When my son was getting ready for Ordination to the priesthood, I decided I could make him his priestly vestments. I am a fairly experienced sewer and I looked forward to the challenge.
How hard could it be? The chasuble is just a big circle right? Not really!
Making the vestments was very difficult but it enabled me to take part in a mystical way in my son’s preparation for ordination. I was able to “offer up” all of the frustrating moments and torn out stitches for his vocation. On the day of his First Mass, he was so happy to have had the beautiful (but imperfect) vestment that was personally made for him. It was a moment I will never forget and for which I will always be grateful to God.
In this post I will concentrate more on the tricks and hints that I learned about making vestments more than the actual sewing and patterns.
First, I had to wrap my head and heart around what I was doing. This wasn’t the same as making a Halloween Costume or curtains. Here is what is written in the Old Testament about this task:
For your brother Aaron you will make sacred vestments to give dignity and magnificence. You will instruct all the skilled men, whom I have endowed with skill, to make Aaron’s vestments for his consecration to my priesthood. These are the vestments which they must make: a pectoral, an ephod, a robe, an embroidered tunic, a turban, and a belt. They must make sacred vestments for your brother Aaron and his sons, for them to be priests in my service. They will use gold and violet material, red-purple and crimson, and finely woven linen.
Design of the Vestment
The priestly vestments are meant to raise the hearts and minds of the faithful to the importance of what is actually happening at the Mass. The ordained Catholic priest is acting as another Christ when he changes the bread and wine into the body blood soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. What more important event could possibly occur in this world? This moment is a moment in time that is the same as the moment in which Jesus died on the cross – giving us his body and blood to save our souls. God continues to feed us with this heavenly food so that we may have eternal life within us.
Jesus told us over and over that we needed to eat his body in order to have eternal life.
John 6: 48-68
“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.” These things he said while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Then many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.” As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Before Beginning the Vestment:
So I really tried to keep in mind the importance of what I was doing and the sacred moment at which the
vestment would be worn. In order to do this I had to try to keep praying the entire time I worked on the vestment. I didn’t have the tv on, I tried to keep praying the Hail Mary and other prayers as I worked. This practice was confirmed to me one morning. I had been having the hardest time with one part. I couldn’t even get the iron to go over the fabric without trouble. It was a Saturday and I went to confession and morning Mass. I came home and the iron slid right over the fabric and all of the problems I was having disappeared immediately!
The other prayer that became important was the prayer to St. Michael. I was constantly plagued with thoughts of “you can’t do this”, “this is a joke- it looks really bad”, “you will embarass your son and yourself”. There were so many times I was going to give up. But I would tell the devil “ Get away from me or I will call my mother and she will stomp on your head” And she did.
Top Ten Hints for Making a Priest’s Vestment:
- Prayer & Confession
- No TV
- Pick Style
- Make a Pattern
- Places to get Fabric
- Wonderful Wonder Under
- Right side Up not Upside Down
- French Seams
- Ping Pong
- 1Cardboard Tube
Here are some practical tips that I learned from trial and error.
Pick a style:
Many American priests turn to companies like The Holy Rood Guild and Granda Liturgical Arts ~ Sacred Art, Church Interior Design … to purchase vestments. There are also Sisters that make vestments like Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles and a few small sewing businesses such as Altarworthy Handmade Vestments which make new vestments for priests. Some can be custom. All are expensive.
If your priest can pick a style and perhaps borrow another vestment that is the right size you can use that vestment to make a paper pattern.
Fabric and Trim:
Joann’s Fabric is not the place to go for the vestment fabric. Although I did get satin lining, tassels for stoles and sewing notions from Joann’s. You need to find a distributor of “ecclesiastical fabric”. It is important to get samples of the fabric before you buy it online or over the phone. Not all fabrics are cut from the same cloth so to speak. Some foreign made fabrics have the religious designs on them but are of inferior quality.
I primarily use La Lame in New York city. La Lame, Inc. – Specialty Fabric & Yarn Manufacturers
They will send you a dvd with their catalogue, a paper catalogue and samples of fabrics that you request from them. You need to talk to them by phone as they don’t have a website from which you can purchase. They have superior fabrics, trims and embroidered motifs to embellish the vestment.
Another good company is Eastern Christian Supply .
Since good ecclesiastical fabric and the trims are expensive it is best to practice with less expensive fabric first. For this I used sale priced rayon and polyesters from Joanns to make a mock vestment.
Place the pillars and contrasting fabrics and trims on the vestment by ironing them on using products such as “Wonder Under” and a similar product in a tape form. You can place and replace the pieces until you get them right and then go back and sew them. This helps to prevent puckering and keep pillars straight on the vestment. Trim and hems can be fused using the tape version.
Top and Bottom:
If you use a coordinating fabric with a direction i.e. top and bottom, you need to be sure to have it in the right direction on the front and back. In other words you can’t just run the fabric straight up and over the front and continue down the back. You will end up with upside down symbols on the back. In these cases you need to make a front and a back and connect them at the shoulders.
I learned a lot about vestment making by taking apart some old and unusable vestments and salvaging the trim. I was able to see how the seams were made by the old expert seamstresses and tailors. Google and learn about French Seams. It was always an awe inspiring experience to handle old vestments that had been used over and over at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I thought of the people who made the vestments and all the priests who had worn them. I thanked God for the gift of their vocations and prayed for their souls.
I used a ping pong table to help me because the entire garment ends up being so large.
I ended up hanging the finally finished vestment over a long cardboard tube saved from a previously purchased bolt of fabric. My husband suspeneded it from the ceiling. This kept the garment from hanging with folds and getting wrinkled before my son’s First Mass.
I will try to make another post which has more sewing information in the future. But that is probably going to be a big undertaking. Maybe a You tube video would be more helpful? I wish you the best if you go ahead and try to make a priest vestment especially if you have the honor of making the vestment for a new priests First Mass.