Altar cloths are a way to mark a sacred space. They help to enforce the boundaries between the mundane and magickal. They can even provide the base and structure for the altar itself. Not all pagans use an alatar cloth, nor do all altars need one. I, myself, have been ambivalent to them over the years, more focused on the tools on my altars.
That’s not to say that I haven’t used altar cloths. My very first was a cross-stitched piece I had made from Gail Lawther’s Celtic Cross Stitch. I hadn’t made it to serve as an altar cloth, it was just a pretty piece of embroidery that ended up under a house plant for several years. Later, it served as a covering for my sewing altar. For several years our family altar was housed on a coffee table and there I used a table runner my mother had made and sent me as the altar cloth.
Then we moved house, and left most of the furniture behind. I picked up a cheap, but heavy, wood hutch for $5 off of Facebook Marketplace and used that as our family altar for two years. Or at least, I meant to use it. The hutch was set up in a shared living room and was often inaccessible due to our housemates. In September my husband and I moved the hutch into the bedroom for his use. We relocated our family altar as well, to the top of a metal cart.
At that point I decided we needed an official altar cloth. I’ve had informal altars before. In fact most of them fall into that category. However, leaving my altar bare, the incense and candles and flowers just sitting on the piece of cardboard I laid down to cover the grating, in a cart that was filled with office supplies and equipment felt a couple of levels down from informal, like not-wearing-pants-during-your-Zoom-meeting level of casual.
I had a basic idea of what I wanted, a piece of muslin dyed with the onion skins I’ve been collecting for two years. Now seemed as good a time to put them to use as any. The idea was the dye wold give the muslin an autumny color. I even thought this could be the start of making seasonal altar cloths. I could become the kind of pagan who coordinates her altars to the solstices and equinoxes. One who definitely doesn’t leave zombified flowers in the vase, or forgets to routinely replace the candles in the candle holders.
This plan fell apart almost as soon as I started. I didn’t have a piece of muslin large enough, despite having a box overflowing with scraps. All I needed was a piece 25″ x 21″ and every single piece I found was too small. No matter, I decided, I would dye several scraps. I could piece them together into a design. Itw ould be symbolic of the make-do attitude I was always going on about. Besides, I could pattern the design off of the table runner my mother made, bringing in themes of the past reaching out to inform the future. I’m a writer. I can give meaning to anything.
They dying went well, although each piece came out a different shade. This will work for the design, I decided as if this had been part of the plan all along. The next problem came when the iron spat water all over the fabric, leaving water spots in places. I tried to tell myself that it could be “artistic” even though it just looked sloppy. I pressed on, though, determining that I could work around the spots.
Piecing together the design was not easy, and I had been prepared for this to be the hardest part. I was working freehand from an idea in my head, winging it when I probably shouldn’t have. I made liberal use of Kenny’s decorative stitches to cover the awkward way the wedges and circle fit together. It’s artistic, I told myself, as it started to look more and more like Frankenstein’s monster.
I should have been content with that. It was finished, it would cover the cart, and I could get on with using my altar. Instead, I got the wild idea to add beading. I do not know why I decided on tis. Maybe it’s the same urge that had people learning how to make breat at the start of the pandemic. More likely I thought the addition of beading woul make my poor altar cloth more “fancy”.
Despite having a bin full of beads (most gifts from friends who were destashing) I’ve never done any sort of beading. Would that stop me? No it would not. I marked out a design and set to work, having no idea what I was doing or if I was doing it right. I could have availed myself of the internet: read a few tutorials or at least watched a Youtube video or two. But, if I had faced the huge gap in my knowledge and expertise, I would have just given up. At this point I was driven by the sheer desire to see this foolhardy task through to the end. And, if anyone pointed out how it looked terrible, I could just nod in agreement, saying, “Yep, it sure does, that’s because I didn’t try to learn beforehand, I just sewed.”
There are a number of other additions I could have made: sequins, ribbon, silver charms, iron-on appliques. I have bins and boxes and baskets full of random craft items that I have never used, after all. Fortunately, I had reached a point where I could stop myself. I gave the cloth one last (steamless) pressing and laid it out.
In a plot twist I never saw coming, the altar is going to be relocated once again, as our hosuemates are moving out, leaving the entire house to ourselves. I won’t need it with the new living arrangements.
Ultimately, this altar cloth is a sort of physical manifestation fo 2020: cobbled togethr from what’s on hand using skills learned hastily and looking like a hot mess only to be rendered obsolete within a short time. Even attepting to turn this project into a learning experience is unsatisfying.
I am sure there is a trickster god somewhere yucking it up at my expense.