Designing can fill a kneeler committee with apprehension.

  • Should there be a standard format?
  • Should the design be pictorial or geometric?
  • Should there be a restricted range of colours?
  • And what should be the size of both kneelers and stitches?

The question about size is the only one that matters and is dealt with lower down.  Once stitchers have made the first kneelers to the committee’s designs, they find that they are full of ideas for variations or designs that are completely different.  In many congregations, stitchers all design their own kneelers and the pews become a folk art gallery with the widest possible range of subjects.
But as a kneeler committee you have to begin somewhere.
Do you want pictorial designs celebrating local sites or people or wildlife or activities?  If you want a picture of a building or an architectural detail or a ship or a Great Tit, photograph it or photocopy a picture of it.  Now enlarge the photo (in Photoshop or on a copier) to the size of your kneeler.  Trace the main outlines of the subject onto appropriate-sized graph paper and fill in the squares that the traced line crosses.
Alternatively, use a computer (click on SUPPLIERS for software).  It enables you to scan photographs to a grid of your chosen size – but then you have to fiddle about with the colours.  Many find it quicker to use the old-fashioned method of pencil, rubber and graph paper, transferring the simplified design afterwards to the computer.
Cautionary advice:   Even with a very fine canvas, it is not possible or desirable to achieve the realism of a photograph.  It is far more successful to simplify and stylise the object – building, landscape, flower, animal – that you want to represent.
Maybe you prefer to start with geometrical designs.  These can be extremely simple and may be less intimidating for those who have never embarked on canvaswork before.  Type ‘cross’ or ‘pattern’ or ‘geometrical design’ into the GALLERY Search Box to see what other parishes have created.
Consider the design below.  It features a central motif, a border and corner motifs.  Note how the border design begins at the centre of the sides, while the corner motifs save the complication of trying to make the border design meet up satisfactorily.

Designs can be drawn onto canvas with marker pens (see ORGANISING) though this is time-consuming and usually unnecessary.  For example, the design above can be copied from a pattern by starting in the middle and counting.  Here the stitcher never needs to count to more than ten.
But what a boring design!  You can do better.  Bear in mind the wise words of Tom Lehrer:

Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
So don’t shade your eyes
But plagiarise, plagiarise, plagiarise –
Only be sure always to call it please ‘research’.

Geometrical designs were the preferred type of design for Louisa Pesel who did so much in the 1930s to popularise the craft of kneeler-making.  She worked on complex designs using different stitches to achieve a rich textural effect.  The example below was designed and worked by one of her chief assistants, Kitty Little, for All Saints, Compton, Hampshire.

Click on BOOKS for  Lousia Pesel’s Historical Designs for Embroidery and A Picture Book for Kneeler Makers compiled by Joan Edwards and featuring Kitty Little’s design shown above.
No one would want to start a kneeler project with such a complicated design, but as enthusiasm and confidence grow, why not try a similar design for a wedding kneeler or the Rector’s pew seat?

Memorial kneelers
The GALLERY contains a great many examples of these, mostly remembering recent members of the congregation but others recording the great and the good of previous centuries.  Type ‘memorial kneeler’ into the GALLERY Search Box and browse.  Memorial images include Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), a farmer’s prize ram, pets, and the houses people have lived in.

Artists Designs
Sometimes only the most ambitious design will do and the congregation may want to commission an artist.  See the superb altar rail kneelers at SS. Peter and Paul, Pettistree, Suffolk or at St. Michael and All Angels, Berwick, Sussex.  If you are lucky, you will find a local willing artist.

Similarity or Diversity
Some congregations opt for a unified colour scheme.  Check out St. Bartholomew’s, Chipping, Lancashire, which matched the background of its kneelers to its newly acquired aisle carpet.  Look at St. Nicholas, Harpenden, Hertfordshire, for a broad yellow border outlined in red and a standard range of colours for the central designs.
Other congregations go for a maximum variety of colours and designs, though most will insist on a standard border.  Simple or complicated, a patterned border can be helpful in counting and thus in establishing the size of the kneeler top.

Finally,  the crucial question of size:
You may want to copy the size of your present kneelers.  Usually the top of the kneeler will be between 12” to 14” by 8” to 9”. The sides could be 3” or 4”. Many find 2” too low. Check out the views of your congregation.

More importantly, you have to choose the size of stitch that you will use.  Most parishes have used canvas of 10 or 13 stitches to the inch, but the GALLERY includes examples of excellent kneelers worked on a larger or smaller scale.

Canvas of 6 stitches to the inch will allow you to produce kneelers very quickly though will limit the amount of detail that you can incorporate.  Probably this will confine you to geometrical designs since pictorial designs on this scale may be unacceptably crude.  But geometrical designs can be superb.

Check out the examples in stitches in STITCHING before you decide on your canvas. With canvas of 10 squares to the inch, you will need to use Cross Stitch and three strands of 2 ply wool in the needle. With canvas of 13 squares to the inch, you can use Tent stitch (half a cross stitch, so takes half as long to stitch) with either a single strand of 4 ply wool or two strands of 2 ply wool in the needle.
Daphne Nicholson, the great mastermind behind the Hereford Cathedral kneelers, worked on canvas of 18 squares to the inch.
But more ambitiously still, Ailsie Corble of St. Mary Abbot’s, London, used double-strand canvas of 10 squares to the inch, but split up the canvas threads to work the central medallions at 20 Tent stitches (Petit Point) to the inch.

Wool size
With canvas of 13 stitches to the inch, you will need 4 ply wool or two strands of 2 ply.  Using the two strands allows you to shade your colours, going from two strands of dark wool to one strand dark and one strand medium, followed by two strands of medium, etc.  4 ply wool on the other hand gives you clear contrasts.
With canvas of 10 stitches to the inch, you can use three strands of 2 ply which allows a greater degree of shading.
Whichever size of canvas you choose, bear in mind that you can give backgrounds a livelier effect by mixing two shades from the same colour range in the needle.

Vital first steps
Your kneeler needs to be an odd number of stitches so that there is a central stitch with equal numbers of stitches each side and above and below. Even for non-geometrical designs, it helps to have a centre.
If you are working on 10 stitches to the inch, make your kneeler one tenth of an inch larger than your planned size (say 13.1 by 9.1). If you have chosen 13 to the inch, choose an odd number of inches (say 13 by 9).
Mark out the centre vertically and horizontally.   You can mark these lines out with sewing thread (see ORGANISING), though many congregations use marker pens confident that these will not discolour the wool.  The cautious will experiment.

The sides of the kneeler are often worked in a textured stitch in a plain colour. The advantage is that it is much quicker than the tent stitch or cross stitch you have used on the top of the kneeler.  Some speed up the kneeler-making process dramatically by using a plain fabric on the sides – as at St. Edmundsbury Cathedral, Suffolk.
If you decide to stitch your sides, you will have to decide whether every kneeler should be worked with the same textured stitch or whether each stitcher will decide which variant to use. You also will have to decide whether to use the same colour for the sides of every kneeler or whether to use a kaleidoscope of colours.
An excellent book on suitable stitch varieties is The New World of Needlepoint by Lisbeth Perrone (see BOOKS).  At St. Mary the Virgin, Stanwell, near London, each stitcher chose a pattern from the book and that pattern became their signature on the kneelers that they made.