WATERFORD, Conn. (AP) - When Elizabeth Morgan first set out to make church linens and garments in 1985, a combination of World War II’s upheaval of textile industries, the passing of women who knew the craft, and the lack of the internet meant she was reinventing the wheel.
Linen used for altars came out of Europe, where the flax fields and mills were destroyed. Silk for vestments came from Japan, which stopped exporting silks to the United States.
And so the craft dwindled.
“This is my ministry, to reclaim these crafts,” Morgan said. While there were many books written about making vestments - garments worn by clergy - in the early 20th century, nothing was written about linen, “because it was a craft that was passed on, mother to child, granny to granddaughter, auntie to niece.”
Unhampered by the attitude of “this is how it’s always been done,” Morgan taught herself, and over the past 35 years, she has made it her mission to teach others. She runs Church Linens, which she thinks of more as a ministry than a business.
Morgan used to travel the country giving seminars, but at age 80 she finds it “too exhausting.” Now, people will come to her, including her as a stop on their summer driving trips.
She wakes up every morning to find at least 15 emails, not only from people placing orders but also from those asking questions.
Morgan partners with Plainfield resident Sue Newman; Morgan makes the linens out of her Butlertown Road home, while Newman makes vestments and does embroidery for some linens.
Newman said of Morgan, “She is really my mentor and really has made all of this possible. I never would’ve thought I’d be in this place this time in my life.”
Several years ago, Newman had been making vestments occasionally for her Catholic church in Moosup, and her work with Morgan sprang from an effort to send a stole as a gift to each of the 40 Army chaplains serving in Afghanistan.
A sergeant had contacted Morgan wanting a gift for his chaplain, to commemorate the anniversary of his ordination, but Morgan decided to do more, and she enlisted an enthusiastic bunch of sewers to help.
Newman’s “claim to fame, so to speak” is making a vestment for Pope Francis in 2015.
This came about through her work with the Preborn Jesus Ministry, a Catholic anti-abortion organization based in Pittsburgh. Newman had been working with the ministry to perfect an embroidery design for a new image of Mary, which the Vatican approved.
Newman recalled saying to a woman involved in the project, “‘Oh, I would love to make a vestment for the pope,’ and she said, ‘Well, the ministry would like to send one over to him. How fast could you do it?’”
Morgan donated the fabric for Newman to make a set of chasubles - the vestment priests wear over the ankle-length tunic, called the alb. And Newman got to go with the Preborn Jesus Ministry to bring the chasubles to Rome.
The pope is not the only famous figure for whom Morgan or Newman has sewed.
Morgan was asked to make linens for the 2015 reinterment at Leicester Cathedral of King Richard III of England, whose remains had been found under a parking lot in 2012.
The pattern for the linens was one Leicester Cathedral found at a 6th-century church nearby, and Morgan and Newman had the image digitized for their use. Before the linens were sent to England, they were dedicated and blessed at the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, N.Y., the Episcopal church where Morgan worshipped at the time.
“I just never know, from one day to the next,” Morgan said of her work. “It’s just amazing. It’s not the same thing day after day, believe me.”
Originally from Chicago, Morgan was living in upstate New York before moving to Waterford. The Episcopal church has Altar Guilds, groups of people who work with clergy to prepare and care for the altar, and Morgan has now been a member of an altar guild for 50 years.
She has served as directress of the Altar Guild in three parishes, and as Altar Guild directress for the Episcopal Diocese of Albany, putting her in contact with the 120 altar guilds in the diocese. Morgan said she spent 18 months and put 50,000 miles on her car visiting all 120 churches.
“Other than being a mom, and raising children, that whole experience has been a high point in my life,” she said.
Morgan recently moved to Waterford, where her daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter also live, and she became a member of St. James Episcopal Church in New London.
For Church Linens, she converted her unfinished basement into a workshop. The beginning of the year is her busy season, even busier than the lead-up to Advent and Christmas, as she prepares for Lent and Easter.
One day in mid-February, a linen was draped across a long work table, with a sewing machine off to one side, rows of fabric in every color on the other side, and a mannequin in the back wearing a vestment in royal blue, teal and gold.
Morgan gets her fabrics from England and linens from Belgium. Every year, 900 yards of linen leave her workroom, going to places as far away as Australia and Vietnam.
The reason churches use linen, Morgan said, is in recognition of the linen shroud that Joseph of Arimathea provided for Jesus to be wrapped in at burial.
As she started explaining her invention of the “Golden Ruler,” a quick and easy way to get straight hems on linens, Morgan got a delivery of camouflage stoles from Newman’s husband. Newman does the embroidery on the stoles, and the two continue to give them to military chaplains at no charge.
“Stoles are for clergy what neckties are for men and silk blouses are for women,” Morgan said. “You can never have too many.”
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