Ancestor Altar Cloth

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Make an Ancestor Altar Cloth

Make an ancestor altar cloth to honor your family tree. Image by Patti Wigington 2013

An ancestor altar cloth is something you can make any time of the year, although it can come in particularly handy for Samhain, when many people choose to perform ancestor-focused rituals. This project can be as simple or as complex as you like, depending on your time constraints, creativity, and crafting skills.

You’ll need:

  • A plain white or cream-colored tablecloth, or other piece of fabric
  • Fabric pencil
  • Embroidery floss and hoop, or fabric markers
  • A genealogy of your ancestors

A few notes here, before you get started. There’s no hard and fast rule about how to do this - it’s a craft idea that is very personalized. Do what works best for you. If you’re handy with a needle and thread, you can embroider the cloth - it will definitely last longer that way. If you’re not confident about your stitching abilities, you can use fine-tipped fabric markers (keep in mind that this option may limit your ability to wash the altar cloth if it gets dirty or stained during ritual).

As to your genealogy, you can keep it simple if you like, or if you’ve never done any genealogy research. You’ll need the names of your parents, of their parents, their grandparents, and so on. If you want to include your children, you can do that too.

For some tips on how to get started creating a family tree, be sure to read these pointers from our Genealogy Expert, Kimberly Powell: How to Begin Tracing Your Family Tree

Kimberly also has some great interactive Family Tree Charts for beginners, that you can use to help you with name placement in this project.

The ancestor altar cloth in the photos contains eight generations going in four different genealogical directions - it’s a lot of people, spread out over a full-sized tablecloth. If you’re keeping yours small, you may not need as much room - or you can choose to make the text larger.

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How to Make an Ancestor Altar Cloth

You can honor your ancestors in the creation of an altar cloth, as well as in ritual. Image by Patti Wigington 2013

Start by putting yourself in the center, and writing your name carefully with a lightweight fabric pencil - these wash or brush off easily when you’re done. Branch out, including your parents’ names above you, one on each side. Using lines to connect everyone, gradually add the names of your ancestors. You can even include dates of birth and death, or place names if you have the room.

It’s best to do all of this in pencil first - or better yet, use Post-It Notes, one for each ancestor’s name - to position people around the cloth. If you know the names of lots of ancestors on one side, but only a few on the other, it can start looking lopsided pretty quickly, unless you’re able to rearrange people (this is why sticky notes are great).

Once you’ve figured out everyone’s placement, add the names in fabric pencil until you’ve included as many people as you like. If you’re going to embroider the names, work from one side to the other, just to keep things simple - you may even want to do different branches of the family, or different generations, in alternating colors. If you opt to use fabric markers for the final work, be careful! Stitches can always be picked out, but markers are permanent.

Keep in mind that the very act of creation can be a magical one, and you can utilize the crafting of this altar cloth as a ritual in and of itself. Particularly if you're stitching, there's a very meditative aspect to the creative process.

After you’ve put everyone’s names on the fabric, use it as an altar cloth for rituals involving ancestor work.

For more on ancestor worship, be sure to read:

  • Make an Ancestor Shrine: If you've got the room, it's nice to use an entire table for your ancestor shrine, but if space is an issue, you can create it in a corner of your dresser top, on a shelf, or on the mantle over your fireplace.
  • Ancestor Meditation: Many modern Pagans find different ways to pay homage to our ancestors - both our blood kin, and ancestors of the heart and spirit. Some people choose Samhain as a time to honor their ancestors, but you can perform this meditative exercise any time you feel a need for connection with those who have walked before you.
  • Ritual Honoring the Ancestors: Although ancestor worship has traditionally been found more in Africa and Asia, many Pagans with European heritage are beginning to feel the call of their ancestry. This ancestor ritual focuses on the strength of family ties, both blood and spiritual.
  • Ancestor Ritual for Families with Children: If you’re raising kids in a Pagan tradition, it can sometimes be hard to find rituals and ceremonies that are both age appropriate and celebrate the aspects of the particular Sabbat. This ritual is designed to celebrate Samhain with younger kids.
  • Honoring the Ancestors When You're Adopted: A reader wants to know how to celebrate her ancestors when she's not even sure who they are.