Saturday, March 27, 2010

Reviving a (Rather Messy) Handicraft

Most traditionalist Catholics know that altars, both fixed (a full stone table) and semi-fixed (a larger structure with a portable altar/"altar stone" inserted into it), are supposed to have three layers of linen cloth on top; two lower layers the size of the mensa, and a top "fair linen" hanging down the sides and possibly with trim. As I documented in an earlier post, I made a set of these earlier in the year (along with an antependium).

A little more obscure is the so-called cere-cloth, a waxed linen sheet, unblessed, placed under the other three to protect the altar. The original purpose was to protect the linens from the oil of consecration on the surface of a stone mensa (hence its other name, the "chrismale"), but it serves a variety of purposes including containing any spills and preventing them from staining the altar (especially if it be of wood), protecting the cloths from dampness, and protecting the stone from scratches when the bottom of the chalice clinks against it.

Catholic Encyclopedia describes it in its article on Altar Linens:
Besides the three altar-cloths there is another linen cloth, waxed on one side, which is called the chrismale (cere-cloth), and with which the table of the consecrated altar (even if part of it be made of bricks or other material, and does not form a part of the consecrated altar) should be completely covered (Caerem. Episc., De altaris consecratione). It must be of the exact size of the table of the altar, and it is placed under the linen cloths, the waxed side being turned towards the table. Its purpose is not only to prevent the altar-cloths from being stained by the oil used at the consecration, but also to keep the cloths dry. Hence it is advisable to have such a wax cloth on all altars in churches which may be, accessible to dampness. According to the rubrics, this cloth is removed once a year, that is, during the stripping of the altars on Maundy Thursday; but it may be changed as often as the altar is washed. The cere-cloth is not blessed. It cannot take the place of one of the three rubrical linen cloths.
It also has a useful section suggesting how they can be made:
To procure cere-cloths, melt the remnants of wax candles in a small vessel. When the wax is in a boiling condition, skim off the impurities that remain from the soiled stumps of candles. Dip into this wax the linen intended for the cere-cloth, and when well saturated hang it on a clothes-line, allowing the surplus wax to drop off. When the wax cloth has hardened place it between two unwaxed sheets of linen of like dimensions. Iron thoroughly with a well heated flat iron, thus securing three wax cloths. The table on which the cloths are ironed should be covered with an old cloth or thick paper to receive the superfluous wax when melted by the iron. It should be remembered that unwashed linen when dipped in wax shrinks considerably, hence before the cloths are waxed they should be much larger than the size of the altar for which they are intended.
This article also describes them, suggesting a rubberized alternative (sheets for bed-wetters, apparently) since "Waxed linen is impossible to find nowadays."

But, the industrious creative anachronist in me says, when something is impossible to find nowadays...make it yourself!

So I decided to do just that. First I took a sheet of 100% linen (the same I used to make those altar cloths earlier in the year) much bigger than the surface of our altar. Then I melted on the stove a bag of 100% beeswax in an old pan I could throw away afterward. Then when it was all liquid, I took it outside and soaked the linen in it.

Next time I do this, if there is a next time, I would use 2 bags of beeswax; it's expensive, but it would be worth it. The one bag gave spotty coverage initially, I'd say only about half the linen got covered on the initial soaking, in patches that looked like Rorschach blotches.

However, I wasn't going to be deterred, and remembered Catholic Encyclopedia's advice about ironing. Though I did not have big enough sheets of linen to make 2 other cerecloths of the same size (nor any need for more than one) I realized I could fold the cloth up against itself and iron it to spread the wax around and get a more even coverage. It picks up little pieces of dirt easily, so be careful.

At first I ironed it folded between a clean throw-away sheet to act as a buffer, but the wax, especially before I evened-out the coverage, made the cloth quite stiff and difficult to work with and prone to warping and wrinkling, so eventually I just had to lay it out on the big craft table and start ironing it directly on the surface, totally unfolded. It didn't seem to ruin the iron as long the iron was still hot and I ran it over a clean surface a few times to wipe the wax off after.

After working at it an hour or so, I ended up getting the whole cloth saturated with wax more evenly, though it then stuck to the table in some parts and so when held up to the light some patches look thinner/more translucent than others when I pulled it up. It looks fine lying on hard surface though, thankfully (though no one will ever see it, really).

Beeswax dries almost instantly in the air, so it was ready right away. When the wax was all spread out and more even and thinner, the cloth was easier to handle and smoother, though it is still prone to wrinkling easily. I then layed it out on the floor and cut it to size. Then, for transport, I rolled it up around a tube from some Christmas wrapping paper. Hopefully this will help keep it smooth and flat (as will the weight of the other cloths on top of it).

The table afterward was quite a mess, covered all over with wax. A lot of it scraped off with a scraper, luckily, and the rest dissolved with some WD-40 and some steel wool. Washed it down after that with soap and water and paper towels, and it was fine. I feel quite successful because no clothes or carpeting or anything got ruined or stained in the process. This is a very messy craft, but I managed to keep the mess contained.

1 comment:

Mike L. said...

I'm going to hire you to make my altar if I'm ever ordained