals, and liturgical robes, etc. are hung on padded, cotton wrapped hangers or rods in custom-built cupboards or closets; thus, damage by folding is prevented. They are usually covered by large percale or muslin sheets; they are never stored in plastic — moisture gets in and doesn’t get out. Paraments are stored in boxes or drawers that are lined with 100% cotton sheeting or acid-free tissue paper; some of the paraments, where it is considered necessary, are wrapped around cardboard rolls that are first covered with acid-free tissue paper or 100% cotton material. Also, the storage rooms are kept at room temperature, or slightly below (60-70 degree).


Any of the liturgical pieces that are not sent to special dry cleaners are usually cleaned by the Alter Guilds, under the direction of the Guild or Alter Directress, who follows specific instructions as to the methods used.

All laundering is done by hand, using as pure a soap as possible; Ivory Snow is considered acceptable. Also, as little “rubbing” as possible and pure water (salt, chemical and rust-free) is considered best for preservation.

For “spot cleaning”, several methods surfaced. Lipstick and wine are the stains that occur the most often. Some of the larger cathedrals and churches use Fels Naptha or Ivory Snow to remove stains, putting the soap directly on the spot itself. This is done right after the particular service before the stain has a chance to set.

Since obtaining this survey information from the churches and cathedrals in our area, this writer had the opportunity to take a workshop on preservation at the National Academy of Needlearts (formerly Valentine Museum) with Becky Sudsberry Whitlow of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Many textile museums use a product called Orvus Paste to clean their textiles. Finally, bleaching in most forms is destructive to any of the natural fibers. However, Ms Whitlow suggests, if a whitening agent must be used, Snowy Bleach is the purest on the market.


Dean, Beryl, Church Embroidery, Mowbray & Company, Ltd., London, 1982.

Dean, Beryl, Embroidery In Religion and Ceremonial, B.T. Batsford, Ltd., 1981.

Symonds, M., and Preece, L., Needlework in Religion, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd., London. 1923.