Kneeler-making – expert and amateur

The surge of kneeler-making across the country that began eighty years ago was started by Louisa Pesel in the 1930s at Winchester. 

She assumed that anyone stitching a kneeler would be an expert in the different stitches used in canvaswork.  She also firmly believed that designs should be in the existing British tradition of complex patterns.  The Winchester Cathedral kneelers are the magnificent result.

The Second World War put a stop to kneeler-making but by the early 1960s, as post-War austerity eased, the practice began again.  In many cathedrals across the country, expert stitchers came together to produce rich and complex kneeler designs.  But at the same time, non-experts in parishes everywhere decided that they too could design and make kneelers for their churches. 

Most of them turned out to be uninterested in complex pattern-making.  They wanted pictorial kneelers.  Many, of course, chose Bible stories – Noah’s Ark and the Nativity were frequent favourites. But they were also keenly interested in all that pertained to their parish – buildings, wildlife, plants, events.  A minority but a large minority stuck to pattern-making.  

So your first decision as designers has to be your subject matter.  But how to set about it?  Consider the wise words of Tom Lehrer:

Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
So don’t shade your eyes
But plagiarise, plagiarise, plagiarise –
Only be sure always to call it please ‘research’.

Browse the Kneeler Gallery for thousands of ideas, pictures and patterns.  Your designs can be detailed or simple.  Use the Search button to call up Jonah and the Whale: the simple design is as satisfying as the elaborate one.

A border helps the stitcher to establish the size of the kneeler.  See the options described on the ORGANISING page. Many parishes use a common border – but many parishes let everyone choose their own.  You and your organiser will come to an agreement but as a start use the Search button to look at Monk Sherborne, Chipping, Evington and Steeple Barton in the Gallery.

If you are a talented artist, you will already be full of ideas.  For the rest of us, it is simple to convert a picture via tracing paper to graph paper.

Suppose you want a goosander. Copy a picture from a reliable bird book. This example is from the RSPB’s Complete Birds of Britain and Europe by Robert Hume.

The picture is too small to be useful so it will need to be enlarged.  Either use a programme or app on your PC or an online programme to enlarge or re-size an image. Or ask your local high street print-and-copy shop to enlarge the part of the page you want to use to A4 size.

Now you need tracing paper and carbon paper.  Trace the outline and copy it onto graph paper which your organiser will have provided or which you have printed from

If your kneeler is to have a border, your Organiser may already have drawn this out on a large sheet of graph paper.  Trace directly onto that.  Alternatively, trace it onto A4 graph paper which you have printed from the website above.  

Centre your tracing with care.  The stitcher is going to need to know exactly how many stitches between the border and the tips of the beak and tail. 

If your parish is sufficiently sophisticated to have a light box, you will now be able to transfer the graph paper design to the canvas with a laundry marker pen.  If you are confident, you can use a lightbox to transfer a picture or photograph direct to the canvas. 

A professional will have no problems.  But if you are new to this, follow KISS best practice –  Keep It Simple, Stupid.  Stick to basic outlines.  It is far easier to let the stitcher work out colour and details with wool rather than try to paint the design onto canvas with waterproof inks. Canvas is expensive and mistakes in waterproof ink cannot be washed off.

You can present your goosander on a plain background or draw in ripples and reeds.