Kneelers at St John's: a history by Bridget Garton

St John’s kneeler scheme was started around 1988. It came about as a chance remark from my mother-in-law, Alys Garton! She noted that St John’s was a lovely church, very welcoming, but it was rather lacking in colour and that the kneeling benches were uninspiring. How about making some kneelers, she thought. So a few of us got together to discuss it and lo and behold the kneeler scheme was born. 15-20 people showed an interest in providing a kneeler to represent their family or a loved one.

Helen Gardner (a former Churchwarden) and I spent a very enjoyable day visiting churches within the vicinity of Cambridge where we heard that there were such schemes. I remember that Thriplow was fascinating and that we saw some lovely patterns in one of the Abington churches. It just so happened that Helen was well-acquainted with one of the ladies at this latter church who knew lots about kneelers so we called upon her for inspiration and advice.

Her scheme sold us 10 patterns at a very reasonable price (they were copyright to a member of her congregation) and we set about purchasing wools specifically for these 10 patterns and a very heavy roll of suitable canvas. The canvas had to be very specific – not the ‘double thread’ sort, but the single thread variety and of a colour that would not show beneath the stitches of the pattern. The patterns we chose can be seen in St John’s – they included Peace Doves, RSCM, David and Goliath, a circlet of flowers with peace dove and an overall pattern.

Some years earlier several members of the congregation had made the present altar kneelers for which a royal blue background had been chosen. The previous altar kneelers were covered with fabric, were extremely heavy and full of the dust of about 80 years of constant use. For our individual kneelers we therefore decided to stick with the royal blue theme and ask that all the kneelers made, whether the patterns were the ones we had chosen or individually designed ones, had to be based on the same background [Just as a page of print looks very messy with many different type-styles on it, so a set of kneelers looks very messy if the background theme is not consistent.]

One of the problems we came across was that the kneelers we were making had to be about 4” deep. Most churches do not have such deep ones, but we felt that having used the kneeling benches for many, many years, the new items should be the same height in order to give a comfortable and familiar ‘feel’ to long-standing members of the congregation. We also discovered, rather quickly, that the fire-resistant foam filling had to be extremely dense. It is no good kneeling on a 4” kneeler if the foam is so soft that one immediately sinks to the floor! It has to be supportive to the bodyweight.

To start with we held regular ‘surgery’ sessions. The diagonal method of background stitching gives a very good finish with a rather thicker feel than blocks of stitches 1” or 2 “ square. So my next task was to write a set of instructions to help the sewers. These were distributed in the packs to those who were willing to give, or to sew a kneeler. John Faulkner made a set of frames, though some sewers preferred to use their own roller-type frames. I certainly found that the advantage of having long arms made the process of sewing much easier! Our holidays were always accompanied by ‘the torture-rack’- so called by my husband because of the difficulty of fitting the frame into our car.

Some made one kneeler then volunteered to sew for others who were not so keen. Quite quickly we produced a collection which filled about four rows of chairs, but later we had to wait until we had 6 or 7 kneelers ready to place so that we could remove the kneeling benches. We also had to hang the kneelers from the chairs so it meant that when the kneelers are sent for filling, we had to be very precise about the spacing of the tapes and rings and the placing of the hooks. Hanging the kneelers meant that the designs made an immediate impact on those entering the church. The original kneelers had the initials of the donor, the sewer and the person to whom the kneeler was dedicated embroidered on the edges.

As time went by, individual designs appeared. Rosalind Jones (the then Vicar’s wife), being an artist, made a huge contribution to this process. Several kneelers were submitted to the exhibition of church kneelers at the Knitting and Stitching show in London and Harrogate in 1994. One of these – Holy, Holy, Holy – designed by Rosalind appeared on the advertising poster for this event. A copy of this poster hangs in my study in the Isle of Wight. If you can spot the kneeler in St John’s you will fin that it (and 2 or 3 others) have commemorative labels on them.

So, if you want to produce or sponsor a kneeler for your family or a loved one contact any of the Clergy. There is still a huge stock of embroidery wool in the church gallery and there are members of the congregation who can help with the

organising of a design and finding the correct colour scheme.