Saving Ecclesiastical Textiles

By Dr Brenda King, Chair of the Textile Society

When doing research over the last few years I have become increasingly aware of a serious and growing problem related to the future of historic ecclesiastical textiles. Textiles, as I am sure you are aware, are probably the most fragile of all the decorative objects in a church interior, yet, they often come last in the list of priorities.

Ecclesiastical Embroideries

Ecclesiastical Embroideries

For various reasons more and more very beautiful pieces, most of which are exquisitely embroidered, are being made redundant, or soon will be. I have direct experience of a number of very large embroidered items that are homeless and are literally kept under beds while awaiting their fate. This problem will not go away, in fact it will predictably become much worse and most museums are too full to take what are often very bulky items.

Although many exquisite items are still in use some are under threat due to the imminent closure of churches, or poor storage conditions. Holes in church roofs directly affect vulnerable cloth and thread, while mould and insect damage is costly to prevent and treat and generally unaffordable for most parishes, especially rural ones with declining congregations.

Objects embedded with many histories

These beautiful objects are embedded with many histories and it is, therefore, reasonable to think that they should be everyone’s responsibility not just the concern of parishioners. I do feel strongly that the historians of the future will never understand why we failed to do something when presented with such overwhelming evidence.

I am sorry to raise the voice of gloom but I do feel that more people should be made aware of the current situation. As Chair of the Textile Society I have suggested that we should consider acting in some way to help. In the first place I thought we should begin by simply discussing what the problems are and identifying potential solutions. The Textile Society will hold a study day that will highlight good practice, present case studies and offer some practical guidelines. This will be funded by the society and will take place in London in Spring 2015. Details will be finalised soon.

Regional textile centres

Ecclesiastical Embroideries

Ecclesiastical Embroideries

Meanwhile, I would be keen to hear from anyone who knows of ecclesiastical textiles under serious threat, or who is aware of good practice that has prevented or solved problems. We would welcome information about projects which demonstrate different forms of action.

Meanwhile, should we encourage the setting up of regional centres where textiles, and other archive material such as needlework samples, designs on paper and other related documents could be stored, exhibited, used for research and workshops? Obviously such a solution would be costly. Has anyone any other workable ideas?

Your thoughts on this are most welcome and if you are interested in attending a study day,  please contact me using the e.mail:


Leave a comment


  1. Dear Brenda,
    Interested to read about this. When I was Director of Historic Chapels Trust we had an Arts and Crafts lectern fall from Wallasey Unitarian Church restored by someone I identified through the Icon website which I found excellent. Jenny Freeman


  2. Hi, as far as we at NCT know there is no programme as yet, as this is quite a way away. Can I suggest that you email Dr King directly and perhaps she can help with more information as soon as it is available. Thanks.


  3. Do you have a programme for the study day? Also, have you considered circulating the event publicity via DISTAFF, they have a webring run by gale Owen Crocker and Robin Netherton. An article on the similarities between the survivals of medieval embroidery and current threats would certainly be an interesting addition to the next volume of medieval clothing and textiles.



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