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Court administrators find a second calling in making vestments

The Rev. Tim Thebalt, left, pastor of St. Peter's Catholic Church on Lady's Island, gets a final fitting for his new Easter vestments Thursday at the church. Janice Young, center, and Elizabeth Smith, right, design and make the garments for St. Peter's and churches of different faiths around the country.
The Rev. Tim Thebalt, left, pastor of St. Peter's Catholic Church on Lady's Island, gets a final fitting for his new Easter vestments Thursday at the church. Janice Young, center, and Elizabeth Smith, right, design and make the garments for St. Peter's and churches of different faiths around the country. BOB SOFALY | The Beaufort Gazette

Having traveled thousands of miles to purchase more than $5,000 worth of fabric, Elizabeth Smith and Janice Young rolled a large swath of silk across Smith's dining room table, scissors at the ready -- and froze.

"We called it the fear of fabric," Young said of the material purchased from a specialty shop in Alton, England.

"It's so beautiful and expensive, that once you cut it, you've pretty much bought the farm," Smith added.

Smith, the Beaufort County clerk of court, and Young, the county's deputy clerk, have overcome their fabric phobia, turning their love of sewing into Smith and Young Vestments, a side business making ornate garments for men and women of the cloth.

Smith said the peace that comes from designing and making vestments provides a welcomed respite from the stress in her day job.

"We see the ugly side of this broken world," she said. "So it's nice to leave the courthouse and be able to come home and make something beautiful."

Vestments are religious garments typically worn by priests and religious leaders of Christian denominations. The vestments can comprise more than 20 individual articles of clothing. Smith and Young specialize in making the stole -- a long, narrow strip of cloth worn around the neck -- and the chasuble -- the outermost robe worn by priests and bishops. The pair charge between $600 and $1,500 for a chasuble and stole, depending on the fabric used.

The business has consumed most, if not all, of Smith and Young's free time, and turned Smith's Battery Point home into a miniature garment district, with rolls of fabric piled high in a guest bedroom. An 11-foot-by-8-foot curtain for the chapel at St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church on Lady's Island is carefully draped over an upstairs railing.

The genesis of the business occurred when Smith and Young visited the Rev. Tim Tebalt at St. Peter's rectory in October and listened to the new pastor bemoan some of the church's older, worn-out vestments.

Smith, who earned degrees in medieval history and art history from Vanderbilt University, had studied books on vestment-making and had long dreamed of putting her love of sewing to use.

"The light just went off," she said. "It was the wrong time of year to start doing this because it was the start of the liturgical season and they change outfits like every 15 minutes. Still, this has been a combination of the greatest hobbies of my lifetime."

Young said the partnership is just an extension of the bond the pair formed in two years of working together at the courthouse.

"We complement each over very well," she said. "Elizabeth is all about the big picture, whereas, I focus on the small details. A lot of times, I'll take something apart two or three times because I want to get it perfect, in part because I just don't want to hear about it from Elizabeth. We just love sewing. It fills our cups."

Smith and Young have made a number of vestments for the clergy at St. Peter's, where they are parishioners, as well as vestments for a non-denominational minister in New York. After Easter, they will work on vestments ordered by ministers and priests of several denominations in Canada, Florida and Greenville.

Father Tebalt of St. Peter's said the garments Smith and Young have made for him -- including those he will wear today -- hearken back to a time when people took pride in quality goods.

"With the advent of the industrial age and mass production, the skills of vestment-making began to fade as more and more was turned over to factory production," he said. "Nowadays, most things are simply ordered through catalogs. What Elizabeth and Janice are doing is a labor of love for God, for their church and for the St. Peter's community."

Smith said she and Young observe many of the suggestions found in vestment-making books, including one that insists on prayer before working on the garments.

"If you're prayerful when you do it and you don't do it for human beings, but instead for the God of your own understanding, then you don't get as frustrated," Smith said. "The process is what's so satisfying. It's a form of prayer."

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