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Weaving the fabric of faith

By Mike Milne

Church wall-hangings, banners and tapestries all tell stories of faith. Unlike stained-glass and architecture, though, which also express faith but largely depend on professional help, quilting and fabric art are invariably practised by talented amateurs in congregations.

Motivations and methods vary. For longtime quilter Lorna Pennie, the process always begins with Scripture. An active member at Ryerson United in Ancaster, Ont., where she also chairs the worship committee, Pennie thinks of a Bible verse, then translates the imagined message onto a quilt, using shape and colour.

"I love colour," she says. "To me, it is proof that there is a God." Now working on two banners based on Jesus' "I am" sayings, Pennie has a co-operative congregation. "I just make [the quilts] and they have agreed to put them up," she says.

With many projects, the artists connect with their congregations or congregational committees from the beginning. For Ann Price of St. John's United, Alliston, Ont., the church's worship, sacrament and music committee contributed ideas and approved the final design.

Featuring symbols from the United Church crest, with a large dove in the centre, St. John's new banner also includes a vine, often found in quilt patterns, interwining smaller squares around the quilt's borders. Price says the vine is symbolically "going through and connecting everyone."

Another experienced sewer, Dorie Howard, helped Price put the banner together in about three weeks, following two months spent planning the design and purchasing fabric. Along with Howard, Price is part of a local weekly quilting group that includes Anglican as well as United Church women who get together to work on their own projects. "It's sort of like a family," says Price.

At Trinity United, Collingwood, Ont., a group of four sewers began work after receiving a request for a banner to commemorate the congregation's 150th anniversary. Instead of finding new ways to present familiar church symbols, the Trinity United group sought out new images to help tell the anniversary story.

Project leader Marg Murch says that meant she and her team were "visiting other churches, reviewing `how-to' articles and listening to our hearts and minds and praying for a lot of guidance." They came up with a Christ figure on a road that represents the congregation's 150 years, with a cross in the background and an open hand representing God's help along the way.

The congregation was "awestruck" by the 3.5-metre banner, says Murch, and by its three-dimensional effect, created by the Christ figure's robe, which moves whenever there's a breeze or draft. Like other ideas, "that just sort of evolved as we worked on it," says Murch.

Working on her own, Evelyn Cleminson of Heart Lake United, in Brampton, Ont., also finds that "things happen as I'm working; these things are just there." She didn't exactly plan it, but her six-metre-wide banner at Heart Lake has a three-dimensional appearance, thanks to the mix of colours and textures. Built around the theme of "Praise," the hanging is based on Psalm 128.

The lakeside scene, with green backgrounds that look more like Canada than the Holy Land, has a unique pictorial style that shows people talking, dancing and singing, as well as animals. "It's exciting to see something take form," says Cleminson, who is also Heart Lake's organist. "We have a wonderful sense of holiness in this place. That keeps me going."

Fabric art projects take a lot of time and commitment but the congregational involvement should come first, says Cleminson, advising artists to "consult the minister or the powers that be.... You have to get some approval, because you can't just stick anything up."

Cleminson, who has completed hangings for several area churches as well as one in Newfoundland, also says artists must consider the scale and create hangings that are large enough to fill the available space.

Quilting was born out of poverty and necessity, says Lorna Pennie, as women patched together old pieces of fabric to create a something new. Quilts often told family or community histories. Pennie says, "long before women got power and influence, we had our quilts and they told our story." Indeed women creating quilts and banners vastly outnumber men. A broad-ranging project, however, can sometimes bring together men, women and children.

In Long Sault, Ont., artist and Sunday school teacher Karen Spinney-Helmer intentionally set out to draw in participants from across the congregation. She has done wall-hangings on her own, "but I wanted to involve more people; so we went for everyone. It was a real community-builder." It started in the Sunday school, where children reviewed Bible stories and symbols while "brainstorming" ideas for a wall-hanging.

While each child completed a square for the hanging, teens and adults also got involved. One teenager filled four squares with various virtues. Others depict the Ten Commandments tablets, fish, crosses, people and families. Then the squares were sewn together -- "it was quite a job pulling it through the machine," says Spinney-Helmer -- and bound with ribbon. Hung in the church "it makes a bit of a statement about kids and community."

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