Ancient Faith Radio

Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. I’ve had some unique and unusual projects cross my cutting table over the last few months and I thought you might enjoy hearing about them. I know it’s difficult to envision these sorts of visually rich garments, so if you want to see photos of some of them, they can be viewed at my website.

One of the most exciting projects I’ve done recently is a recreation of a historical set of vestments which are often shown being worn by St. John Chrysostom and all the ancient hierarchs in their various icons. They are always wearing a very striking phelonion made of “polystavros” woven fabric. “Polystavros” literally means “many cross” and when you picture this geometric fabric, which almost looks like a piece of math grid paper gone wild, you can see why. In liturgical brocades, there is usually a “primary” motif, which is the main decorative design like a cross or an urn of flowers, and then a “secondary” motif, which is the decorative design that fills in the spaces not occupied by the primary motif and adds visual depth and contrast to the fabric. For example, if the primary motif is a decorative cross, then the secondary motif might be sprays of flowers arranged in a cross shape and placed in the negative space created by the decorative crosses. The really amazing thing about the polystavros fabric depicted in these icons is that the primary and secondary motifs are so interwoven that they form a fabulous geometrically-pleasing whole—it’s hard to tell where one cross ends and another begins. The background color is usually shown as white, with the crosses most commonly in either burgundy or black or red. There’s a very interesting piece of vestment history contained in this phelonion, since it shows the historical progression of bishop’s vestments. Very early in the history of the Church, both priests and bishops worn phelonia, but by the formative era of Byzantine iconography, the polystavros design was reserved for bishops phelonia where the priests most likely would have worn a phelonion made out of a less-complex design. The garment we’re most accustomed to see our bishops of today wear, the sakkos, has its origins as an imperial garment reserved for the emperor, and didn’t come into usage for bishops until a later era. In time, the sakkos displaced nearly completely the phelonion as an episcopal garment, thereby opening the door for priests to wear the polystavros fabric.

About a year ago, one of my Indian suppliers, a small family-owned firm that produces exquisite hand-embroidery, mentioned that they offered woven brocades as well. I was a little skeptical at first, since the word “brocade” is a rather multifarious term in the textile industry and can embrace everything from designs with little sprigged flowers to upholstery fabric. “Send me a photo”, I said, figuring that it wasn’t going to be anything special. Imagine my surprise when I opened my email and there was the exact, and I do mean exact, replica of the fabric used in historic icons of the hierarchs of our Church. I just couldn’t stop staring at it, amazed by it’s precision and beauty and historicity. It’s a mastery of weaving and design and also gives a rather decided nod to the Byzantines love of mathematics. So this phelonion is interesting both for it’s fabric and its historical usage.

The fabric that came to me from India is white and burgundy, just like the icons. It is also hand-loomed, as the original fabric would have been. It’s quite light, being 100% silk, which the original fabric may or may not have been, but very well could have been since the silk industry flourished in Constantinople. The polystavros design is so far removed from the types of brocades that most vestments are made from today, that I really had to do some thinking about the trimmings. I couldn’t put a regular galloon on it—it chopped up the design and made the vestments look cluttered And no standard sew-on type cross was going to work, since the whole fabric was crosses, they just looked out of place as soon as I laid them on the fabric. I finally settled on a type of cross that is made from weaving galloon into a cross shape and then stitching it to the vestment piece. This type of cross has an almost Celtic knot-work look to it, which underscores the geometry of the polystavros design.

For this set to be completely historically accurate, only the phelonion was to be made from the polystavros silk, since that’s what our iconography depicts. The smaller pieces like the zone, cuffs, and epitrachelion needed to be a dark burgundy fabric to be a true replica. I chose 100% cotton burgundy velveteen, both for its richness of color and durability.

The galloon was the most challenging factor, since galloon is absolutely necessary for the proper finishing of vestments, but every galloon I tried didn’t work. I was discussing the set with the client and he had the brilliant idea of using very narrow galloon, just 1/2” wide. This gave the desired border effect, but didn’t overwhelm or upstage the polystavros.

Another set I worked on recently, was what I call a “inset velvet Athonite set”. Some refer to this high, conically-shaped phelonion as a “high-back” phelonion. This style is very fascinating in its own right, partly because of the debate of its origins. Some say it originated in Russia, the reason most commonly given is that the heavy brocades and high back kept the priests warm in the freezing winters; others say it originated on Mt. Athos. Now, admittedly, I am a bit of a Byzantophile, but I do have to agree with the crowd cheering for Mt. Athos, and it’s really not just because I love all things Byzantine. My reasoning for the Athonite origin is based upon my tailor’s instincts—argue with me on this point only after you’ve made over 500 sets of vestments with your own hands—on Mt. Athos, men would have been making vestments and they would have needed a phelonion that fit many different priests serving in a monastery. Now, a Greek-style or “low-back” phelonion is a rather tricky garment, requiring an exact fit in the neck and shoulder area, meaning it only fits those priests who have the size neck and shoulders it was tailored for, but more importantly, it requires darting, a sewing technique in which a triangle of fabric is cut out and the two sides of the triangle are sewn together. This creates shape and allows a tailor to take a large, bulky piece of fabric and turn it into a finely-shaped, 3-dimensional garment. It’s fairly sophisticated and requires technical training to master both the pattern-drafting and sewing of darts.

But in the sketes of Mt. Athos, you would have had men sewing who didn’t necessarily have training as a tailor and another very simple, practical way to take a large piece of fabric and fit it to the human body is to wrap it like an upside-down ice-cream cone around the neck area. If you can envision trimming off the tip of the ice-cream cone, you have the idea of a high-back phelonion. Voila! Not only is it lots easier to tailor than a garment requiring darting, it fits just about everybody since the upside-down cone shape fits to any size width of shoulders and any size neck. Men tend to do very well at spatial thinking and this is one of the granddaddy of spatial thinking projects. That might sound like a facetious explanation, but time and again in garment history (often referred to as costume history, which has nothing to do with Halloween or high school musicals), I am struck by how often a garment changes shape or takes on a particular shape based on sheer practical need. Decoration then almost always follows, but you have to have a basic model to start with and the shape of the Athonite phelonion is an excellent basic model.

One of the great things about the Athonite phelonion is how it lends itself to elaborate decoration and adornment. Because there’s no big triangle of a dart needing to be removed from the fabric, you have a wide open space to fill with beautiful embroidery, velvet paneling, elaborate embroidered icons, etc. I just look at that phelonion and go, “Woo hoo!” So, when a client asked if I could do this style, I couldn’t order the velvet fast enough. The set of vestments is made out of the Canterbury brocade, an exquisitely beautiful French metallic brocade that is pure “Athonite” style with it’s huge motif repeat—each urn of flowers is about 24” high—so big that there’s only 3 of them across a 56-inch span of the fabric. The brocade is predominantly red, but also has shades of gold, burgundy, and pink, giving it a very dynamic effect. I chose a burgundy velveteen, for the inset panel on the back of the phelonion and then took some of the same velveteen and had a firm of skilled embroiderers in India hand-embroider crosses on it that are similar to an antique 18th-century cross found in the collection of the Iveron monastery on Mt. Athos. The cross is very elaborate with a miniature icon of the Resurrection stitched in the middle. The “arms” of the cross are highly embellished with delicate channels of metal thread embroidery and tiny pearls. I used a gold galloon with a faint burgundy accent, because I wanted it to complement the brocade and velvet, not upstage it.

Because I was doing this set in the classic Athonite style, which is usually very elaborate and includes rich, floral brocades, I made the epitrachelion in a “one-piece” style. Most of us are used to seeing the two-piece style of epitrachelion, which looks like two long strips of fabric sewn together with buttons. But the one-piece style is a single band of fabric, about 13 inches wide with no buttons. There are usually three crosses sewn down the middle. Again, I believe practicality, or at least a monastic tailor with a very good eye, comes into play here: the types of large, floral brocades used in Athonite vestments from the Venetian period onward would be lost in the two-piece style since in the two-piece style, each strip of fabric is only about 6 inches wide—you’d get a flower petal at best with some of these fabrics! So, to show off the fabric to best advantage, the epitrachelion was made in one wide band of fabric, rather than two small strips. It also finds within the epitrachelion an echo of the fundamental monastic garment—the great schema and therefore, was probably familiar and pleasing to monastic eyes. For the rest of this set, I had tiny versions embroidered of the elaborate cross used on the back of the phelonion and these were sewn to the zone and cuffs. The epigonation is adorned with the same cross used on the back of the phelonion.

Another project that is equally interesting, yet quite different from these two I’ve just explained, is the Orthodox Chaplain Field Vestment Kit. About two years ago, I was approached by an Orthodox priest serving as a chaplain in the US Military. He explained that the priests serving in the military, particularly those serving in the field, had very unique vestment needs. Liturgical brocades were far too delicate for a combat zone, most phelonia didn’t fit over body armour, and priests could only travel with one set of vestments, which meant that they couldn’t change colors for various seasons like Lent or Pascha. They wanted something traditional, but nothing “traditional” seemed to fit the bill. After many weeks, many sketches, and many prototypes, we finally settled on a phelonion made extra-large in the neck area to fit over a helmet and body armour and made all of the pieces fully-reversible with white and gold on one side and purple and gold on the other. I chose a very lightweight, yet durable polyester fabric so that the vestments would stand up to dust and dirt and be easy to clean in rather harsh conditions. I was told stories of Liturgies being served on the end of truck beds in the field, so I made a cover for the set that when unfolded, acts as a protective layer. Military-issue chalices are quite small so that they can be packed easily, so I made miniature chalice veils. This set was one of the most challenging from a technical point of view due to the need for it to be reversible and fit over body armour, but here again, I found the more historical styles of vestments to be perfectly practical in this ultra-modern setting—a one-piece epitrachelion, like that used in Athonite vestments, turned out to be the best way to make a reversible epitrachelion and the variety of necklines used throughout the history of the Church allowed me to make a neckline that was both traditional and fit over the helmet. Certainly not a project I would have ever dreamt up myself, but a wonderful challenge!

These three sets were definitely some of the most interesting sets that I have worked on recently. Some of my other “irons in the fire” include a new “performance” anterri (OK, I’m pausing for the inevitable laughter, since this term seems to crack everyone up). I live in Portland, Oregon and it’s the home of sportswear giants, Nike and Columbia. Well, what does Nike do if they’ve got 10,000 yards of something left over after production testing? They sell it to this company in Portland that has a warehouse the size of a football field with 30-foot ceilings. This place is fascinating and whenever I’m headed over there, it’s one errand I don’t have to convince my daughters to ride along. They have everything from scuba suit neoprene to the latest Nike high-tech fabrics and it’s really fun. About a year ago, I started noticing how many of my clients were going on pilgrimage. Of course, I began worrying about their cassocks and how they were going to hold up to the demands of travel. I was speaking of it to my husband and he jokingly remarked that he’d love a cassock made of the same fabric of his favorite hiking pants. That got me thinking of high-tech fabrics and I realized that some of them would work very well for a hard-wearing, ultra-durable type of cassock. To further test the cassock, I made one up for a priest who works in construction and gave it to him with the express intention of him trying to wear it out. I called him a few months later to check progress and he recounted stapling it to a deck he was working on and how it hadn’t even torn. Great, I thought, just what I’m looking for! A few months later, my husband was chatting with the same priest and inquired how the garment was holding up. “Oh,” the priest said, “Well, I caught it in the chainsaw last week.” My husband remarked that he was sure I could make him up another and he replied, “Oh no, it’s still fine—believe it or not, there’s just a tear where the chainsaw got it, but otherwise, it’s still fine.” Wow, I thought— stapling guns and chainsaws—this baby can take it all!

In conclusion, another project that is close to my heart is the hand-embroidered epitaphios. When I was in Greece a few years ago, I was stunned and humbled by the amazing technical skill and beauty in the fully-embroidered epitaphoi I saw in the museums of even very small monasteries. Prior to seeing this type of fully-embroidered liturgical burial shroud of Christ, in America I had only seen the type in which the figures are painted on canvas or printed on paper and there is a minimum embroidery. While I certainly understood the need for an affordable epitaphios, I just couldn’t get these elaborate versions out of my mind, so when my favorite family firm in India sent another email (it’s like Christmas around here when I get one of their emails!), I just knew I had to find a way to get these beautiful pieces into churches in the US. I worked with an American iconographer and then the embroiderers to have the text rendered in an iconographic style, but with English characters so that there could be an epitaphios just as beautiful as anything found in Greece, but in a language more familiar to many Orthodox Christians here in the US. And, in my mind, of even greater importance, was the preservation of one of our rarest forms of iconography. We have a long and rich tradition of hand-embroidered iconography in the Orthodox Church, which finds its highest expression in the epitaphios. In my mind, it’s high time that many parishes in America retire the paper and machine-stitched epitaphoi of their mission days and place upon the center stage of Holy Week a magnificent testament to the artistry and skill long treasured by the Church.

All of these projects that I’ve mentioned have their beginnings in the earliest days of the Church. They are part of a continuum of worship that links our post-post-modern 21st-century experience with that of the earliest Christians. And it’s that connection that everyday gives me such great satisfaction in my work.