How Vestments Are Made
Kh. Krista West · March 1, 2008
In this podcast, Kh. Krista explains step-by-step how vestments are made, from the very first phone call to the finished garments.
Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. In this podcast, I would like to explain how vestments are made, from the initial client inquiry to the final garments.
A typical set of vestments begins with a phone call. A priest, deacon, or parishioner will call and inquire about vestments. The first phone conversation is very important and we discuss various details. First, I determine who the vestments are for—priest or deacon. Then, I find out to which jurisdiction the client belongs in order to determine the correct style of garments. For example, deacons in the Russian liturgical tradition wear a shorter orarion than those in the Greek tradition, so it’s important I know jurisdiction from the beginning. If the order is for priests vestments, then I’ll find out if they are interested in standard brocade vestments or lightweight, embroidered vestments. Standard brocade vestments are made from fabrics that are 44” to 56” wide and have to be pieced to create the large, flowing phelonion, and there must be a lining to protect the raw edges of the seams. These kind of brocades are made of various fibers—some are rayon brocades, some are synthetic-metallic brocades (I rarely use these as I don’t like their “tinny” appearance), some are real metal brocades, meaning that there are metal threads woven into the brocade, and quite new for me, are true silk brocades which I import from cities that are located on the ancient Silk Road.
Lightweight, embroidered vestments are made from specialty 3-metre wide fabric that is first produced in Italy and then custom-embroidered on special machines in Greece with various liturgical symbols and designs like grapevines and crosses, urns or flowers, pelicans, peacocks, etc.. This kind of fabric is very light and also wide enough, that the phelonion does not have to be seamed and therefore needs no lining, causing the entire set of vestments to weigh about half of a typical brocade set of vestments. If the client lives in a warm climate or is concerned with the weight of standard brocades, then he often chooses lightweight vestments. It is interesting to note that in Greece, these vestments are simply called “summer” vestments.
After we’ve determined what basic style of vestments, we move onto designs and colors. While for the client this can be the most difficult part of the process (what design to choose? what color is going to look best? What will it look like once it’s made up?), for me, this is the really fun part. I have to listen carefully to what the client says in order to discover his likes and dislikes. Sometimes, a client is very clear about what he wants—he saw a photo or someone else’s vestments and wants the exact set; but most of the time, I determine which color he is interested in and I start sending swatches. I say “start” sending swatches, because it’s not uncommon for me to send more than one swatch packet since it can take a second or third group of swatches to discover that “just right” brocade. I have a library of swatches, each of them a full-page size since most brocades have large designs and need to be seen in as large a swatch as possible, and each of them accompanied with the galloon choices I think are best. For each packet, I choose 6-10 brocades, depending on how many brocades are available within the confines of the color and the style that the finished vestments need to be. I encourage the client to set up the swatches from a distance and look at them, because brocades are meant to be viewed at a distance and a fabric that looks too strident or bold close-up can often look regal or majestic from a distance. I also suggest that the client takes the swatches into the church and view them under church lighting, since church lighting is usually dimmer and more gold-toned than regular household lighting and this can make all the difference in a brocade.
Once the client reviews the swatches, he will often call me and we’ll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the various brocades. One brocade might be a real metal brocade, which has the disadvantage of being quite expensive, but the advantage of lasting decades. One brocade might have the design he really likes, but not quite the colors the way he wants them. A funny thing happens more times than I can count: the priest will see a really exquisite, elaborate brocade and he hesitantly asks me if it’s “OK?” to use this design—“Isn’t it a little too much?” is the frequent question. On this, I am completely opinionated as I have yet to see the high-quality liturgical brocade that is “too much”. As I’ve mentioned in other podcasts, our vestments are not here to symbolize the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, but to manifest the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, and in such an understanding, they should be truly glorious. You can certainly have vestments that are too ugly, but you can never have vestments that are too beautiful! I find this situation very encouraging on the whole as I think that these priests are drawn to the truly heavenly and glorious, but it can take a little effort to overcome the “puritanical”, “matter is evil” assumptions that seem to abound in the US and influence us without us even being aware of them.
Once we’ve chosen the brocade, we finalize the galloon (or trim) choice. While there are many galloons available, they all have a slightly different tone of gold and I’m pretty picky about how the galloon matches the brocade. I don’t just want a good tone match, although that is very important; I also look for a good design match—sometimes a very simple, neutral galloon shows off an elaborate floral brocade to best advantage and other times a rather complicated brocade needs a complicated galloon to match. To do this, I lay everything out on my worktable and look at it from various angles. Sometimes, if I cannot come to a decision right away, I leave it on my worktable at night so its the first thing I see in the morning. When I walk into the room, I know right away whether its a good match or not. The same is even more true with the crosses. Again, I want a tone match and a design match and this can be very challenging. I began importing hand-embroidered crosses and icons from India (an ancient and revered center of hand-embroidery, especially the metal-thread embroidery employed in liturgical crosses) so that I would have more choices. If the brocade is very early Byzantine, usually something with rondels or circles—this design motif dates back to the Sassanid Persian influence on Byzantium around the 6th century—then I’m going to want a cross that isn’t too complex in its shape or stitches. If the brocade is a highly elaborate floral, harking back to the late-Byzantine period with its strong Venetian influence, then I want to pull out all the stops and use a really ornate cross.
As you can tell by now, one of the most time-consuming steps in making vestments is just choosing the fabrics and trimmings! But once we’ve done this, we’re on our way. After the brocade and galloon and crosses are chosen, the various supplies are ordered and this is when we play the waiting game. The soonest most orders can reach me is 5 business days and the longest is about 6 months for custom-embroidered items, which any way you look at it, is definitely slow by American “have it all now”, “Express”, “Overnight Delivery” standards! This is the part of my work where I really see the clash of Western verses Eastern ways of living. In general terms, here in the Western world we are quite obsessed with everything happening now, something that I once read referred to as “the tyranny of urgency” whereas in the “Eastern” worlds that I deal with, like Greece and India, everything happens much slower. I routinely wait 3-6 months for shipments of fairly standard items and in Greece, business people only check their email once in awhile if they even have email—it’s not uncommon to wait 10 days or more just to get a response to an inquiry! I find straddling these two worlds difficult, especially when a client wants something immediately. I can find some really amazing textiles in other countries, but I have to play by their “time” rules. When someone tells me to take my time with their order, I shout for joy—it’s as if they’ve given me one of the best gifts possible because it allows me the freedom to find the very best items I can.
Depending on when the supplies will arrive, the order goes onto my schedule, which is usually planned out about 2-3 months in advance to make sure that I meet any ordination or seasonal deadlines, like Lent or Christmas. During this time, the client sends me his measurements, which I look over for any discrepancies.
After a period of weeks to months, most of the supplies have arrived and the order is now slated to be cut. To begin the cutting process, I pull the clients file with his measurements and then coordinate the measurements to my master patterns, called “slopers”. I pull the basic group of slopers that I will use from my sloper library and then fine-tune where adjustments like height and girth need to occur. I use a method of cutting called “direct draft”, which means that I start with one basic master pattern, lay it out on the brocade, and then mark off all of the adjustments directly onto the fabric. Well, you say, that doesn’t sound too hard….but, here’s the rub—vestments are cut roomy and full, taking up more than the width of the cloth and there are both horizontal and vertical seams that have to appear invisible once the garment is completed—it’s the proverbial matching of plaids that daunts so many seamstresses. So, once I’ve determined the client’s body measurements, I then have to plan for the fabric’s design in both vertical and horizontal planes, arranging the sloper in a specific way to accomplish this. This is the part that requires the most concentration and my father’s favorite saying always comes to mind “Measure twice, cut once”. He’s been a aircraft machinist for 45 years, so he knows a thing or two about precision! My workroom is in my home and I have two young daughters, who can sometimes forget that Mama needs concentration when she’s working, so it’s not uncommon to hear me say loudly “19-3/4!” or “21-1/2!” which is code in our house for “hold on a second” since I usually can’t even speak to someone when I’m cutting for fear of losing my place or making a mistake. I frequently have clients ask me if I was sick or on vacation when they can’t get ahold of me for a day or two, but the fact of the matter is, that I can’t pick up the phone when I’m cutting for fear of breaking my concentration and cutting one order can take anywhere from 2 to 8 hours. Since I spend over half of my working time cutting, it means I’m not always able to dive for the phone! Cutting is my favorite part of vestment making and it never becomes rote. I still check and double-check all of my seams, since a cutting error can be quite costly with brocades ranging in price from $40 to $195/yard or worse yet, taking 3 months to be produced. If you’ve ever seen the detective series “Monk” which features a police detective afflicted with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, then you’ve got a good idea of a vestment maker at work!
For the set of vestments, either priests or deacons, there are three sets of cuttings that I make—the first is the interfacings, the second the brocade itself, and the third the linings. I use marine canvas as the interfacing in all of the small pieces like cuffs, zones, epitrachelia, and oraria since it is extremely durable, historical (think about the early Church having lots of sail and tent makers and you get the idea), and provides an excellent foundation for the vestments. The linings all need to be cut larger than the actual brocades, so I like to cut them last to make sure I cut them large enough. For a single set of priests vestments, I usually cut upwards of 30 pieces total and I put these along with all of the other supplies like galloon, crosses, cording, buttons, hooks and eyes, fringe, name labels, dry clean only labels, and ribbons into a tote to keep everything together.
My highly-skilled seamstresses now sew the garments, using a host of techniques specific to vestments and following my strict instructions. First, working with brocades and linings can be challenging, because they are more slippery and stretchy than cottons or wools and you learn to be careful of them sliding off your sewing machine. For the pieces that have canvas interfacings, the canvas is padstitched, which means sewn around and around and around at ¼ to ½-inch intervals to create a non-shifting, padded base on which the brocade is mounted and positioned. Cuffs rings are sewn on by hand for extra strength. The cuffs, zone, and epigonation are all cut with a motif in the center and this motif must be carefully positioned so that it is balanced and centered when the piece is completed. Once the brocade is positioned on the canvas, galloon is sewn around the inside, forming miters at any corners. The piece is pressed multiple times between seams to help set the brocade and the galloon. Galloon is like working with a very soft metal and definitely has a life of its own and because of this, there are a variety of techniques used to produce consistent results. The lining is then wrapped around the back of the canvas and secured by stitching the outer edge of the galloon. This “wrap-around” lining technique can be a little fussy to execute, but it is very important since the linings will wear out long before the canvas or brocade and when they need to be replaced, there is just one line of stitching to be removed.
The priest’s sticharion is usually made of white poly-cotton or satin and it is essentially a large, cross-shaped piece of fabric that has sleeve extensions sewn on and is then folded in half. Working the galloon neck placket is another technique specific to vestments and probably the most challenging. Galloon, which again, is somewhat stiff on its own, must be pressed and manipulated into a circular shape and the lining tucked underneath it. On top of that, if there is a motif in the galloon like a cross or a flower, it needs to be mirrored when it is side-by-side; that is, when two lines of galloon sit next to each other, the cross on one side needs to have a cross positioned exactly opposite from it on the other side. The sides of the priest’s sticharion are “French” seamed, which means that the seam is sewn wrong sides together, the entire seam length is trimmed to reduce bulk, and then the seam is turned and pressed again, and stitched, thereby enclosing any raw edges. This sort of finishing technique is important for a garment that with proper care will have a life of 15-50 years. Galloon is sewn in double bands around the base of the sticharion and cords to the ends of the sleeves. Name labels and care labels are sewn into the neck area and the button is sewn on by hand.
The phelonion is definitely the piece de resistance in the priest’s vestments set and technically, the most challenging. Not only is it just really big and a lot of fabric, the side seams and the center front seam must be motif-matched, which means that once the seam is sewn and pressed open, the fabric design should appear unchanged and the seam invisible. My requirement for this kind of seam is that the design match to within 1/16”, any more than this and it will be too far off, and “catch the eye” when worn. Once this is done, the galloon neck placket is sewn, the cross affixed with very small stitches, and the lining slipped up into the phelonion. The lining is tricky and has to be aligned perfectly for it to fall without creating “bubbles” along the back of the phelonion. Once again, the lining is stitched under the galloon, making eventual re-lining a snap.
For the epitrachelion, the techniques used are much the same—a canvas interfacing used as a foundation to which brocade, galloon and crosses are sewn, but the neck is quite a bit more complicated since the epitrachelion is made in two separate pieces until almost the end and then all three layers—canvas, brocade, and lining—are joined in separate seams at the neck. The deacon’s orarion is made in a similar fashion, minus the complicated neck since it’s a single band of fabric, but it does seem to go on and on and on. A Greek-style orarion is usually 15-17 feet long, which means over 60 feet of sewing.
The deacon’s sticharion employs some of the elements of the priest’s sticharion—it is also a cross-shape if laid out flat and uses a galloon neck placket, but since it is lined, it has some extra steps. The “face” or brocade sticharion is made first, complete with cross, galloon neck placket, and galloon around the entire perimeter and at the decorative bands at the sleeve and hem (there’s 17 yards or more of galloon in a deacon’s sticharion—that’s 51 feet!). Then, the lining is placed on a large table and the brocade is matched up over it. The lining is sewn with the same “wraparound” technique, but this is quite a process—there’s over 39 feet of sewing around the perimeter.
I’ve done all kinds of sewing work and the thing that is so interesting about vestments is that you really can’t let your guard down for a minute. With many kinds of sewing—clothing or curtains or home décor sewing—getting within an 1/8” or 1/4” is usually just fine. But with vestments, it is imperative that you pay careful attention to each step in order that the finished piece comes out correctly. Even being off by 1/8” can create problems down the line. The only part of vestment sewing that is “brainless” is the padstitching of the canvas and I have yet to meet the seamstress that doesn’t welcome the blessed bliss of just going around and around in circles with her sewing machine as a bit of relief from the vigilance required by all of the other pieces! In addition to the concentration needed, there’s the fear of working on such expensive materials. Now, you may think fear too strong a word, but it can be very intimidating to sew on fabric that costs $200/yard. It took several years before I could start cutting without getting the butterflies in my stomach for fear I would make a mistake!
Once all of the pieces are sewn, pressed, and folded in the traditional manner (yes, there’s even a special way to fold all of these garments!), they are wrapped in a protective cover, boxed up, and shipped to the client. From start to finish, a standard order takes about 8-12 weeks, over 30 yards of galloon, 5 yards of brocade, 9 crosses, scores of small notions, and over 300 feet of sewing. And this is just the beginning—the set of vestments will be used in the Liturgy for anywhere from 15-100 years, sometimes even outliving the priest for whom it was originally made.