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In 1931 the Bishop of Winchester Cathedral asked the embroidery expert Louisa Pesel if she would design and sew cushions for the chapel attached to his residence. Impressed by her work, the Dean of the Cathedral then asked her to take on a much bigger project: designing and making cushions and kneelers for the Choir stalls and Presbytery seats.

Louisa Pesel was born in Bradford in 1870 and early on took up embroidery – not only doing it but becoming an expert in its history, styles and techniques. She worked on the Victoria and Albert Museum collection of embroidery, wrote books and articles, and unusually for a woman at that time, worked abroad, teaching embroidery to Greek school girls. She also travelled – to Egypt, to India – again, rare for a single woman. Back in the UK, she taught traumatised World War I soldiers to sew, reasoning that making beautiful things was therapeutic.

Louisa took up the Winchester embroidery project with gusto, applying her organisational and design talents, aided by a fellow artist and designer, Sybil Blunt.

choirstallcushions kneelers on seats

Louisa and Sybil decided to produce 56 cushions for the Choir stalls, and decorate many of them with central circular panels illustrating different parts of Winchester history. Many are of kings and queens who ruled in Winchester, or of Cathedral bishops. There is a map of Winchester from the 1930s, complete with motorcars and a steam train. Another is of St Giles Fair, which for centuries took place every year on a hill outside of town. One of my favourites is a commemoration of the diver William Walker in his gear.

As well as cushions, 300+ kneelers were made, designed with central “knots” resembling the medieval bosses on the Cathedral ceiling, placed against a blue background. While the designs were definitive, embroiderers (known as “broderers” at the time) were given some choice as to the colours and stitches used. There was scope for individuality, within certain parameters. Each kneeler also had the initials of the maker and the year made embroidered on the reverse.

The colours and designs were bold and bright, and not to everyone’s taste. However, they suit the Choir, bringing surprising colour into dark corners of the Cathedral.

Hundreds of volunteers – mainly women – worked on the project from 1931-36, either stitching or helping with the organisational side.

The project was such a success that it was copied elsewhere, notably at Wells Cathedral in the 1940s. Indeed, a “Winchester style” of embroidery grew as a result.

Cushions embroidered by volunteers