Thursday 20 June 2013

Stitched Treasures of Winchester Cathedral

While on my Jane Austen pilgrimage a few weeks' ago, I visited Winchester Cathedral - one of the loveliest cathedrals in the UK, set in a pleasant old town. While there, I just had to check on the embroideries. Not sure of what I might find, I found a veritable treasure of kneelers and pew cushions. In fact, there are so many, the cathedral is a very comfortable place to rest ones bones for a while!

There are over 600 embroidered cushions - and alms bags - of exceptional design and quality. All of them in daily use. In fact, I so wanted to get down on my knees and retrieve this upturned cushion from the dusty floor boards. Fifty years ago there were fears expressed about the survival of the embroideries and suggestions that they were reserved only for special usage. However, it would be sad indeed to be deprived of these stitched meditations.

And here we see the hand, eye and organization of that indomitable needlework woman at work - Louisa Pesel, first President of the Embroiderers’ Guild of England in 1920. Working with 160 other embroiderers, she created: 365 kneelers for the congregation; 32 choir kneelers; 60 stall cushions; 17 bench cushions; the lectern carpet; the litany kneeler; the communion rail edges; the borders for the curtains of the bishop's throne, 56 festival almsbags (14 for each of the 4 seasons) and 40 named almsbags!

The Pesel kneelers were largely stitched by the Broderers' Guild founded in 1931 whose first grant was towards the kneelers. Other cushions were embroidered by schoolgirls evacuated to Winchester during WWII. Louisa Pesel produced the designs based on the Cathedral's many medieval tiles. What appears to be over-dyed background stitching was produced by changing thread shade every twenty stitches. The newest set of cushions have been stitched by the Channel Islands parishes which are part of the Winchester Diocese. There is a small 36 page booklet on the embroideries - Stitched and Woven: The Embroideries of Winchester Cathedral by Sheila Gray.

And then of course there are the magnificent altar cloths which are changed according to the season. All this in a cathedral that has the longest nave in the entire world! Don't leave it too long before you visit!

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