This post is aimed at those who may never have purchased a stole before. Perhaps you are preparing for ordination or maybe you are commissioning a stole as a gift. There are so many possibilities for a stole that it is difficult for some people to know where to begin. Here I try to guide you through the process and ask you to consider many different things so that you can arrive at the right decision when it comes to making that purchase or placing an order.
The stole is an ecclesiastical vestment worn by ordained clergy in most western Christian traditions during church services.
The wearing of stoles goes back to the very earliest times of the Church
and references Jewish traditions as described in The Old Testament.
"And thou shalt make holy garments for Aaron thy brother for glory and
for beauty" (Exodus 28:2).
It is a long, narrow strip of cloth, usually embellished in some way and is normally in the specified colour for the liturgical season - although some Protestant clergy wear stoles with colours or symbols that do not conform to liturgical colours. A Roman Catholic or Anglican deacon wears it over the left shoulder with the stole joined under the right arm; priests and bishops wear it around the neck with ends hanging vertically, although some priests cross the ends in front when wearing an alb. It is generally considered the unique symbol of ordained ministry and one is given at ordination.
The stole should not be confused with a preaching scarf, which is normally black and the fabric is pleated at the neck. Some preaching scarves are embellished with embroidery, but more often they are plain and they are worn for non-sacramental occasions.
When deciding on what you want of a stole, there are some practical considerations to take into account.
The next decision is colour. This refers to the colour of the main visible fabric, not the colour of any embroidery or the lining. On my website you can read about the different liturgical colours and their use and significance.
A white stole does not need to be pure white...... in fact, it will almost certainly not be optic white, but usually something more natural - ivory through to deep cream will all count as “white”. The colour of the decorative elements of the stole can be any colour/s you want, although some traditions may be more prescriptive in this than others. Both the stoles pictured here would be classed as "white".
Fabric - most of my stoles are made with a plain fine wool/polyester mix fabric but I can also work on damasks, brocades, silk, linen and pure wool. I won’t work with pure synthetics as I don’t think they take my style of embroidery well.
Length - stoles may be anything between 80cm and 145cm measured from the neck and the choice of length will generally be a matter personal preference. If you are tall you may want a longish stole. If it is to be worn with cassock and cotta, you may well want it on the short side. Ideally you should try on a selection of stoles to see what you feel most comfortable with but if you don’t have that option, put a tape measure around your neck while standing in front of a full length mirror. Adjust the position until you think you have the right length and make a note of the measurement to the nape of the neck. If you are buying a stole as a gift and don’t want to spoil the surprise, then let me know what height the person is and which denomination so that I can estimate the length - the average is around 110 to 125cm.If the stole is for a deacon you may want a side fastening as a deacon will wear the stole over the shoulder and joining together on the hip. You will want to have the fastening at the correct position, so again, use a tape measure to come over the left shoulder and down to the right hip and make a note of this measurement.
For a permanent deacon, the stole can be shaped so that the two ends hang neatly and straight from the join. If it is intended that the deacon will progress to the priesthood then you want a regular stole that fastens either with ties or a ring and T-bar link.
These are sewn in such a way that they can be easily removed at a later stage.
• straight and narrow - this will limit the design options considerably as it will be no more than 8cm wide otherwise it would be too wide around the neck for comfortable wear. The example shown here is reversible and used as a travel stole, so is quite short.
•tapered - this is my most common style and generally goes from around 12cm wide at the bottom to 7cm wide at the neck, which is shaped so it will sit comfortably.
• overlay - this is a wide straight stole but the back is designed to come in a deep V to a point mid back and is held in place by a fine chain that sits at the back of the neck.
• spade-end or flared - these are straight and narrow except for the ends which flare out in a shape designed to accommodate the chosen embroidery design.
Fringes - in some traditions these are very common, in others definitely not used. For most however, it is a question of personal preference. For information about the various types of fringe that I can offer please visit my website and follow the link.
With these decisions dealt with, you can move on to thinking about the decorative elements.
Most of my work involves Celtic design. It may be as simple as a small Celtic cross at each end, or be entirely covered in Celtic knotwork embroidery. It may be one of my pre-existing designs or I can design something specially that takes account of symbols or imagery
significant to you. It is helpful to have an idea of whether you like busy designs, something quite minimalist or something inbetween.
I don’t copy other people’s designs, but I am happy to develop designs from images that are special to you, for example a stained glass window or statue in your church. I have developed many embroidery designs from some of our ancient Pictish, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon crosses and I am always happy to work on new designs of other crosses assuming I can get adequate photographs to work from. The detail from the green stole pictured right is developed from the Agnus Dei on the St Cuthbert Stole (10th C) in Durham Cathedral.
Another of my posts relates to the use of symbolism in my stoles and if you are looking for inspiration, you may wish to read it.
I often use tartanas an appliqué fabric in my stoles and when I do so, I generally line the stole with the same tartan. If you have a family tartan that is readily available I am happy to use that. If you don’t have a family tartan then there are many other tartans you can choose from. The Clergy tartan is a popular choice, as it the St Columba tartan. Sometimes it may be that your choice of tartan is influenced by the colours - for example, you probably wouldn’t want to use the blue Clergy tartan on a red stole, but it works well on white, green or purple. You can search for different tartans on the Scottish Register of Tartans but bear in mind that just because a tartan has been registered, it doesn’t mean that it is available to purchase. Pictured left is an overlay stole made with the Edinburgh district tartan.
If you don’t want tartan, then there are still lots of options. The most popular choice is for the design and lining to be in pure silk and this is available in a huge range of colours.
There are many designs shown on my website, but I also have some photo albums stored in Google Photos which show many more designs.
For convenience I have categorised them by colour, but any design can be done on any colour, so do have a look through all of them and see if you are inspired. There is often scope for a bit of “pick & mix” or I can start from scratch and create a design especially for you.
One other thing you might like to consider.... might you at some point want a matching chasuble? If so, it is worth mentioning it when you order the stole so that the same fabrics and threads can be set aside for when you want it otherwise it might not be possible to get an exact match at a later stage.
Once you have considered all these things and had a good browse then do get in touch. For those local to Inverness (in the Scottish Highlands) you are welcome to come and visit me at my studio, but for those further afield, I am happy to communicate with you electronically. I post all over the world so distance is not an issue. If you want to discuss possibilities face to face, I am happy to have a Zoom meeting with you. Email me - email@example.com - and we can arrange a mutually convenient time. Rest assured that my aim is to guide you to getting a stole that will serve you well throughout your ministry and it is important to me that you are happy with your choices.
P.S. My thanks to Fiona Hill, George Frost, Henry Hope and Daniel Ackerley for their many helpful comments that contributed to this post.