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The Broderers Of St Paul’s

July 19, 2019
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.

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    July 19, 2019

    Thanks for showing us this beautiful craft work. I hope they are training some young artists to carry this work on.

  2. Helen Read permalink
    July 19, 2019

    What a fascinating glimpse into this age old craft. Thank you

  3. Paola Moore permalink
    July 19, 2019

    How magical this work is and even more magical is that there are still craftspeople able to do it. Long may they continue and hopefully are training others to do so.

  4. July 19, 2019

    I had no idea they still existed. Fantastic. Thank you.

  5. July 19, 2019

    Getting in to St Paul’s now costs £20. I remember years ago when I worked nearby just going in and sitting, and maybe paying my compliments to John Donne, during my lunch hour. Can’t be done now – a Londoner’s church that Londoners can’t use.

  6. @rupertbu permalink
    July 19, 2019

    Absolutely stunning work, long may their skills be appreciated.

  7. Saba permalink
    July 19, 2019

    Beautiful! A gift to us all! I would like to see a follow-up article giving more detail about how the work is done, what threads are used, and how the pattern is transferred onto the garments.

  8. Sarah Johnson permalink
    July 19, 2019

    Stunning … thanks for highlighting these incredible craftspeople.

  9. Carol Himmelman-Christopher permalink
    July 19, 2019

    I used to embroider, although nothing nearly as elegant and complex. The comment “there are only so many cushions you can do” struck me especially as these days I only crochet and I have officially run out of people to whom I can give baby blankets, shawls and scarves. I only wish my embroider were nearly as good as these artistic women. I would love to be involved.

  10. DEBRA MATHENEY permalink
    July 19, 2019

    Thank you for the lovely article about an age old craft. I agree that it is a shame that Londoners can’t wander in as I recall doing so in the 1970’s. However, the cost of maintaining the cathedrals has got to be enormous. But 20 quid seems a lot.

  11. Mary Stoneman permalink
    July 19, 2019

    Thank you for sharing this lovely story . Some years ago , a friend , who was a skilful embroiderer , was grateful for gold thread from my husband’s uniform when he left the Royal Navy , so I was interested to see mention of gold thread in the article .

  12. July 19, 2019

    So creative and spiritual. Surprised they work without natural light, though. Is artificial light better? Wondering.

  13. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 20, 2019

    Brilliant work – quite literally! It must be great to be able to create something decorative which has real meaning and will last a nice long time.

    And I agree with Saba that a follow up blog with more details about the actual embroidery techniques would be very illuminating!

  14. Kate Ford permalink
    July 21, 2019

    what a wonderful story.

  15. Adrien von Ferscht permalink
    August 6, 2019

    A thought.
    Are there any male members of the Broderers@St Pauls?
    From an avid male broderer [not of St Pauls but latterly of the Barbican].

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