Dossal
Lanercost Priory
The Dossal
The Lanercost Dossal is an embroidered woollen cloth, 24ft by 4ft, which was made to hang on the wall behind the Priory altar. It was commissioned in 1881 by George Howard 9th Earl of Carlisle and was designed by William Morris (1834-96) famous as a poet and a designer of church and domestic furnishings. There are also three stained glass windows from the William Morris Company in the Priory. The Dossal was embroidered over a period of five years by the ladies of the Parish including, Mrs Bulkeley, Mrs Chapman and Mrs Dodgson, the wives of the past and present vicars. It was hung behind the Priory altar on Easter Day 1887.
Linda Parry, an authority on William Morris textiles states: "It is of great artistic and historical significance as a major example of a William Morris design which was embroidered locally and, until, recently displayed in the public site for which it was designed. Furthermore, as a special commission as opposed to a commercially available product chosen from a catalogue this is important ranking alongside the frontal made in 1862 for St Martin's in Scarborough and another made for Busbridge Church in 1870. The Lanercost dossal is a far more developed design and to my mind aesthetically more important.
"The technique of embroidered worsted wools onto a felted ground is reminiscent of Morris's earliest embroideries. Jane Morris, William Morris' wife, first came across the felted woollen material in the late 1850s in a shop in London when they were searching for an appropriate ground on which to embroider hangings for Red House. Morris probably selected these materials because he was particularly fond of the effect."

By 2003 the Dossal had suffered from more than a century of dust, damp, exposure to light, moth and rodent and urgently required restoration. It was sent to The Lancashire Conservation Studios , Preston for assessment and an estimate of the costs of restoration and cleaning. Unfortunately due to other Priory priorities, heating and repairs of the Priory structure, no steps were taken to either determine its history or promote its restoration at that time.

During November 2010 the Lanercost Priory PCC asked Christine Boyce to look into the history of the Dossal and consider how it might be cleaned and restored. Funds were sought both locally and from national funding bodies. A large grant was obtained from the Heritage Lottery Fund while other organizations and individuals made significant contributions.

The Lanercost PCC would be grateful for donations and advice on how funds can be raised to bring this national and particularly Cumbrian work of art back to the Priory.

In August 2012 Tuula Pardoe of the Scottish Conservation Studios, South Queensferry undertook the conservation and of the Dossal. As part of this work it was taken to De Wit, Royal Manufacturers of Tapestry, Mechelen, Belgium for cleaning. It was returned to the Priory in March 2013. It was dedicated on Easter Day, 31st March by Bishop James of Carlisle one hundred and twenty-six years after it was first hung in the Priory.

Before the Dossal was rehung serious consideration was given to whether it should be displayed in a protective glass fronted case. It was finally decided that it should be rehung unprotected as was intended by George Howard and William Morris. Serious thought has been given to its future preservation. Blackout curtains have been provided to protect the Dossal from day light and thus reduce fading and deterioration when the Priory is not open to the public. A biweekly programme of careful cleaning the Priory sanctuary has been established to ensure as far as possible that the Dossal is not contaminated by dust and dirt, and that moths, spiders and other insects are controlled. Wax candles and flowers are not permitted in the sanctuary as they are another source of possible contamination.

The Heritage Lottery Fund grant required that the public should have a role in the project. To meet this requirement local ladies formed a group with the object of embroidering selected Dossal motifs using unfaded original colours. These colours were determined from the unfaded threads on the back of the Dossal which had not been exposed to light. The facsimiles will be part of a permanent display in the Priory which will include an interpretive story board. Although the public cannot closely examine the Dossal they will be able examine and touch the facsimiles. It is hoped that present and future generations of parishioners and visitors will take an interest in the simple but demanding craft of embroidery and its design. It is also planned to produce a booklet and a DVD giving something of the history of the Dossal, the contributions of the Arts and Craft Movement in North Cumbria, the restoration of the Dossal and the embroidering of the facsimiles.

The Priory is open to the public from 10am to 6pm or by special arrangement when the Dossal can be viewed. There is no charge but donations are welcome. There is an attractive Gift Stall featuring mementos unique to the Priory. From the beginning of May to the end of October the person looking after the Gift Stall can help visitors to enjoy and appreciate the Dossal. There are other attractions in the immediate area. The adjacent Priory Ruins are under the auspices of English Heritage and there are an excellent tea room and B&B's close by. Hadrian's Wall and the Birdoswald Roman Fort are not far away.

If you require further information please contact Christine Boyce, tel: 016977 2200; email: Christine Boyce

All Dossal images © Alan Sawer 2011.