When we officially began the St. Martha's Guild one of our first projects was making purificators for the church. It was a perfect first project. There is something extraordinarily lovely about making these and Fr. P knew it would teach us a lot.
You can buy a twelve pack of purificators on Amazon for about $5 each. They’re machine sewn with crooked seams and an uneven zigzag red cross located kind of in the middle. They’re made of some kind of linen-ish fabric of unknown content that isn’t absorbant. They’re not very straight so it’s a challenge to get them folded properly for Mass. They’re made…somewhere by people who probably don’t know what they’re for. They are kind of sad and distressing (“Could you not sew with me for just one hour?”). When you think about this, a purificator is one of the most valuable pieces of fabric on earth because it is used in the Mass and makes physical contact with Our Lord.
Because of that, we set out on a quest to make the most sublime purificator that we could possibly make. It would be made of the finest linen. It would have mitered corners so there wouldn't be extra bulk to scorch under the iron. It would have an interesting and tasteful (and straight) cross in the exact center. It would have narrow hems on the sides and deeper ones on the ends. It would have a beautiful, hand made, tatted lace edging on the ends. It would be carefully stitched by hand. We would do all of this peacefully, patiently, carefully and reverently knowing the end purpose for this purificator we were creating. And we would let purificators change us.
Well, actually that last bit came as a surprise. We fell in love with this small, simple act of service. We basked in the still, quiet beauty of crafting something like this.
We also got frustrated as all get out. There’s definitely a learning curve to this work. We discussed the great value of being taken down a notch or two by a rectangle of fabric. We felt like 7-year-old Victorian children, sternly directed to remove those pathetic stitches and begin again. We looked in horror at the crazy tatting videos on Youtube and churned out a lot of unhappy knots. That, however, just made it all the more satisfying when the purificator was completed properly.
So, here are the particulars that we worked out with instructions, patterns and a few tips that made things easier for us.
First off you’ll need linen. Avoid the linen/cotton blends. And don’t even get me started on poly-no-sir! 100% linen is the fabric of choice for all pieces for the altar. We like Elizabeth Morgan’s linen from Church Linens. It is very smooth with minimal ‘slubs’, which are the occasional irregular thicknesses to some of the threads. Elizabeth’s linen is 4.4 oz per square yard and 144 threads per inch.
Our finished purificator measures 18" long and 11 1/2 " wide. The ends have a 3/4" hem and the sides have a 1/4" hem. This size will work well on most chalices. If your priest uses one significantly larger or smaller than average you’ll need to adjust the size of your purificator accordingly. The cut size for the linen is 21" x 12 1/2".
So, let’s get this straight. In order for the finished purificator to be straight the cuts need to be exactly on grain. The best way to make that happen is to pull a thread and use that line to guide your cut. And here’s a neat trick that the lovely Elizabeth Morgan taught us; it isn’t necessary to completely remove the thread as long as you disturb the grain enough to see the line. Move in a few threads from the edge of your original rough cut end. Pick up a single thread running across the fabric with a needle or straight pin. Pull an inch or so and then smooth the resulting wrinkles out toward the other side of the fabric. You should be able to see the line, especially if you cast a flashlight beam at a low angle along that line. It should show up fairly well. Cut off any selvage edges that you encounter. You might be tempted to use them since they won’t unravel, but they tend to pucker and shrink more than the rest of the linen as it is laundered. There is usually a visible line on the selvage to use as a cutting guide.
New linen is smooth and crisp. It takes folds well. As it is repeatedly laundered it softens up beautifully. Our first purificators were made from a piece of antique linen that Fr. P gave to us. It was incredibly soft, and supple. Still, it took a fold really well. This is one of the properties that will help you differentiate between a piece of linen and a piece of cotton.
And, as long as we’re talking about folding linen, you should meet Joan Sallas from Barcelona.
Fortunately, purificators only have 5 folds. Well, not counting the folds needed to hem everything. Using a straight edge and a bone folder or non-serrated butter knife, gently but firmly crease the linen along the fold lines 1/4", 1/2" and 3/4" on each long side and 3/4" , 1 1/2" and 2 1/4" on each end (the extra third fold lines help to determine where the corner folds go to create the miters). If your linen is not holding the crease clearly enough, a light application of spray starch can be very helpful. You may prefer hand creasing to ironing because sometimes the iron tends to push the linen off of the straight grain, especially at the corners.
Some people like to locate the proper corners for the miter by slipping a short length of thread through the crucial intersection points. Locate those corners by folding the sides in, inserting pins for location and running a short piece of thread through the sweet spot like this:
On to mitered corners. Here a diagram is very helpful. This uneven hem (short on the sides and deeper on the ends) is a bit tricky to pull off, but it has such a nice balance and look to it that it is worth doing. You might want to do a trial run with a piece of paper first. It will demystify the process significantly.
And here are a few pictures to demonstrate.
After you get your folds set and your corners trimmed and folded, pin and then baste the hem all the way around. Then carefully hand stitch the hem using the convent stitch shown in the PDF file. We prefer this because it almost eliminates visible stitches.
Now we need to add lace. Tatted lace is perfect for this because it is firm and holds its shape really well. It also isn't too frilly. Here’s a good set of helpful videos that will teach you how to make tatted lace from the beginning.
We settled on two particular patterns because we liked the Trinity picots at the top of each ring, and the simpleness of the designs suited purificators well. Here are the patterns.
ds: double stitch
These patterns are knotted with a full shuttle, leaving the ball of tatting thread attached.
Tatted Trinity Rings:
5 ds, p, 3 ds, p,p,p, 3 ds, p, 5 ds, close. Leave 1/4" thread and work next ring joining the first picot made to the last one of the previous ring. Repeat to desired length.
Tatted Trinity Rings and Chains:
R: 5 ds, p, 3 ds, p, p, p, 3 ds, p, 5 ds, close. reverse work
Ch: 5 ds, p, 5 ds. reverse work
R: as above, joining first picot to the last one of the previous ring.
repeat to desired length, ending with a ring.
Threads in the pictures are 20 (the thickest weight), 50 and 80 (the thinnest weight).
I really like using Dual Duty Button and Carpet thread for beginning. It is a good weight, resists snapping during the learning process and has a smooth finish to help with the sliding part of making rings. After you get the hang of it you can move to tatting thread if you want to try that. Tatting shuttles can be found at most fabric stores or through Lacis. When the lace is finished simply hand sew it to the short ends of the purificator.
And lastly, the red cross gets embroidered in the center. Locate that spot by folding your purificator lengthwise, opening it and folding it in half the other way. Mark the center and work from there. I don’t use an embroidery hoop for this. Our Cross Tutorial will show you how to make a reversible cross that looks great on both sides. We don’t want our purificators to look icky anywhere.
Yes, all of that. Making a purificator requires a pretty significant investment of time. The important spirituality behind doing this, as in all things done in the Saint Martha's Guild is to make the work an offering. An offering of love to Jesus, in reparation for the gross offenses against the Mass, an offering for the conversion of sinners, and for the priest who will use this at the altar.