The surge of kneeler-making across the country that began in the 1930s was started by the Bishop of Winchester inviting Louisa Pesel to design and organise kneelers and seat cushions for the chapel in the Bishop’s Palace. She believed that designs should be in the existing British tradition of complex pattern-making.
Impressed, the Dean asked her to do the same for the choir stalls in the Cathedral. Louisa Pesel, however, chose to delegate this to her ‘able assistant’, Sybil Blunt. The latter was an innovator and proved to be one of the great textile artists of the twentieth century. She designed pictorial images illustrating episodes from the history of the Cathedral and of Winchester. The magnificent choir stall seat cushions and kneelers are the result and they captured the imagination of Anglican parishes across the country.
The Second World War put a temporary stop to kneeler-making, but, as post-War austerity eased, the practice began again. Expert stitchers often produced rich and complex kneeler designs. At the same time, non-experts decided that they too could design and make kneelers for their churches. An extraordinary folk art movement was launched.
Most congregations 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 significant minority nevertheless 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. In 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.
Next 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 Stitch Point.
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 Stitch Point.
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.