Kneelers: The Unsung Folk Art of England and Wales by Elizabeth Bingham - review by Lucy Lethbridge

Lucy Lethbridge

Doves & de Havillands

Kneelers: The Unsung Folk Art of England and Wales

By

Chatto & Windus 144pp £20
 

This is one of those delicious books that take an ostensibly small subject and illuminate a whole world. In this case it is kneelers, those embroidered padded rectangles which hang on the backs of church pews to comfort the knees of congregants at prayer. Elizabeth Bingham has been a kneeler enthusiast, she tells us, since the late 1960s, when she joined an embroidery project at the church of All Hallows by the Tower. In preparation, she sought advice from a Miss Moberly-Bell of Chelsea Old Church, ‘doyenne of the church’s needlewomen’. Kneeler history is engagingly full of formidable C of E women, and one is left marvelling at not only their stitching skills but also their mighty organisational capabilities. In the 1930s, the designer Sybil Blunt oversaw a team of eight hundred stitchers at Winchester Cathedral, including a Mistress of the Embroideries.

Nearly sixty years on, Bingham has become a renowned authority on Anglican kneelers, helping to keep the craft and traditions alive through her website (parishkneelers.co.uk). Kneelers, as she points out, are in danger of disappearing as pews are increasingly replaced by chairs, and commercial kneeler kits bring standardisation instead of local individuality.

The book, wonderfully illustrated, is a celebration of amateur skill and resourcefulness. This is real folk art, with themes of shared faith and everyday life engagingly intertwined. In kneelers spearheaded by Miss Moberly-Bell, Bingham and her fellow embroiderers created images with links to All Hallows and its congregants,

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