Whitework altar cloth for Balliol College Chapel

Whitework altar cloth for Balliol Chapel (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

Whitework altar cloth for Balliol Chapel (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

The college chapel has been without an altar cloth for sometime. No one seems to know what happened to the previous cloth but some think it may have been swept up with a builder’s dust sheets after work was carried out in the corner of the chapel near the altar. As the altar is of a size more expected in a cathedral than a college chapel, this would have been a substantial piece of linen – surely too big to have been bundled up unnoticed among paint besmattered  coarse cotton sheets but as no alternative explanation has come to light, we must settle with this one or shrug and regard the whole thing as a mystery.

Altar cloth for Balliol College: detail of dahlia, tulips and wisteria (Mary Addison)

Altar cloth for Balliol College: detail of dahlia, tulips and wisteria (Mary Addison)

The chaplain, of a philosophical and laid back disposition, however decided that there could be no better time to replace the  altar cloth than during the year the college celebrated its 750th anniversary and duly placed an order with Watts. In the meantime, he became aware of my blog through my posts on biscuit and cake baking for library teas which the Librarian had mentioned in a college magazine and, having his attention drawn away from baking (he is a reknown cake maker himself) to the embroidery, wondered whether I would like to do some embroidery on the altar cloth. Ever ready to turn my needle to something different, I was very enthusiastic and started to look aroud me for inspiration.

Balliol College Shield above the door in the Old Library

Balliol College Shield above the door in the Old Library

Hanging above the door, in the Old Library, there is a wonderful carved wooden shield, which I have always assumed was C17th. Reminiscent of Grinling Gibbons, though no where near as ornate, it is a fine piece of carving with sturdy curlicues and healthy looking floral festoons of flowers like dahlias, ornamental daisies and gently bending tulips. I wondered if it had originally come from the chapel after the 1857 rebuilding by Butterfield. No one seems to know. However, there is a large heavily carved mirror frame in the Old Common Room in a similar style and in a similarly dark wood. The OCR is quite a low roofed room and probably too low for the shield which needs to be hung quite high up, so perhaps the shield originally hung in the former dining hall (which is now occupied by the Library’s 2 floors (the Reading Room above and Stack and staff offices below). No prints of the dining room confirm or deny this fantasy. Anyway, it was with this shield in mind that  I designed an embroidery for the altar cloth. The flowers would be those that thrive at Balliol: tulips in the Spring, wisteria in late spring and early summer and dahlias which bloom throughout the summer and into autumn – there are even a few heads of Michelmas daisies. One end will have 1263 and the other 2013. This post celebrates the half way mark.

Altar cloth for Balliol College: detail of hand embroidery (Mary Addison)

Altar cloth for Balliol College: detail of hand embroidery (Mary Addison)

The linen arrived with term well under way and other commitments meant that I could only begin embroidering the cloth 2 weeks ago. I have now finished the 1263 end. Unfortunately I will not finish the cloth in time for any services this term, so I thought it important to at least blog something before we enter 2014. Very few people will ever see the embroidery (only the priest and servers) – if anyone else tries to they’ll set the alarm off, as I found to my cost when I went to measure up (the Head Porter was very understanding). It is, however, right knowing it’s there.

Altar cloth for Balliol College: detail of hand embroidery by Mary Addison

Altar cloth for Balliol College: detail of hand embroidery by Mary Addison

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  1. Posted November 24, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    This is gorgeous. I love the wooden shield you have shown us, and I love what you did with that inspiration. Though I will never see it other than in your pictures, I can’t imagine a right-er altar cloth. Beautiful, understated, perfect for any season.

    Just right. Wonderful.

    Nice job.

    • Mary Addison
      Posted November 24, 2013 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for your lovely comments – they are much appreciated as embroidery is a solitary, slow, slog and a labour of love. It is a delight to be able to share things that I make on the blog.
      Many thanks,

  2. Penny Miller
    Posted November 25, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    I have been following your blog for several months, Mary, and love your understated style and modesty of your posts. This altar cloth is a case in point: clearly a stunning piece of work, yet shown in such an unassuming way.
    I have an embryonic blog, and am currently teetering on the brink of my first post. It is a curious sensation, and hard to know where to begin, or how to find one’s ‘blog voice’!
    I know you are quite new to blogging too, having read many of your older posts, so I am bearing in mind your quiet modesty and interesting links. Thank you for your blog, I really enjoy it,and have directed several people towards it.

    • Mary Addison
      Posted November 29, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for the nice thing you say. Blogging about what I do reinforces the doing of it, especially in the case of the altar cloth which will never be very visible. I like the idea that my work is documented and that at the very least my family will have a record to look back on.
      As for your blog, just do it. I too felt very momentous about the first few months’ posts. It’s a curious thing that sometimes you start a post with a vague idea of where you’re going and then something takes over and takes you in a completely different direction. Best of luck.

      • Penny Miller
        Posted November 30, 2013 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

        Mary, thank you for your courteous and thoughtful reply. Best wishes to you in all your endeavours and I look forward to reading all your further posts.

        • Mary Addison
          Posted December 1, 2013 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

          Best of luck, Penny

  3. Posted November 26, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    What a shame so few people will see this beautiful work. Please keep taking the pictures so we can admire the finished piece.

    • Mary Addison
      Posted November 29, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      It doesn’t really bother me that it won’t be much seen. I could waffle on about it being to the greater glory of God and there’s some truth in that and also there’s value in it being done to mark a momentous year. I do like the idea that successive chaplains and chapel officials might cast an eye on it. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t last for centuries!
      I shall certainly keep taking photos as the ones I have already taken are not good enough for the college magazine but at this time of year, good photos of whitework are a real challenge.

  4. Weland Stone (1950)
    Posted December 19, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    As a Broderer at York Minster over ten years or so I was delighted to read about your new altar cloth. You seem to have done an amazing amount in two weeks and very beautifully. I like whitework, but really love the church’s seasonal colours and gold work and have done several pulpit falls in our parish church as well as contributions in the Minster, so I feel quite envious that you had the idea of beautifying the College Chapel. Well done!

  5. Posted December 19, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    The alumni e-newsletter directed me here. Mary, this is beautiful! Such an incredible piece of work and just so perfect for Balliol Chapel.

    • Mary Addison
      Posted December 19, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      Glad to hear from you. Fiona pointed me to your blog – I was interested to hear about you both, so I enjoyed reading it and tried to add a comment (a few weeks ago now) – but failed, due to my own inadequacy. I must get on with the other end of the altar cloth once the christmas present making is over. Do hope you can dip into other bits of my blog – I love getting hits! Have a lovely Christmas both of you.

  6. Robin Minney (1950)
    Posted December 20, 2013 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    This looks a lovely piece of work. I think I shall brave the alarms to get a closer look! Many congratulations to you1

    • Mary Addison
      Posted December 20, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Thank you Robin. Let me just stress that the altar cloth is not yet in place as I still have the other end to do (it will be almost the same – unless I have further inspiration in the face of doing the same thing all over again – except it will have 2013). I’m sure when it is in place there will be a news item on at least the Balliol website saying so. Rather you than me braving the ire of the Head Porter should you try for a closer look!

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