‘Clothing Christ’ in handmade vestments

Father Michael Dion (then still a deacon) gets his first look at his Mass of Thanksgiving vestments, crafted by Emily Uhl and her team at Altarworthy Handmade Vestments on Whidbey Island. Photo: Stephen Brashear Father Michael Dion (then still a deacon) gets his first look at his Mass of Thanksgiving vestments, crafted by Emily Uhl and her team at Altarworthy Handmade Vestments on Whidbey Island. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Emily Uhl feels called to honor God and enhance the beauty of the church with her handmade vestments

You’d never know that Emily Uhl isn’t a “crafty, quilty type of girl.”

She spends her days with fine fabrics and sewing machines, designing and making vestments for men called to serve God as priests. It’s part of Uhl’s mission to add beauty to the church, what she calls “my little way of loving God.”

Clients of Altarworthy Handmade Vestments (owned by Uhl and her husband) include the soon-to-be-ordained and priests who want to add meaning-filled, custom pieces to their liturgical wardrobes or have vintage vestments repaired.

Uhl loves the work. “I get to talk to these young seminarians who are so on fire for their faith,” she said. “I just ask them questions and they’ll help me to understand my faith.”

For someone who never dreamed she would be a Catholic, Uhl knows God’s hand is evident in the arc of her life that brought her to this place.

“I did not choose this work. This is not at all what I planned to do,” said Uhl, a former Microsoft program manager with a publishing background, who now lives with her husband and their two sons on Whidbey Island.

“She does this work out of a commitment and love of Christ and love of the liturgy,” said Father Hans Olson, pastor of St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Everett and one of Uhl’s recent clients.

sewing
No detail is too small for Emily Uhl, who designs and sews vestments for priests around the country. Photo: Stephen Brashear

From pasta to conversion

It all began in a Microsoft cafeteria.

After months of 15-hour workdays, with a big project completed and a vacation to Greece just days away, she decided to eat in the lunchroom for once. There, in the pasta line, she met Paul Uhl, a high-tech consultant from San Francisco. It was his last week at Microsoft before heading home.

As she tells it, laughing: “I went to eat in the cafeteria those whole five days, and that’s when I met my husband and then became Catholic and then had children.”

By the end of that week, the pair went out for dinner and exchanged phone numbers. “We spent about the next five months talking on the phone and having these deep and irritating conversations,” Uhl recalled. “I thought, Either I love this guy or I hate him, because he was a cradle Catholic” — and “super hardcore,” at that.

“He just deeply loved his faith and couldn’t understand why everyone wouldn’t deeply love the Catholic faith,” she explained, “and here I was, not doing anything with my Protestant faith at all.”

Uhl grew up Lutheran, but attended an all-girls Catholic high school because her parents — public educators in Portland — thought it was a better alternative to the public schools.

That school, St. Mary of the Valley, was Uhl’s first exposure to the Catholic faith. She was irritated that she couldn’t receive Communion during school Masses, but she learned and prayed the Hail Mary, which brought her comfort. Secretly, she visited the chapel before and after school and was drawn to a campus garden featuring the Stations of the Cross. Although she saw Jesus depicted in the stations, “I had no idea what they were,” Uhl said.

Years later, after all those conversations with Paul, she decided to explore the Catholic faith. She began attending Mass at St. James Cathedral, but didn’t tell Paul until she entered the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program. When she became Catholic in 2000, Paul was there. They got married about 18 months later.

“It had to be for the right reason, not to just marry someone,” Uhl said of her conversion. “I had to work all that out on my own. It had to be for God.”

Bringing beauty back to church

Sitting in her light-filled Freeland studio on a sunny June day, Uhl recalled how she got here. A few years back, her then-pastor, Father Gerard Saguto of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), was looking for someone to repair vintage vestments for their Latin-Mass parish, North American Martyrs in Seattle.

Uhl hadn’t used her sewing machine in years, but eventually she volunteered to help. She scoured eBay for antique parts and pieces of vestments that could be used for repairs, then started researching how to make vestments in the time-honored styles, rather than patching them together.

Along the way, she found herself immersed in learning about church rubrics, traditions and symbolism for priestly vestments. “The more I learned, the more I just became insane about it,” Uhl said. “The faith is so deep and rich, with all the symbols that are meant to help us understand the world and our purpose and salvation.”

She also learned about a movement to return beauty to Catholic churches. “Every corner and surface [has] the potential to teach and raise our minds up to truth and goodness through beauty,” Uhl said. “Then we can come to understand our faith and we can come to love God more, because it’s all a reflection of the Creator.”

vestment sketches and materials
The makings of new vestments for Father Hans Olson include embroidery that he designed on his computer. Photo: Emily Uhl

The 10th Station

Today, Uhl works at Altarworthy with head seamstress and “beloved friend” Claire Wilson. Although Uhl does most of the design work, the duo brainstorm ideas, working with clients to choose the fabrics, symbols, cuts and liturgical colors desired in the vestments. Many vestments include intricate hand embroidery done by an off-site artist.

The process from design to completion can take up to a year, using phone, email, Skype and texting, because most of Altarworthy’s work is done for out-of-state clients. Two recently ordained priests of the Seattle Archdiocese — Fathers Michael Dion and Cody Ross — enlisted Altarworthy to create vestments for their first Masses this year.

On his ordination website, Father Dion wrote that he was happy to discover “world-class vestment makers” so close to home. “Their work is a sign of the work of all the faithful people of the Church in the local Seattle area: in their labor, they contribute to the beauty and flourishing of the human community, and of the worship of God,” he wrote.

Guiding Uhl’s work is her understanding of a vestment’s purpose: “to clothe the priest, the man, who has been called by God to do his work, to offer the sacraments on earth … to act in the person of Christ.”

And so she views her vocation as “clothing Christ,” a meaning that became clear in 2013, while she attended an ordination at the FSSP seminary in Nebraska. Uhl noticed the 10th Station of the Cross on the chapel wall immediately beside her, its words in French: Jésus est éliminé de ses vêtements (Jesus is stripped of his garments).

“Wow,” she thought, “they’re stripping him of his vestments.”

That moment encompassed “all of what I felt I was doing, but I hadn’t quite figured out how to describe it,” Uhl said. Now she understood. “What Christ suffered in the Passion,” she explained, “we, in our small way, are giving him back his dignity.”

Uhl thinks back to the beginnings of this vocation, when she wasn’t sure she was up to the task and Father Saguto gave her encouragement.

“I blame all of this on him,” Uhl said, laughing. “And it’s a great joy.”

This story originally ran in Northwest Catholic's January/February 2017 print edition under the title "Clothing Christ."

*The spelling of Claire Wilson's first name has been corrected.

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.