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The Broderers At St Paul’s

June 2, 2021
by the gentle author

There is a display of Embroidery Treasures featuring vestments and a demonstration by the broderers each day this week in the south nave aisle at St Paul’s Cathedral, until Friday 4th June

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. 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 Verger 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 also like to take a look at

Relics of Old St Paul’s

16 Responses leave one →
  1. Gavin permalink
    June 2, 2021

    Lovely article, thx.

    It made me think back to my visit to St Paul as a child in the early 80s while on a tourist trip to london with my parents. And that made me wonder if you had to pay to get in at that time already, or if this only came later. I wouldn’t know because obviously my parents would have bought the tickets. Just a completely random thought 🙂

  2. June 2, 2021

    Stunning work!! To think I get fidgety if I have to darn a button hole!

  3. Susan Vaughan permalink
    June 2, 2021

    I had no idea that these lovely dedicated ladies sat in T Paul’s embroidering away I shall think of them now every time I pass by on the bus. Thank you.

  4. June 2, 2021

    OMG … I always assumed this work was done by machines these days. Incredible.

  5. Susan permalink
    June 2, 2021

    I so wish I was in London (or even England), so that I could see this! *Sigh* But thank you, gentle author, for telling us about it anyway…

  6. Jane permalink
    June 2, 2021

    What a lovely insight into these ladies work. Thank you

  7. June 2, 2021

    What a wonderful piece on the Broderers of St Paul’s, and coincidentally as I re-read Tracy Chevalier’s novel ‘A Single Thread’ which is about the Broderers of Winchester Cathedral – as well as the Bell Ringers based there. My late father was born in Winchester, and my sister was once engaged to the son of the Head Verger of St Paul’s and due to marry at St Paul’s, although sadly the engagement didn’t last. My sister learnt to bell ring at St Luke’s Chelsea during our growing up years, and became a very good ringer. This held her in good stead to be ‘chosen’ as one of the Ringers for the Curfew Tower at Windsor Castle, which is a post for life. Now in her late 70’s, she confesses that a quarter peal is all she can cope with these days. Thank you for sharing this wonderful post, although I regret not being able to have the chance to visit the exhibition before it ends.

  8. June 2, 2021

    I had no idea that there were broderers still. I always thought chasubles and such were machine embroidered now. I’m going to try and find out if there are broderers in other parts ofEurope, at least in Spain and Italy. Thank you, dear G.A.

  9. Cynthia Grant permalink
    June 2, 2021

    I love the reference to the amazing haberdashers of Aleppo. This is where I got my love of embroidery from, via my Syrian mother.

  10. Kelly Holman permalink
    June 2, 2021

    Wonderful! Such fantastic skill and such modesty. I am in awe.

  11. ann marie howden permalink
    June 2, 2021

    thank you to the Author and the wonderful ladies who dedicate their skills to such beautiful church garments and all things ecclesiastical …..i fully understand how long these items take to prepare design and stitch by hand and all the wonderful skills needed …..if only i lived nearby.
    thanking you all

  12. June 2, 2021

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, great story and pics of these devoted needlewomen. They must be in great shape. I presume that they must access their workroom after ascending scores of stairs each day. God bless them…

  13. June 2, 2021

    What a great way to begin the day — Reading Spitalfields Life! I can feel my mind expanding
    while my eyes are treated to photos by Sarah Ainslie. These images and stories absolutely radiated with the sense of community and tradition these women share.

    Many years ago, I took a one-day workshop with a well-known American quilter. Although the topic of the workshop was mixed-media shrine-making, she talked about her process of quilting while we worked on our shrines. She mused that all of her hopes and woes were transmitted through her fingers, into the hand-quilted textiles she made. I often think of her words, and value the reverie that overtakes me when I am in the art-making process.

    Congratulations to these “broderers” (a new term for me……..) for bringing their gifted
    hands to these historic vestments.

  14. paul loften permalink
    June 2, 2021

    Where else could we get such intricate and finely woven stories so well written, researched and photographed. Who would have thought such a skilled team existed in the hidden recesses of St Pauls . We are truly privileged . Thank you GA and Sarah

    My mother was a hand embroider at a court dressmaker Madame Hettie’s off Oxford Street in the 1930’s . It was a completely different world to the rarefied atmosphere of St Pauls . It was a West End sweatshop of tough Jewish business men , pressers , machinists and hand embroiders , mainly recruited from Spitalfields and she sometimes told us tales about the goings on .

    Such skilled ladies deserve appreciation. There are not many doing this sort of work nowadays .

  15. Cherub permalink
    June 2, 2021

    I hope these skills will last well into the future as so much is being lost now. Such beautifully executed work. I love looking at religious garments in museums wherever I travel to in the world.
    When I visited The Citadel on the island of Gozo a few years ago I was fascinated by the ladies there who hand made lace on bobbins and I bought some very lovely pieces of linen trimmed with it, my favourite is a bookmark.

  16. June 2, 2021

    Absolutely beautiful. Very skilful ladies. Thanks.

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