Exploring the work of Derby Cathedral's embroiderers
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 April 2019
gill and peter dishart
A dedicated team at Derby Cathedral is continuing an important ecclesiastical tradition that dates back hundreds of years to when English embroidery houses were considered the finest in Europe
Walk into Derby Cathedral and what strikes you first is the lightness of the whole building with its slim graceful pillars. There is a quiet, contemplative feeling about the place. People walking here and there or sitting quietly to take time to think and to pray, give it a strong sense of purpose, while the volunteer guides are on hand to provide a warm welcome and plenty of information.
Among the many volunteer workers in the Cathedral are the ladies of the Cathedral Embroidery Workshop. You’ll see their work all over the Cathedral. In the County pews at the front is a set of kneelers depicting the Rose of the County, while the City pews have kneelers showing trees in shades of green. Amongst those is one special kneeler, showing Derby’s own ‘Buck in the Park’, at the seat reserved for the Mayor of Derby. Other embroidery work on canvas can be seen in the Chancel, the area behind the Bakewell Screen, while other kneelers are placed around the High Altar and at the High Altar rail.
Behind the scenes, Derby Cathedral Embroidery Workshop has been operating here since 1955. There are currently 11 ladies in the group who cooperate closely to make and restore the individual embroideries. The ladies come in once a week to a brightly lit room with large tables, an ironing board, sewing machines, stretching frames, and a store of sewing and embroidery threads. Both gold and silver metallic threads also feature in their embroideries, following the traditions of centuries past. All of the vestments worn for the Cathedral’s services are made here in the workshop, as are all the altar cloths.
When I visited, two ladies were working together, adjusting the hemline to a purple silk vestment used in Lent, while others were restoring two altar frontals for two separate churches in the Derby Diocese. The Workshop takes commissions to make and restore vestments for other churches.
While restoration demands the most careful positioning, matching of threads and stitching techniques, other work also requires modern technological interventions. The University of Derby textile department has been involved in several projects, including replicating the colour, weight, weave and texture of old fabrics, so that original embroideries can be lifted off damaged or perished fabric, and can then be applied to modern fabric to give the precious old embroidery a new lease of life.
Fourteen years after his death, the name of Canon Leonard Childs is still spoken of in the Workshop. He was leader and inspiration of the Workshop from the mid-1970s until his death in 2004, and was known internationally for his embroidery designs. To mark the Cathedral’s 75th anniversary on 27th October 2002, a set of eight copes was made in heavy ivory silk. The hoods, designed by Leonard Childs, were influenced by the beautiful blue and yellow stained glass window of ‘All Saints’ by Ceri Richards in the South Aisle of the Cathedral.
In 2004 a disastrous fire, confined to the area where the vestments were then stored, destroyed those Chapter Copes along with many other vestments. The Canon, determined that the embroiderers should not be downhearted, set to work immediately to design replacements for the lost vestments. Shortly after that, he died, but his memory lives on in the work of the Workshop. With much hard work, a set of six Chapter Copes was replaced, and these are used at special services of Celebration, including Christmas and Easter. Despite the set-back, and following in the old tradition, the embroiderers continue to use their skills and dedication to restore and beautify the fabrics within the Cathedral and the Diocese.