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What do we mean when we say ‘recycle’ and why do we strive to do this?

Recycling holy linens means taking linens, paraments and vestments that have been blessed and used in the worship of God and saving those parts that have not been worn or damaged beyond repair. Any reusable fabrics, embroideries, tassels, fringe, etc., that can reverently and respectfully be removed from an original piece can be used in another. What cannot be reused should be deconsecrated, burned, and the ashes buried.

One reason we strive to recycle is simply good stewardship of what we have been given for use in our worship services. If linens, garments or hangings were given to honor or in memory of someone or some event, then we should make every effort to continue to use them, if at all possible.

Often the quality of the fabric or the embroidery or embellishment on a piece is finer than what is available today. I think this is reason enough to try to reuse anything in good condition. Very often, old designs cannot be copied because the basic materials or artistic skills are not available to recreate them.

When working with needlework that was created by someone else, I always feel a closeness to this unknown person who lived in another time and whose ministry was to sew for the church. Even if an item was purchased from an ecclesiastical arts company, a person used his/her talents to create it. I am constantly in awe of the talent, effort and love that have gone into the making of many pieces. It is an honor to be able to save anything that can be used practically in church.

Recycling holy linens is a creative and relaxing process that can be challenging and rewarding to any needle artist. The challenge is in figuring out how to best recycle something and skillfully take it apart so it can be reused. Time spent working on the project is a calming retreat from the frantic pace of life -— a holy time. I’m always transformed when I work on linens, whether I’m mending, recycling or just ironing them. The reward is constant — from working on the project to when you see it reborn for use in the church.

Important points to remember when deciding to recycle:

1. Can it be recycled?

An honest assessment of the piece is necessary before beginning any recycling project. Many items have been discarded because no one has the ‘eyes’ to envision the possibility of how they could be reused. If an item is deemed no longer usable, ask “Why not?”

• Is the fabric in good enough condition to continue to be reused?

• Are there dry rot or stains to a point it cannot be cleaned satisfactorily?

• Is the fabric strong enough to withstand normal use after cleaning?

• Can threads be removed without leaving holes?

• If certain threads need to be used to keep the integrity of the piece intact, can they be found or can the ones being removed be reused?

• Can complimentary fabrics be found to help complete the new idea?

2. Clean before recycling

Before any fabric or embroidery is to be recycled, it should be cleaned to get an honest assessment of whether or not it can be attractively reused.

• Linens and cottons can be soaked in products like Orvus Quilt Soap, Sodium Perborate, Vintage Textile Soak (great for removing brown spots from storage next to wood), OxyClean, Snowy Bleach (this is not a chlorine bleach).

• Chlorine bleach should not be used on linen, with one exception. If there are mildew stains, a very weak solution will remove them but be diligent in quickly rinsing out the linen. Do not let them soak!

• Rust stains can be removed with cream of tartar or a product called Whink, but be certain to flush the fabric thoroughly as soon as the stain has disappeared.

• Dry clean silk before recycling. If dry cleaning is unsuccessful, then try washing the item. I hand wash white or off-white silks (there is no guarantee that dark silks will not bleed and ruin the embroidery and the fringe) in tepid water using Orvus Quilt Soap. Thoroughly rinse to remove all trace of soap.

3. How will the item be used?

• Carefully assess the entire piece and decide which parts can be reused. Note any areas that are weak or cannot be cleaned and or restored.

• For fragile linens, consider if its new use will require frequent laundering or dry cleaning, if there is someone who can care for it properly, or if a use can be found that will protect and preserve weak spots and weak threads? If the item is honestly too weak to be recycled, can it be framed attractively?

• Map out how the entire piece will be used before cutting. Measure carefully! Make the plans with a wash-out pencil or disappearing fabric pen. I have a fair linen with several burn holes and have mapped out how it will be recycled into a linen stole, a chalice pall and two credence linens. All of the beautiful embroidery can be reused.

• Take a photograph of the original item before disassembling it. It may prove invaluable later.

4. Would it be better not to recycle?

Recycling can sometimes be a poor use of someone’s time and talent and it is better to retire the item and dispose of it properly.

Since 2001, the Province IV Altar Guild has had a service for the retirement of Holy Linens at their annual conference. After deconsecration, the linens are burned and the cooled ashes spread on Lake Kanuga. This deconsecration prayer was written for this service by Rev. Martha Hedgpeth of Christ Church, Charlotte, NC:

Almighty god; we thank you for the beauty of your creation and our responsibility to it. We thank you for your faithful people who have given these linens to be used for your honor and glory. As they were consecrated in your name, they adorned your sanctuaries, reflected your beauty, and served your people. So now Lord, in your name, we deconsecrate them and this day return them to the earth from which they came -— earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We pray in the name of the first born of all creation, Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.

5. Removing emblems from stoles, vestments and hangings

Determine if the embroidery is a detachable emblem or sewn directly on the fabric.

Embellishments embroidered directly on the fabric cannot be removed from the base. If you cut around the design, it may fall apart. Explore the possibility of fusing the embroidery to a backing before cutting. Generally speaking, I would not try to cut out designs embroidered directly on fabric. I would try to recycle the whole design, making a smaller item, like a burse, a chalice pall, or even an insert on a stole.

Emblems or appliqués can probably be removed. Carefully cut into the lining or open up the item on a seam so you can see how the emblem is attached. They are most often stitched on by hand and then edged by couching. Cut and remove all stitches that you possibly can from the inside of the piece. This prevents possible cuts in the embroidery. The couching will have to be removed (often stitch by stitch) and then replaced once the emblem is reattached. Handle the removed emblem as little as possible while recycling. Hand stitch the emblem back in place much the same way it was on the original piece.

6. removing embroidery from fair linens, corporals, credence linens, purificators or other fine linen

Embroidery can be removed by carefully cutting around the outer edges. If this is too difficult to do on intricate embroidery and the fabric is in good condition, consider using the embroidery with the surrounding fabric still attached. Often there are weak spots and holes around the embroidery. Do not begin a recycling project with linen fabrics that are not very strong; this is not a wise use of your time. Framing is an option for recycling exquisite embroidery on linen that cannot otherwise be reused.

Purificator crosses can be carefully cut out and appliqued on new linen. Some crosses found on older purificators are beautiful examples of intricate embroidery.

7. Framing as a method of preservation

Be sure the linen is properly cleaned before framing. Use archival (acid-free) matting boards and backing. I recommend attaching this message to the back of any framed piece:

This symbol and the cloth on which it is mounted come from a vestment or altar linen used in _______ church in the Episcopal Diocese of _______. These items have been consecrated in the Episcopal Church for use in worship services. If the time comes when you no longer wish to use this, please burn it reverently and bury the ashes. If you prefer, return it to the altar guild of any Episcopal Church and they will be glad to dispose of it properly.

8. Items given as a memorial

If the item was given as a memorial (this is usually true with vestments and paraments), check with your priest about informing the donors of the plans to reuse their memorial. If a piece is to be discarded, consult with your priest on how this may be accomplished with proper reverence and respect. Perhaps part of the item can be framed and given to the donors or their families. Make sure proper notation is made in the parish memorial records. Keep all scraps and thread removed from the recycled project, burn them and bury the ashes.

9. Use only quality materials

Just because an item is being reused doesn’t mean you should skimp on the things needed for the restoration. Indeed, just the opposite is true. In order to preserve the item in the best possible way, only the finest supplies should be used.

Needles: Use sharps or milliners in sizes 9-10-11-12. A very sharp and fine needle is needed when sewing on older linen and silk. A fine needle will also be needed for couching. Clover has come out with a new size 9 milliner that has a golden eye which helps to reduce static when threading.

Threads: For cotton and linen projects, use cotton thread in sizes 80 to 140. The warp threads of pure linen can be used if they are strong. For silk projects, use silk thread (if available) or a good quality polyester thread like Mettler or Dual Duty.

• Do not use rayon thread like Sulky, which is made for machine embroidery

• Do not use a cheap store brand or serging thread. The inferior quality is difficult for sewing and may actually harm your machine thread.

• Do not use thread that has been in the sacristy for 35 years. Thread quality is better today — just send an experienced sewist to the store to buy the thread.

Sometimes the challenge is to find a thread that will match the project. I have no words of wisdom other than to search — and a note in the sacristy that you need help. Sewists have a world of goodies in their stashes!

10. Helpful instruction books

• Encyclopedia of Embroidery Stitches, including Crewel by Marion Nichols

• Anybody can Mend Lace and Linens ($20.00) and Guide to Lace and Linens ($24.95) by Elizabeth Kurella

P. O. Box 244, Whiting, IN 46394


• With these Hands…A Practical Guide to Sewing Church Linens by Pat Crane

180 Middletown Ave., Wethersfield, CT 06109-3805


• Advice is for Listening to, not Necessarily Taking by Marion Scoular

2840 Skye Terrace, Duluth, GA 30096


If you have questions, you may write to me at 3919 Kilbourne Road, Columbia, South Carolina 29205; call 803.782.1757 or email me at >


© 2003 Karen E. Johnson; please do not copy without permission; reprinted with permission

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