A century old craft is adding a splash of colour to churches across East Anglia

Instead of admiring the vaulted ceiling next time you visit church, why not take a closer look at something closer to the ground.Church kneelers, for centuries used in prayer and confession, are sometimes overlooked but they are always unique.

Sitting undisturbed on pews or altar steps, these practical works of art are decorative as well as divine.

For the past 10 years husband and wife Laurence and Ruth Clarke have been spreading the word in Southwold on the Suffolk coast, but now they are calling for volunteers across Norfolk and Suffolk to help create national register of original church kneelers.

People with a passion for craft, an interest in photography or a love of their local church are ideal for the job. All they need to do is take a photographic record of the kneelers in their parish church.

There is already a catalogue of more than 4,000 kneelers online at www.parishkneelers.co.uk but with 450 churches in Suffolk alone - and no record of kneelers in Norfolk at all - Mr and Mrs Clarke need all the help they can get.

'We started making kneelers in about 1997 as part of a Millennium project,' said Mr Clarke, who has attended St Edmund's Church in Southwold since moving to the area almost 20 years ago.

'Local societies and organisations were all involved, making kneelers with their own designs. We had a principal that nothing would be turned away so we did have some rather funny things turn up.'

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Today there are more than 100 kneelers inside St Edmund's, Southwold's picturesque 15th century parish church.

They record the history of the parish over centuries and remember members of the congregation who have recently died. Many include images of local activities and occupations, of charities supported, of wildlife, of notable local views, or of architectural details from their church. There are designs representing Southwold's harbour, lighthouse and pier, kneelers handmade by local Brownies and Guides, and a whole row especially commissioned by Southwold Town Council.

'When we first came here we thought it was a lovely church, what a shame about these dull kneelers,' said Mrs Clarke.

'They were horrid plastic things.

'We started with basic designs, but different societies would add their own logos or symbols. We were adamant we didn't want to spend all our time fund-raising so each kneeler was sponsored by either organisations or by individuals in memory of someone.'

'The millions of individual stitches contributed by congregations up and down the country have produced a literally monumental snapshot of parish and community life at the time,' added Mr Clarke.

The couple did not stop with St Edmund's and, as well making brand new altar kneelers for the Lady Chapel last year, have been touring Suffolk, recording parish kneelers.

They have so far contributed more than 600 images to the website, which was founded by Elizabeth Bingham, widow of the former Senior Law Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill.

'In thousands of churches across the country, virtually unnoticed and scarcely recorded, a vigorous movement of folk art has been taking place for decades,' said Mrs Bingham.

'Church kneelers, designed and made by local people, make up a vast library of information about the interests of innumerable parishes.'

An avid creator of kneelers for her parish church in Boughrood, near Brecon, Mrs Bingham initially created the website to encourage congregations to design their own kneelers, giving detailed descriptions of how to design and make kneelers together with lists of suppliers.

She soon realised that the best stimulus to imagination was to see what similar parishes had achieved. Inspired by A Picture Book for Kneeler Makers, compiled by the V&A museum and published in 1984, she began writing round to rectors and vicars to engage their help. This is how she met Mr and Mrs Clarke and the process of recording kneelers took off.

• To find out more about the project or volunteering in your area visit www.parishkneelers.co.uk and go to the Contact Us page.

• PICTURE GALLERY - see the top right corner of this page for a gallery of kneeler photos