reprinted with permission from the Episcopal Diocese of Houston, Texas Altar Guild Handbook - 2006

How Altar Linens are Made

Altar linens are most often constructed of pure linen. Consider the most economical width, and be sure to allow approximately 1 inch per yard for shrinkage. Shrink linen by laundering in hot water. Press and measure carefully. Pull threads to mark the dimensions, and cut. All hems should be made using all-cotton fine thread. You can get all-cotton thread at embroidery/needlepoint specialty shops. Use a Sharp #8 or #10 quilting needle. All embroidery should be flat so that communion vessels do not tip over.

-Fair Linen*

Use linen about the weight of sheeting, and tightly woven. Measure the top of the altar and make the finished fair linen exactly the width of the altar, allowing 1.5 or 2 inches for a hand-turned hem. The length may vary: it may hang almost to the floor or it may be shorter, but it should not hang less than 18 inches from the top edge of the altar. A 3 inch hem is acceptable at the ends, but 2 inch hems on both ends and sides facilitate good mitered corners.

Five crosses, about 2-3 inches in diameter are embroidered on the fair linen: one in each corner about 3 inches from the side and end, and, one in the exact center, which can be a little larger. Use a high quality, white all-cotton embroidery thread. A fine chain stitch or stem stitch is very effective.

If damask with ecclesiastical design is used it does not need to be embroidered.


The corporal is made of good linen, 20 to 24 inches square. It is of the same weight linen as the fair linen, with a hem 1 inch or less, and a cross embroidered in white above the hem in the center front.

The corporal is placed in the burse to be put on the altar by the priest. Or, if the priest prefers, it is placed on the altar by the Altar Guild member.


The Purificator is a square of linen with the narrowest possible hem, and a 1 inch cross embroidered in the exact center of the square. Most Purificators are 12 inches square. Purificators are used to wipe the lip of the chalice after each communicant. The Purificator is also used by the priest to cleanse the chalice at the close of the service. After the service the Purificators are rinsed in clear water, then thoroughly washed and pressed. Purificators should be folded by hand, not pressed, into perfect thirds. For the Eucharist, the center third is laid over the chalice under the paten. The length and width of a Purificator should be three times the diameter of the chalice.


The pall is usually a 7 inch square of linen stretched over Plexiglas. Plexiglas or acrylic squares can be cut for you at a local glass supplier.

Palls will soon be available for purchase at Christian Communion Supplies. The linen is the same weight as the fair linen, cut 8x15 inches. Lay the Plexiglas square on one end, allowing a 1/2 inch hem for a seam on the sides and one end. Trace with a pencil. Center the embroidery design on the square. When the needlework is completed, fold the piece in half, embroidery wrong side out. Sew the two sides, trim the seams, and turn the linen right side out. Slip the square of Plexiglas into it. It must fit tightly. The edges of the open end are folded in and whip-stitched securely. The Plexiglas need not be removed for laundering. Soak in mild suds and rinse in clear water. If the pall is badly soiled, use Clorox2. See the laundering instructions, beginning on page 15. The linen will dry smoothly if it fits tightly.

Credence Table Cover

The credence table cover is of linen, similar to the fair linen, and it is shaped to fit the top of the credence table or it may hang down a few inches at each end. It should have a narrow hem, and a small cross embroidered in the center of the front edge.

Baptismal Towel

Baptismal towels are made of fine linen toweling or a medium weight linen. A convenient size is 12 by 18 inches. Turn a narrow hem on both sides and a 1 inch hem at the ends. The design of a shell may be embroidered in the center about 2 inches above the end of the towel. The baptismal towel is folded in thirds lengthwise and once horizontally, and is laid over the side of the font for baptism.

Lavabo Towels

Lavabo towels, also called mundatories, are made the same as the baptismal towels. A 1 inch cross is embroidered in the center of one end of this towel. A towel is placed next to the lavabo bowl when used at the Eucharist.

Cere Cloth

The cere cloth is a protective cloth which goes between the frontal and the fair linen on the top of the altar. Originally the cere cloth was waxed, cere, cloth to protect the linen from damage when the stone altars would “sweat”.

Today, ours protects the linen of the frontal and the altar from wine spills. A feltbacked, white vinyl sheet, cut to the size of the mensa (the top of the altar) and placed vinyl side up just beneath the fair linen, has been found to be very effective.

Dust Cover-Protector

The dust cover or protector is a cover to be used on the altar over the fair linen between services. It really is a dust cover! It may be made preferably of heavy linen, but natural linen or cloth in seasonal colors can be used. A cross may be marked on the center of the cloth but is not necessary. The dust cover should exactly fit the mensa (altar top). A clear plastic sheet can be used as a dust cover, but that use is discouraged unless there is some reason to use a plastic drape, such as, for example, a leaky roof.

Burse and Chalice Veil

The burse and chalice veil are usually of silk, but until a church can afford to purchase these in seasonal colors, a firm linen may be used for the burse. The burse is 9x9 inches, and a 24 inch square of linen like the corporal may be substituted for the silk veil. The burse is two 9 inch squares, stiffened with Plexiglas lining. It may have hinges of cord, or simply have the top and bottom tacked together on one edge. The top is usually ornamented with embroidery. A 3 inch cross is a good choice.

Post-Communion Veil

The post-communion veil is made of thin linen lawn. The size may vary from 12 to 24 inches square. A 21 inch square is a good size. Two can be cut from 2/3 yard of linen, 45 inches wide. Turn the hem 1/2 to 3/4 inches, miter the corners, and overhand hem with very fine stitches. A 2 or 3 inch cross may be embroidered in the center of the veil. Use a high quality, white all-cotton embroidery thread. The post-communion veil is used to cover the chalice and paten if they are not immediately removed after the Eucharist. Many churches no longer use the post-communion veil.