A Holy Craft – Exploring Sacred Fabric Art with Ilona Payne

In the second article in our series Sacred ARTy Facts featuring Epiphany Sacred Arts Guild artists, we meet a bespoke “ecclesiastical needleworker” and explore her unique skills. In this Guest Blog, Ilona Payne, an artist who specializes in Sacred Fabric Art, shares with us the details of this sacred art form, how she came to specialize in it, and how practising it has helped her in her faith journey.

Ilona starting on a new project (IHS medallion); the design is drawn onto the silk ground fabric and applied onto a wool felt base.

I draw from my Scottish and Irish background and the ‘philosophy’ of Celtic art; beauty is incorporated into items intended for everyday use. For me, beauty truly is a path to God and I hope to convey that sense of God’s presence through the things I make. I consider myself more of an artisan or craftswoman than a fine artist as I mostly make items which are used in our churches.

Front panel of a Pentecost tabernacle veil.

I learned to sew and embroider as a Catholic elementary school student and maintained the skill over the years. I was first drawn to make sacred fabric art several years ago out of the need of a parish. One of the priests mentioned the lack of a particular vestment and I ended up researching what was needed. I was fascinated by this subject to which I had never actually paid particular attention, and I made the needed item. I came to understand some of the history of vesture and fabric art within our faith and have become quite a keen student of its evolution and development. I was struck by the fact that these skills, which were once such a vibrant part of parish life, were being lost to us. I set myself the ‘simple’ task of making altar linens and I have never stopped.

Ordinary Time altar frontal.

The work is skilled, requiring patience to learn the proper stitching techniques. Almost all of my sewing and embroidery is done by hand, it is necessarily slow and disciplined and I feel that properly done it becomes a form of prayer, quite meditative. I have my household responsibilities to attend to as a stay at home mother but I try to work a few hours in my studio each day. I work mostly in silence and each stitch becomes prayer, an offering for the ones who will use these items and to draw people home to God.

Handmade altar linen set.

Practically considered, it makes no sense in a secular world to hand sew vestments, altar linens and suchlike unless you intentionally orient yourself in a completely different direction and see it as a kind of calling or form of prayer. It’s a very quiet form of counter cultural activity. Honestly, at times I have faced temptation to just stop because it is not a ‘proper job’ and as most artists can share, there is no possibility of making a living from it so in the eyes of the world this is foolish, but I persist. And what I have found is that in conversation it is met with fascination, interest and possibly some bewilderment by people both inside and outside the Church. I’ve talked with completely secular people who are intrigued by this holy art; the combination of creativity and spirituality seems to speak to some deep truth for most people. Imagine explaining to someone who has never been to church what a purificator is for or why an altar frontal might be wanted! Oh, the possibilities…!

Linen purificator being put into a hoop for the cross to be embroidered.

Among other things on the go in the studio (aka my basement), I’m working on entries for the upcoming 2018 ESAG exhibition. I hope to complete a mass set (of vestments) and also a series of hand embroidered monogram medallions, in silk and goldwork, which can be used for the embellishment of chasubles or smaller hangings (i.e. for an ambo).

I’m always humbled when I see anything I have made being used during Mass. It is an astonishingly beautiful way to participate. But the greatest rewards I receive are those times when I am privileged to witness the look on the face of a child or elderly person when they see beautiful things in church. Beauty truly is a path to God.

The Epiphany Sacred Arts Guild is a society of artists and associates promoting the practice and appreciation of sacred arts as defined by the magisterium of the Catholic Church. Meetings are held monthly on the second Saturday of the month, from September to May.

Call for submissions for ESAG’s 2018 15th Anniversary Exhibition and application forms can be downloaded HERE.

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