Designing your own kneelers is a wonderful way to enhance the beauty and comfort of your church, and the emotional rewards are huge. My career as a professional ecclesiastical needlepoint designer actually started the day we broke ground for a new sanctuary, which now has well over a hundred pieces of needlepoint stitched by parishioners. Along the way I’ve learned a lot — much of it the hard way — and am happy to share my knowledge with you.
First you need to talk to your rector, and ask for approval to get started. This usually is easy, as clergy understand the usefulness of congregational enthusiasm. Then you can pick some people to be the steering committee, to help make decisions, to spread the word and the work, and to help involve the whole parish. Most of them should already be stitchers.
With the steering committee, work up some ideas about what the kneelers should represent — symbols of saints or Christ’s life or favorite Biblical stories, or local plants or wildlife…the list is endless. Does the rector want them to be teaching pieces? Then take a fresh look at your church, and search out all the design elements you can find, as the kneelers will truly belong there if designs from the windows, carvings, crosses, history, etc. are incorporated into the designs. If the church is basically bare, you may still be able to incorporate the cross over the altar or the shape of the windows. For example, on a set of server kneelers for a fairly bare church I used the border of the stained glass window over the altar as a border around the central design. Also think about the major colors to be used, remembering that the kneelers will outlast the carpet and upholstery. Red, blue, and beige are all-time favorites. For the wedding kneeler(s), off-white can be used, with the borders, scroll work, etc. echoing the rest of the set.
You will need to make a presentation to the Vestry, and convince them that it is a worthwhile project. You may be lucky enough to have money in the Memorial Fund to cover it, but I have found that raising the money actually is quite easy! Most people will dig a little deeper in their pockets for kneelers that will beautify the church.
After the theme and major colors are selected, it’s time to ask an artist to work up renditions. Life-size is best, as they can be pinned in place over the existing kneelers and the vestry invited to see your vision.
On that first project, members of the steering committee took turns sitting with the renditions at coffee hour, and signed up donors as well as stitchers. Some families funded the entire cost of a kneeler, but we happily accepted all donations, no matter how small, as everyone should be able to feel they are part of the project. In the dedication bulletin we listed the stitcher for each kneeler, but listed all the donors together in alphabetical order.
If the artist is a stitcher, s/he may be happy to paint the canvases. If not, you must find a stitcher to do this step. Non-stitchers do not understand that curves must be stitch-painted, else the stitcher has an impossible task. Use mono canvas, not interlock (which is very weak) or Penelope (which is miserable to use for Basketweave). Have the boxings painted as part of the tops, so they do not have to be added later.
While the canvases are being painted and kitted up, you have time to train the stitchers. I strongly suggest that you invite everyone in the congregation to help make the kneelers, then teach them Basketweave on small useful pieces like Chrismons, usher tabs, and collection plate silencers. Have an excellent stitcher help them overcome any stitching problems. Do be sure that everyone who is going to work on a kneeler has done a qualifying piece. If you don’t, you will discover that someone who has stitched for years really isn’t very good because of their eyes or arthritis, or they actually can only do half-cross or Continental, and are not willing to change. Basketweave is the usual stitch because it does not snag easily and is thick enough to stand years of wear. Fancier stitches may be used, but do think seriously about the drawbacks.
Make a party of it when you issue the kits to the stitchers and help them mount the canvases on the frames. A parishioner with wood-working tools can make roller frames for you, and the pieces will come out much better if they are not twisted by being worked in-hand. If you only give out a third of the yarn with the canvas and tell the stitchers to take their pieces to the “Mistress of the Yarns” when they need more, you will have an instant check on which pieces are being stitched, and which are buried in closets. The Mistress of the Yarns should be an excellent stitcher, who will examine the work and make suggestions for improvement.
It helps keep up interest if the stitchers work on their pieces at every meeting at church. At one of my client churches, when the rector looked up from his sermon, he discovered that the stitchers were using that time to make progress on their kneelers!
Your local needlework shop should be able to suggest a finisher — one who loves and respects needlepoint, not an upholster who treats $4,000/yard needlepoint like $10 chintz. Alas, I have many war stories about what upholsterers have done to needlepoint, starting with cutting into the wool. Synthetic kneeler foam lasts much longer than natural rubber, can be spot cleaned with lighter fluid, and costs far less. The foam must be extremely dense, so a 300-pounder can go down hard on one knee and not hit bottom. The foam should be wrapped in quarter-inch cotton quilt batting to separate it from the needlepoint.
Useful Books for Designing:
- For the Greater Glory, Mary Olsen, ISBN 0-8164-0476-5, is the absolutely best book for leading the project. It covers the whole project, including dedication prayers and how to photograph the kneelers. It is out of print, so log on to a used book supplier.
- Saints, Signs, and Symbols, W. Ellwood Post, ISBN 0-8192-1171-0 is invaluable. It has the standard symbols of all the major saints and seasons, dozens of crosses, border designs, etc.
You are also welcome to call me for free advice.
by Bid Drake, internationally known ecclesiastical needlepoint specialist, author of the “Guide to Church Needlepoint Care and Maintenance,” a member of the Altar Guild at St. James the Apostle in Conroe, Texas, and a member of NAGA.