The Cathedral Works

An apprenticeship program bustling along in the crypt of a big cathedral - it's easy to picture in medieval times, when the church was a traditional center for the arts and crafts. But hardly likely in this era, you say.

Yet, in the vast cavernous space beneath the north transept of St. John's Cathedral in upper Manhattan, a group of young trainees is learning to weave, sew, make and decorate ceramics, and print fabrics by hand silk-screening. Aptly called the Cathedral Works, this unusual teaching and production program may expand to include the making of stained glass, furniture, and jewelry.

Other apprentices are learning to repair and restore church tapestries. In the stoneyard adjacent to the church, still others are mastering the 16 th-century craft of stonecutting. The stones these youthful masons have cut are now being used to help complete the 90-year-old Gothic cathedral, the world's largest. Until recently, no work was done on the unfinished church for 38 years, but a current construction and endowment campaign should bring completion within 30 years.

The Very Rev. James Parks Morton, dean of the Episcopal cathedral, hopes through the apprenticeship programs, and by employing local residents from the surrounding, mostly tenement, neighborhoods as construction workers, to reestablish the church's link with the community and to revive the traditional sense of the church as a center for artisans.

David Moir is the full-time director of the Cathedral Works, while Leslie Tillett, a well-known artist and textile designer, is the chief consultant. Helena Uglow, a top US ceramist, is a design coordinator and head of the ceramic group. Mr. Moir says that a sound foundation has been laid over the project's first year to make it an ongoing operation with an increasing production and revenue-earning capacity.

At the beginning it was estimated that the project would require about $450, 000 for renovation of the crypt, equipment, materials, and funds to pay apprentices and instructors. About $270,000 of this amount has now been raised from private and textile industry donations and a bank loan.

Recently, funds became available to the The Cathedral Works through the Private Industry Council of New York. These funds provide minimum wage, or $6, 100 a year for each of the 20 apprentices, who must be between the ages of 17 and 21 and from low-income areas. Many of the youths chosen are blacks or Hispanics. The apprenticeships are for one year, after which Mr. Moir and his staff seek to find jobs for them in industry or other places where they can use their newly acquired skills.

When dress designer Vera Maxwell discovered the printed fabrics that were coming out of the crypt, she was so impressed by the quality of the printing being done at the 60-foot-long tables that she immediately began giving the project both moral and financial support. She also gave the Cathedral Works a substantial order to print many of the fabrics she would use in her 1982 fall-winter couture collection. She selected a pattern taken from the ancient rose window of the cathedral, a line print showing stonecutters (taken from a 13 th- century ink on parchment manuscript), and a boasting pattern, which is the design made by the stone mason as he chips into the face of the stone while working on it.

''I think the group of designs is inspired,'' says Mrs. Maxwell, ''and that what Dean Morton has established in his church basement borders on the concept of the medieval guild. It has been a delight to me to work with these young people, and their hand-printing and weaving of fabrics has been a godsend to me.

''It has become almost impossible in this country to find small contract printers who will do the kind of special hand-printing in the smaller quantities that a couture house needs,'' she continues. ''I am planning to feature their work in future collections, too. Already I am hearing from customers around the country that they like the printed ultrasuede, wool jersey, crepe de Chine, satin, and chiffon produced by the apprentices, and they love the concept behind the fabrics.''

Mr. Moir is also negotiating with a group in the decorative trade and a major department store. He says the workshop will soon be producing about 2,500 yards of printed fabric a month. Much of what the apprentices produce is also being sold through the Cathedral Shop on the premises, which attracts half a million visitors a year.

Leslie Tillett, who has helped establish similar programs in several underdeveloped countries, as well as in New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant area, says , ''We started printing with 24 designs, with motifs taken from the cathedral itself, its architecture, woodwork, stonework, ironwork, stained glass windows, illuminated manuscripts, and even the peacocks and biblical flowers that flourish together in the cathedral garden. We are printing on silks from China and Korea and cotton from Egypt, and we hope to do a lot of combinations of weaving and printing as well.''

Mr. Moir indicates that the Cathedral Works has already become a prototype project, which is being studied by delegations from other Episcopal churches and various design schools. In today's economy, he believes, a successful bootstrap operation that teaches people livelihood and survival skills while they are also producing beautiful things for sale is an idea worth watching.

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