Seamstress turns vestment alteration request into full-time vocation

Carolyn Keliher, owner of Woolin’ Inn Studio, creates liturgical garb for clergy

KIMBERLY — Liturgical ministers and environments around the world are decked out regally thanks to the handiwork of seamstress Carolyn Keliher, owner of Woolin’ Inn Studio in Kimberly.

Carolyn Keliher, owner of Woolin’ Inn Studio, is surrounded by colorful vestments that she has created at her home studio in Kimberly. She began making custom-designed liturgical vestments in 1989. (Amanda Lauer | For The Compass)

Keliher, who is a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Kimberly, studied fabrics and art at UW-Stout and used her degree to teach middle school home economics for one year and then sewing at Fox Valley Technical College for 25 years. She also has certification in liturgical environment from the Archdiocese of Chicago and is a master craftsman in hand embroidery.

She put these skills to use at her parish in the 1980s. “I was asked to do alterations on some vestments,” she said, including enlarging a chasuble, the outermost liturgical vestment worn by priests for the celebration of the Eucharist. “It’s difficult to not make it look like a hand-me-down. I decided it had to be simpler to start from scratch,” she recalled.

In 1989, Keliher, who bills herself as a fiber artist, designer and restorationist, started Woolin’ Inn Studio. It offers custom-designed vestments and paraments (church wall hangings). “I started making vestments that I would take to different diocesan and archdiocesan shows,” she said. The conventions she attended were in Green Bay, Milwaukee and Chicago.

Keliher was the director of Liturgical Environment at Holy Spirit Parish for eight years.

“The sacristan’s manual became my workbook,” she said. “I learned everything from folding corporals (linen clothes spread on the altar, on which the Eucharistic elements rest) to the creases in a bishop’s miter. I began to take every class I possibly could through the Green Bay Diocese and the Archdiocese of Chicago. Over the years I put together a 45-minute presentation that I would give to different sacristan groups.”

Nearly every day Keliher is either at her sewing machine or working on hand stitching projects. She said she spends a lot of time searching for quality fabrics, such as the lightweight wool blends (wool and polyester or wool and rayon) she prefers to use.

“It’s like searching for a dinosaur. The wool blends are very lightweight, it’s cool, very drapable, wears well, holds the color,” she said. “The priests prefer not to wear polyester. It’s almost like wearing a plastic bag, it’s so warm. That’s why I keep searching for other sources.”

Most of the chasubles Keliher makes are custom cut. Priests need chasubles in a variety of colors for the various seasons and feast days in the church — red, rose, purple or violet, white and gold, and green. For the deacons, having stoles custom-made helps ensure they won’t slide off the shoulder. “Most any presider’s stole can be made into a deacon’s stole,” Keliher added.

Chasubles can make a wonderful gift for priests at any point in their ministry — from ordination to retirement, and matching dalmatics are appreciated by deacons. Keliher recommends letting the priest consult with her for sizing and to pick out the style, which will tie in with all the other fabrics that are in his church already. She can coordinate an entire parish, from priest, deacon and guest presider to the banners and ambo.

“There are some priests who will come here and say, ‘Make me look good.’ I’ll say, ‘Father, I can do what I can do, but I can’t work miracles,’” said Keliher with a laugh.

In addition to Catholic vestments, Keliher does work for other denominations.

“I make one-of-a-kind, anything fabric for a church — chasubles, dalmatics, stoles, copes, banners, wall hangings, altar cloths, funeral palls, alterations and restorations,” she said.

At her home studio, Keliher has a wide selection of chasubles and dalmatics for her clients to browse through. “As soon as I sell one I want to duplicate it to have here as a sample. It’s so much easier to sell one if they can see what I’m talking about,” she said.

The chasubles, which typically run several hundred dollars, have been shipped to 16 states across the country and several foreign countries, including Australia and Canada. Every other year Keliher shows her work at the Vessels and Vesture Marketplace, held at Liberty Hall in Kimberly.

Even though she sews just about every day and many nights, Keliher hasn’t grown tired of her profession after all these years.

“I get even more excited each day. I never know when a phone call comes in what it’s going to involve,” she said. “I hope I am making the worship experience even that much more meaningful for both the priests and the parishioners.”

For more information about liturgical vestments, contact Keliher at (920) 788-5906.