Project Canterbury

Embroidery for Church Guilds

By Sarah Cazneau Woodward

New York: James Pott & Co., 1896.

Part II. The Usage of the Church.


There are always people ready to ask, "By what authority do ye these things, and who gave you this authority?" and it is always well to have a reason for the faith which is within us; so perhaps an explanation of the source from which the Church takes her usage may not be out of place. In 1549, the second year of the reign of King Edward VI., the first English Prayer Book appeared. In it the rubric concerning vestments was that the priest should wear, at the time of the celebration of the Holy Communion, a white alb, plain, with a chasuble or cope.

The second Prayer Book appeared in 1552 and contained some important changes. It was revised by a body of men most hostile to the Church of Borne, and most anxious to carry reformation to the very farthest point. The use [34/35] of the alb and chasuble was forbidden, and priests were ordered to wear surplices only.

One year after the second book appeared Edward died, and was succeeded by Queen Mary, who restored the Roman Catholic religion. At her death Elizabeth ascended the throne, and when the third book appeared in 1604 she and the Parliament rejected the directions of Edward's second book, and revived the ornaments of the first. The third book was in use throughout the reigns of Queen Elizabeth, James I. and Charles I. During Cromwell's Protectorate the public use of the Prayer Book was forbidden in England, but after Charles II. ascended the throne a fourth book was prepared, and appeared in 1662. An act of uniformity was passed by the Crown, convocation and parliament and the Book of Common Prayer was established with its rubrics in the form in which they now stand.

The rubric as to vestments reads:

"Here is to be noticed that such ornaments of the Church and of the ministers thereof at all times of their ministration shall be retained and be in use as were in this Church of England by the authority of Parliament in the second year of the reign of King Edward the Sixth."

[36] This is the Ornaments Rubric, of which so much is said at all times of revivals of difference in Church usages.

The first American Prayer Book appeared in 1789, and the revised edition in 1892. In neither book is any mention made of ornaments or of the attire of the priest, so in this matter, as in others left unsettled, the American Church derives its usage from that of the Church of England. Thus those clergy who wear a surplice at the time of the celebration of the Holy Communion follow the directions of the second book, and those who wear the alb and chasuble follow those of the first, third and present English Prayer Book.


In many, perhaps in most American Churches, no change is made in the attire of the priest before the beginning of the Communion Service. The custom is growing, however, of wearing at that time the Eucharistic vestments, which consist of a white alb and a chasuble. The stole is also generally worn.

The alb is a long garment of white linen, coming to the feet like a close surplice, and with close-fitting [36/37] sleeves reaching to the hand. It suggests the purity which should characterize the officiant. The chasuble is worn over the alb, and is also generally made of white linen, elliptical in shape, without sleeves, falling in folds below the waist, and ornamented on the back and front with the Y-shaped cross in needlework or embroidery. These bands of embroidery are called orphreys, from the word auriphrygiate, which means to embellish with gold, the early chasubles being made of silk or damask and heavy with gold embroidery. The significance of the chasuble is the charity which should envelop the wearer.

The alb is made of fine white linen, and should be ten feet around at the bottom. It is made of four breadths of material, thirty inches wide, and without gores or slopes of any kind. Its length behind when made is four feet, nine inches for a wearer of average height. In front it should measure four feet, five inches.

The chasuble should be three feet, ten inches long at the back. In shape it is half a perfect circle, folded to bring the even sides together, and sewed up, then sloped gradually around to the back of the neck. There is no other seam than the one in front, and no opening but the one [37/38] through which to pass the head. About two inches is cut off at the seam in front, diminishing to a mere shaving at the sides that the front may be a little shorter than the back.

The ornamentation is a band of embroidery up the front over the seam as far as the breast, where two bands come from the shoulders to meet it, forming a Y. The shoulder bands go over the shoulders and meet another vertical strip of embroidery up the back at the same angle. These strips of embroidery are the orphreys. The vertical strip in front is called the pectoral, at the back the dorsal, and those over the shoulders the humerals. This Y cross is sometimes called the Canterbury cross, because it is embroidered on the chasuble of St. Thomas of Canterbury, which is still preserved in the Cathedral of Sens, in France.

Velvet, damask, and other rich materials are sometimes chosen for chasubles, and for these no embroidery can be too rich. On linen chasubles the only proper ornamentation is the Y cross worked in red or white cotton, and a slight embroidery around the hem.

If damask or brocade be used for the chasuble, the space between the arms of the Y and from there to the neck is often embroidered with detached [38/39] emblems or "powdered." This repetition of the same design is what is called the "Flower." There are some beautiful specimens of it in old English embroidery still preserved, and its use on modern vestments is increasing rapidly.

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