Trinity Cope Restoration

Video series on antique vestment restoration techniques

This amazing cope featuring the Blessed Trinity was made by the Louis Grossé company in Bruges, Belgium between 1850 and 1870. Fr. P found it in a church basement, rolled up with a bunch of stuff heading for the dumpster. Un. Think. Able!

We are often approached with questions about how to fix these old vestments. YouTube has goldwork embroidery videos and silk shading embroidery videos, but very little on the subject of vestment restoration. We though this cope would make a perfect subject for a set of instructional videos on how to handle the typical age related damage that people are most likely to encounter in antique vestments. Sometimes a few hours of careful stitching can resurrect a chasuble, allowing it to continue in service at the altar. Because we may never again see this type of work done, when possible we must do what we can to save it

Grab that camera

Before you start take detailed pictures of your vestment. This is especially important if you will need to replace fabric. You will want to have a visual record of how everything went together.

Make a list

Then do a minute inspection of the piece and make a list of all of the areas that will need work. Gently wiggle things. Real priests will wear these vestments and we don’t want them to leave a trail of smooth purl and Japan thread across the sanctuary floor. Check the typical trouble spots. For a cope it is the horrific weight bearing area next to and under the clasp. We needed three of us to lift one cope out of a drawer the other day. (Throw up a quick prayer for your priest during Benediction. He is likely suffering up there under the weight of it all.) on a Chasuble it will be across the front at altar height where friction tends to mess up the pretty stitching.

 

Some things can be left alone as the appropriate patina of an antique, but overall, from 30 feet away, it will need to look beautiful. This decision to save or not to save, and how much to do, is very arbitrary at times and will depend on how trashed the piece is and the level of time investment that you are able to make on the repairs. We tend to prefer to save them. These elders among our vestment collection have a certain dignity. When you think of the number of Benedictions that have been rolled out from this particular cope over the last 170 years, you don’t want to just cavalierly put it down unless it is in too much pain to carry on.

And on that note. If you think you might do more of this type of work, save everything. We have a ‘junk yard’ of old stuff that we can pillage for parts to repair other vestments. Some of our favorites are simply hung on a rotating basis in our sewing room for us to gaze at.

The Trinity Cope - Initial Overview

Here is an overview of the cope with a general rundown of the repairs that are needed.

Fabric Considerations

Initially we had hoped to repair the problem sections of the gold and silk brocade base fabric by stitching patches of linen behind the tears, but it is too fragile to attempt it. On closer inspection we found that the silk weft threads have decayed to the point that we can’t trust that the cope would hold up to average use during Benediction. This is a case were we will have to take the cope apart and replace the base fabric with something new.

 

That brings us to our pet peeve number 1 on vestment restoration projects. Extreme care must be taken to choose fabric that matches the embroidered work. Imagine the Mona Lisa framed in something from the dollar store and you can get a sense of the pain that we feel when a beautiful piece of embroidery is stitched down on a fabric that clashes with it. Be very patient with this step. We had the CEO of Watts and Company visiting our sewing room. We discussed this project and went through their entire fabric selection. Even he agreed that there wasn’t the right option available from them.  Get swatches. Take the embroidered piece with you to the fabric store. Only choose a fabric that enhances the work. We have just located suitable replacement fabric from La Lame which we will use to reset this extraordinary work of art.

The fabric is 60" wide. Our cursory measurement of the width of the cope shows that it is about 120" wide. This means that we really should take the cope apart and get good pieces laid out to calculate the proper yardage. At $176 per yard, we need to think this through carefully so we don’t purchase too much or too little. We also will need to make a matching stole. One other calculation to consider is the size of the pattern repeat. We will need to seam the fabric in at least two places and the patterns will need to be carefully matched up.

Tearing into it

It turns out that 170 year old stitches come apart really easily, so it actually didn't take long to dismember this thing.  Michele used a metal bodkin to hold the base fabric steady and simply lifted off the galloon - very tarnished galloon that used to be gold and red but now was dark gray and red. We will have to order a suitable replacement for this.

Prepare to be Mystified

We have found the most interesting things inside old vestments. On a banner that hangs in our sewing room Blessed Mother’s garments are lined with pretty flowered cardboard from 1910. One chasuble lining looked like it was possibly stitched by a dear nun with dementia issues. I’ve heard that under some embroidery you can find random pages from old bibles. Nobody wants to pitch a bible. Apparently stuffing stump work with Psalms is a good idea. This cope has come through with its own mystery. What are these ginormous ‘belt loops’ doing here? They were under the lining. They are not lined up with the clasps where you might want extra fabric to counter the strain at that point. No answer so far. In any case, pay attention to the guts of a vestment. You can learn a lot.

Stand by for videos

We will post them here as we go along.

© 2019 St. Martha's Guild, St. John Cantius Church, Chicago, IL