New Albany woman makes and restores vestments, altar hangings for churches

Nov. 18—NEW ALBANY — For Denise Brown, sewing and embroidery work is more than a hobby. It's a ministry.

She has made and restored vestments and altar hangings for Episcopal churches across Mississippi for two decades now. Just as a church building's awe-inspiring architecture can evoke a reverent state of mind for worshippers passing through the front doors, Brown said the same happens for clergy when they put on vestments.

"I want the clergy to have what's meaningful and purposeful for them so they can be focused on worship," she said.

Comfort is just as important as practicality, as a passion for clergy care drives her work.

"I want to do custom work ... one-of-a-kind, tailored to the priest," Brown said.

Her most recent project was making a blue chasuble (a sleeveless outer vestment worn by clergy for celebration of the Eucharist) and two blue stoles (a strip of fabric worn over the shoulders to indicate that the wearer is ordained) for use during the Advent season at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Olive Branch.

A large Chi-Rho symbol, which is the first two letters of the word "Christ" in Greek, is embroidered on the front of the chasuble, along with the Greek letters alpha and omega on either side to show that Christ is the beginning and end. The design, stitched with a professional embroidery machine, took 24,000 stitches, Brown said.

But she isn't always creating new pieces from scratch. Other times, items come to her to be restored. This involves working with fabrics that are decades old and sewing by hand.

She has learned a lot through the restoration process. Figuring out how things were made is fun but also improves her technique.

The New Albany resident, a New Jersey native, retired from the Air Force after her last assignment in Biloxi and settled in Mississippi. With grandchildren in both Mississippi and Kentucky, she and her husband split their time between the two states, but whether she's in the Hospitality State or the Bluegrass State, Brown is always working on a new project.

Her mother, Mary Tomlinson, was a master tailor who also made vestments for churches. She taught Brown and her sister to sew.

Brown, an advanced seamstress, developed an interest in liturgical pieces through weaving and is now a part of the altar guild for the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi. She started out around 2003 making stoles.

Along with guidance from her mother, Brown also learned a lot from Elizabeth Morgan, a Connecticut-based woman who operates churchlinens.com. She sells fabrics and materials, but more importantly, provides advice and instruction for those working on vestments and other church linens.

"We totally tune into the Holy Spirit," Brown said. "We are handling spiritual things."

Vestments often, by design, match fabric hangings on the altar and lectern. It's all about setting the space for worship, she said.

"This is just another piece of that rich spiritual, holy practice," Brown said. "It's not about worshipping the objects, it's about being present to the Spirit and being engaged ... it creates a mind space for you to be present to God."

She only charges for materials, a flat rate for labor and shipping costs, so that congregations get the most out of whatever budget they have available.

What's most important is that new life is given to older pieces, which will continue to be used in worship services for years to come.

"Another generation gets to experience the quality and beauty of this work, the history of it and the continuity of it," Brown said.

blake.alsup@djournal.com