Artist Marjorie Coffey's studio is laden with bolts of fabric, hanks of yarn and decorative cords and boxes of tiny beads, shells and buttons. It is here in her Northwest Washington home that she drapes and hangs the material, eyeing it from various angles, comparing textures and overlaying fabrics to create effective color tones.
Coffey, originally a painter and sculptor, converts fabric into clothing to communicate a message. At least 15 clergymen of Episcopal, Catholic, Lutheran and Presbyterian Churches here use the clerical vestments she designs and stitches.
"Liturgy is indeed a celebration," explained the Rev. Richard Martin, rector of St. George's Episcopal Church at 2d and U Streets NW. "We combine what we wear with what the liturgy means."
A year ago Easter his church commissioned from Coffey a brilliant cope (cloak) and poncho-like chasuble in golds, pinks and oranges for Father Martin and matching altar clock and burse and veil.
"I wanted something for Easter that was festive, designed with this modern building in mind - gold and abstract," the priest explained.
Coffey, a small woman whose fingers work swiftly, approaches her work intuitively rather than mechanically.
She spent six months handstitching a three-panel wall hanging in Thai and Italian silks representing Christ's entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, his Crucifixion on Good Friday and his Resurrection on Easter.
For inspiration, she pondered the moods she would later represent in the finished work. She considered, for example, "how I would feel if I were Christ on Easter Sunday, coming out of three days of darkness. I figured it would probably be a mixed blessing. The sun can be very bright after three days in the dark. Maybe, he thought,"Ye gods, I wonder if they'll accept me this time." In a sense it was almost another form of punishment to come back."
The work "contains all these emotional qualities," she said. "It was not just a matter of picturing a man coming out of a cave," said Coffey, an Episcopalian.
Coffey began this art form three years ago, expanding the intricate and meticulous stitchery and fabric banner techniques which she had developed earlier.
"Vestments are banners that move or dance." Coffey said. "That was one of the first lessons I learned in making vestments." In planning and clerical robes, she takes a client with her to shop for fabrics when possible so she can view the drape on the particular individual.
"They have to feel whether the fabrics are too light or too heavy. I have to know how the person moves, how he sees himself, how he visualizes his or her rule at the altar. There is a totally different quality from person to person."
In 1974, Coffey constructed the white silk and wool worsted vestments and embroidered mitre for the installation of the Rt. Rev. John M. Allin, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. Her gowns range from this stunningly simple vestment to ones in hot colors and bold patterns.
A purple robe occasionally worn by the Rev. Robert Hovda, a Catholic priest here, is decorated with snake-like rows of multi-colored yarns. She spent 80 hours attaching the yarns.
While churches are accustomed to fabric arts, they usually purchase manufactured goods from catalogues.
Coffey and other fabric artists who do similar work believe that original art and modern designs are equally appropriate.
Churches need to get away from traditional brocades and use materials that look like they were made this year rather than being left over from Victorian times," she said.
She also is concerned with work of heirloom quality not the instant art that pops up in some experimental worship.
The liturgy is a drama," she said , "but there is is a difference between doing it with reverence and staging it as entertainment."