Cut From Special Cloth: Creating Valuable Vestments for Celebrating the Mass
Crafters of priestly garments offer insights of holiness.
Karyn Davis spent decades of her life going from job to job to help “pay for occupying space on earth” for herself and the three children she raised on her own.
But throughout this time, often living with nothing but trust in God to provide for her family’s needs, Davis has also been able to “fulfill what I was created to do”: making vestments for priests.
“I’ve always had a vestment project going,” she told the Register.
Over the years, Davis would make her workshop for Treasured Eucharistic Vestments in whatever room she could set up two sawhorses and a worktable. Up until five years ago, Davis had no space for a bed. Instead, she would roll out an inflatable mattress and sleep under the worktable on which she had made or repaired garments for service at the Lord’s altar.
“We’re created to serve God and be holy,” she said. Crafting “bespoke vestments” — which is the trade term for fully customized products designed for a perfect fit — teaches the seamstress “we have to give God our best effort continually,” Davis explained.
A Rare Thread
The Catholic seamstresses who make bespoke vestments for service at the altar are a rare guild, although the demand for their services has increased. Each garment fashioned or repaired by their hands involves a unique spiritual journey with its own insights into holiness from living a life with Jesus Christ.
Davis, a former Episcopalian who became Catholic by joining the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, explained that unlike in the Anglican tradition, where parishes are expected to provide vestments, most Catholic priests are expected to purchase their own vestments. For a new priest, “that’s an exorbitant expense,” which leaves him often resorting to vestments that “rarely express his true level of devotion.”
But the beauty and quality of vestments, she said, matters not for the things themselves but because they point a person to God.
“When you’re seeking the beauty of holiness, it does matter,” she said.
The most special commission for Davis came from her own son, Nathan, who was just ordained a priest for the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter before being assigned to St. Alban’s Catholic Church in Rochester, New York. “This was to be worn for his first Mass,” she said. Then-Deacon Nathan showed her a digital picture of what he wanted, a traditional fiddleback chasuble, which his mother turned into a digital pattern for the embroidery commonly featured on the fiddleback. She picked out the all-natural fabrics, chosen with an eye to how they are to be viewed vertically, how the light (and what kind, such as candlelight) falls on the threads, and how they will endure the stress of their environment.
Davis typically contracts out the embroidery work, and, thanks to global connectivity, she found a skilled embroiderer in India to create a beautiful image of Jesus Christ crucified on a golden cross.
The experience of COVID-19 made completion of the vestment a near-run thing, as the embroiderer’s father came down ill with COVID-19 and India experienced a severe lockdown. But the cross embroidery finally arrived a week before her son’s ordination to the sacred priesthood at Our Lady of Walsingham Cathedral in Houston. Once the final stitching to the chasuble was done, Davis headed out for his ordination with the red vestment set in hand.
To Clothe Our Lord
Like Davis, Emily Uhl is also a convert to the Catholic faith who has been making vestments as a vocation.
“You’re called to it by faith,” she said, adding that as long as one has a desire and love for vestments, “you can be very blessed and humbled by doing it.”
Uhl began designing vestments after a young priest begged her to repair old vestments at their parish, and she realized that many were past the point of no return.
She started Altarworthy Handmade Vestments and told the Register that she took to heart God’s instructions to Moses for how Aaron the high priest, and all the Levitical priests, should be clothed in “all the most beautiful things.” She now has a team of workers, including seamstresses who used to make bridal dresses and military patches, and the team members have combined their talents for the glory of serving God at the altar.
“God deserves the best that we have to offer. He made it,” Uhl said. “We’re just fashioning it into something to offer back to God.”
Each vestment has its own beautiful symbolism, and each design adds to the rich symbolism that teaches something about the faith.
One priest asked for a chasuble with the Holy Face of Jesus, which they designed, inspired by the story of St. Veronica, who wiped Our Lord’s face on his way to Calvary. “It’s a pretty shocking thing to see Veronica’s veil draped over a cross,” Uhl said.
“We put on five passion flowers for the five wounds of Christ, as well.”
Uhl said the vestments are intentionally designed to be “very symbolic in teaching the faithful,” a feature of her vestments that is more important than ever at a time when many modern Catholic churches were either designed or renovated with a lack of symbols.
“You can’t change the architecture, but you can teach through the vestments,” she said.
One of the dearest vestments to Uhl is based on a painting of the 10th Station of the Cross. It is the point in Jesus’ passion where he is stripped of his garments before being nailed to the cross. And this vestment, she said, symbolizes in a special way the work they are doing.
“Our Lord suffered all that indignity,” she said, “and we are trying to lovingly clothe Our Lord in beauty, honor and reverence.”
Patterns of Grace
Crafting each vestment is both a joy that comes with hardships and a role that bonds a Catholic seamstress with the work of the priest.
Sequoia Sierra, a lay Third Order Norbertine who has worked in fashion and costume design in both television and film, told the Register that, after being encouraged by a religious sister, she started her liturgical atelier company, The Liturgical Co., to design, create and repair vestments.
The religious sister told Sierra, “You’re a Catholic. You’re a designer. You can do this,” according to Sierra.
“I don’t know why I hadn’t put two and two together until that point,” she added.
Sierra said one of the beautiful experiences of her profession is getting to know the priests and working closely with them to craft the vestment they are looking for.
But Sierra was also struck by one priest’s insight that the seamstress has a share in the abundance of grace that falls on the priest who is clothed in the vestments she crafted, even as years flow into centuries.
“It’s my way of touching eternity, in a way,” she said. “They’ll be used long after the priest is gone — long after I’m gone.”
Sierra said her first commissioned piece was a solemn Mass set — vestments for a priest, deacon and subdeacon at a solemn Mass — all produced in a red Spanish style. The set was commissioned by the Priestly Fraternity of the Chair of St. Peter in Los Angeles who were still in the process of setting up their parish in the City of Angels.
Another unique set of vestments she has helped create are an array of stoles for exorcists.
The stoles have to withstand frequent washing, and she embedded medals — St. Michael’s medal, St. Benedict’s medal and the Miraculous Medal — in the stole. So even in the rite of exorcism, the seamstress assists the work of the priest, “but at least at an arm’s length away.”
According to Sierra, like the road of Christian perfection, vestment-making gets easier with practice over time.
“Every vestment set I make, I get better,” she said. Every piece is custom-made, which dictates how much time is spent in the endeavor.
“It’s not a huge profit margin compared to other things,” she said. “You have to do it out of love for it.”
Karyn Davis watched her son Father Nathan Davis celebrate his first Mass in the vestments she had sown together, with the final touches coming from Father Davis himself — when he blessed his mother’s gift.
“It’s a powerful moment when you see things come together with God’s design,” Davis reflected.
One of the garments Karyn Davis sews for the newly ordained priests in the ordinariate is called the maniturgium.
The maniturgiumis the white linen towel used to wrap the hands of the newly ordained priest after the sacred chrism is poured over his hands.
And in this garment, Davis stitches the name of the ordinand.
After the ordination, the newly-minted priest customarily gives the maniturgium to his mother, to be wrapped around her hands at her death.
And when the time comes for Davis, her son’s maniturgium will wrap not only the hands of a priest’s mother, but the hands that fashioned vestments (in the words of King David) for her son and other priests to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”