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The Broderers Of St Paul’s Cathedral

February 19, 2016
by the gentle author

Anita Ferrero

Like princesses from a fairy tale, the Broderers of St Paul’s sit high up in a tower at the great cathedral stitching magnificent creations in their secret garret and, recently, Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I climbed up one hundred and forty-one steps to pay a visit upon these nimble-fingered needleworkers.

‘There are fourteen of us, we chat, we tell stories and we eat chocolate,’ explained Anita Ferrero by way of modest introduction, as I stood dazzled by the glittering robes and fine embroidery. ‘It’s very intense work because the threads are very bright,’ she added tentatively, lest I should think the chocolate comment revealed undue levity.

I was simply astonished by the windowless chamber filled with gleaming things. ‘There are thirteen tons of bells suspended above us,’ Anita continued with a smile, causing me to cast my eyes to the ceiling in wonder, ‘but it’s a lovely sound that doesn’t trouble us at all.’

Observing my gaze upon the magnificent textiles, Anita drew out a richly-embellished cope from Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. ‘This is cloth of gold’ she indicated, changing her voice to whisper, ‘it ceased production years ago.’

‘There are still wonderful haberdashers in Kuala Lumpur and Aleppo,’ she informed me as if it were a closely-guarded secret, ‘I found this place there that still sold gold thread. If someone’s going to Marrakesh, we give them a shopping list in case they stumble upon a traditional haberdashery.’ Next, Anita produced a sombre cope from Winston Churchill’s funeral, fashioned from an inky black brocade embroidered with silver trim, permitting my eye to accommodate to the subtler tones that can be outshone by tinsel.

In this lofty chamber high above the chaos of the city, an atmosphere of repose prevails in which these needlewomen pursue their exemplary work in a manner unchanged over millennia. I was in awe at their skill and their devotion to their art but Anita said, ‘As embroiderers, we are thankful to have a purpose for our embroidery because there’s only so many cushions you can do.’

I walked over to a quiet corner where Rachel Rice was stitching an intricate border in gold thread. ‘I learnt my skills from my mother and grandmother, and I always enjoyed sewing and dressmaking but that’s not fine embroidery like this,’ she admitted, revealing the satisfaction of one who has spent a life devoted to needlework. Yet she qualified her pride in her craft by admitting her humanity with a weary shrug, ‘Some of the work is extremely tedious and it’s never seen.’

‘We are all very expert but our eyesight is fading and a few of us are quite elderly,’ confided Anita, thinking out loud for the two of them as she picked up the story and exchanged a philosophical grin with Rachel. Nowhere in London have I visited a sanctum quite like the Broderers chamber or encountered such self-effacing creative talents.

‘We not so isolated up here,’ emphasised Anita, lifting the mood with renewed enthusiasm, ‘Most people who work in the Cathedral know we’re here. We often do favours for members of staff, taking up trouser hems etc – consequently, if we have a problem, we can call maintenance and don’t have to wait long.’

I was curious to learn of the Broderers’ current project, the restoration of a banner of St Barnabas. ‘He’s the one saint I’d like to meet because he’s called ‘The Son of Encouragement’ – he looks like a nice guy,’ confessed Anita fondly, laying an affectionate hand upon the satin, ‘We’re restoring the beard of St Barnabas at present and we’re getting Simon the good-looking Virger up here to photograph his beard.’

Rachel Rice – ‘I learnt my skills from my mother and grandmother’

Sophia Sladden

Margaret Gibberd

‘As embroiderers, we are thankful to have a purpose for our embroidery because there’s only so many cushions you can do.’

Judy Hardy

‘We chat, we tell stories and we eat chocolate..’

Virger Simon Brears is the model for the beard of St Barnabas

View from the Triforium

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

You may catch a glimpse of the Broderers for yourself by taking a Triforium Tour at St Paul’s Cathedral. Additionally, there are occasionally opportunities to join the Broderers, so if you have embroidery, dressmaking or mending skills, please email

26 Responses leave one →
  1. February 19, 2016

    Gorgeous work. Well done ladies!

  2. Michelle Yates permalink
    February 19, 2016

    What a fantastic thing to be able to achieve! Stunning work!!

  3. February 19, 2016

    What a lovely job, I bet it’s extremely satisfying

  4. Emma Matthews permalink
    February 19, 2016

    Stunning. I went up there recently on a visit with some fellow trainee Blue Badge guides and we were as amazed and enchanted as you were by the phenomenal work of these ladies who all VOLUNTEER their time. The skill is astonishing. Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee cope is there and was made for Mandell Creighton (his statue is in the South Aisle), Bishop of London, out of material intended for the Empress of Prussia’s Coronation. She was the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria. The Coronation never happened because her husband died. Great irony that the same fabric was worn for her mother’s own service. We also had a visit to the library – try and go – it smells of learning. The librarian calls it “Eau de B” for Bibliotheque.

  5. Suzanne Keyte permalink
    February 19, 2016

    What a lovely story. I once visited the Archive and Library which are also tucked away in the eves of St Pauls but I had no idea these talented women were also ‘squirreled’ up there!

  6. February 19, 2016

    What an interesting article. Throughly enjoyed reading about these amazing ladies and seeing their beautiful work.

  7. Anne permalink
    February 19, 2016

    As Sacristan at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, I was privileged last year to welcome some skilful members of The Edinburgh Embroiderers’ Guild who mended some of our vestments, including our two best copes and a Bishop’s mitre.

    The work of St Paul’s Broderers is amazing!

  8. February 19, 2016

    Such skill and craft.

  9. Debra Matheney permalink
    February 19, 2016

    Thank you so much for a view behind the scenes. Charming story. I love these behind the scenes stories. My husband designed and built church pipe organs so I arranged a visit to the organ loft for an evensong service in St Paul’s as a surprise on a trip to London. He loved it.

  10. pauline taylor permalink
    February 19, 2016

    I really admire these ladies as I can’t even sew on a button without there being blood!!

    Ladies at the Royal School of Needlework (if I remember correctly) embroidered a new Mother’s Union Banner, which I had designed for our village Mother’s Union several years ago now, and I still have the lovely copy of my drawing which they made, the Banner was beautiful but the little painting is also beautiful and I treasure it.

  11. Jill Hyams permalink
    February 19, 2016

    What a lovely article. So much admiration for these women and their amazing skills.

  12. February 19, 2016

    great post! lovely! and thanks.

  13. Rebecca Abel permalink
    February 19, 2016

    What a beautiful story. Those of us from the US who tour and have been lucky enough to have sung “How Great Thou Art” for British Cancer Research in the beautiful St. Paul’s have no idea how all of the beautiful handwork gets done or repaired. Thank you for your service to your country and to St. Paul’s.

  14. February 20, 2016

    Do the High up ladys only look after the vestments of the Cathedral??
    We at the Guards Chapel have a few vestments that need some, TLC.

  15. Margaret Cull permalink
    February 20, 2016

    Beautiful work! Warm greetings from the Linen Guild of St Paul’s Cathedral Wellington NZ.

  16. February 20, 2016

    Lovely article, great stichery pieces and wonderful women keeping such a fine skill and art alive. Thank you ladies. Thank you

  17. February 20, 2016

    What a amazing talent you all must have and to stitch in the most wonderful of places l can only dream of you ladies

  18. Sarah Parry permalink
    February 20, 2016

    What a wonderful story!!! I love doing needlepoint and I agree that you can only have so many cushions. I have smany packed away in drawers!

    I live in Canada, but if I lived in London, this is certainly something that I would love to do! My daughter does live in London and one of my favourite things to do when I visit her is to go to Communion. Now I have another thing to see at St. Pauls!!!

  19. Sue permalink
    February 20, 2016

    What wonderful work.

  20. February 20, 2016

    Thank you for letting us see the extraordinary women and their talents.

  21. Jeannette Wright permalink
    February 20, 2016

    What a wonderful treasure! Thanks to the volunteers who share their talents and provide priceless beauty for so many.

  22. Martha Beckett permalink
    February 22, 2016

    Thank you for a wonderful story. I am a seamstress in a small parish about to begin a cope. I am inspired by these talented women!

  23. Carlton Kelley permalink
    February 22, 2016

    Thank you for this fascinating insight to the work that richly deserves to be more honored. They are artists in the truest sense.
    More pictures would have been appreciated!

  24. February 24, 2016

    I am envious of ladies/embroiderers who live close enough to visit these fantastic stitchers’ Living in South Africa and not having the best of health I have just enjoyed this article and photographs so much. An education of what is going on so high up in St Pauls Cathedral

  25. Helen Parker permalink
    February 29, 2016

    What a lovely report. The skill and commitment of the embroiderers is wonderful. I wish my skills were half of those….I was recently in Turkey, and visitted where St Barnabus was martyred. I love the idea that his beard is being restored!

  26. Marco permalink
    March 13, 2016

    This article is featured today on The Browser

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