The Education of an Ecclesiastical Tailor

February 17, 2008 Length: 16:38

Kh. Krista walks us through her journey and experiences that brought her to the world of ecclesiastical tailoring.





Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. In this podcast, I would like to give you some background into my education and training as an ecclesiastical tailor.

Learning to make Orthodox vestments is a very traditional craft and still employs the historical model of an apprentice craftsman studying under a master craftsman for a fairly lengthy time to learn the tradition properly. I began my apprenticeship as a tailor over fourteen years ago, but even before that, I was very interested in textiles, particularly in historical textiles. I started tinkering around with sewing and various handcrafts when I was a young child. When I was eight, I was given an old home sewing machine and I was on my way. During the majority of my childhood, my parents owned a remote cabin near Mt. St. Helens and here we spent many weekends, summers, and the occasional holiday. Our nearest neighbor was over a mile away and our cabin had no TV reception and only a propane generator, so consequently, I had a lot of time on my hands. While I spent some of the time building forts and playing in our creek like most children who have an entire forest at their disposal would do, I also spent a lot of time tinkering around with hand-sewing, crochet, embroidery and the like. Because I had so much time on my hands, no project seemed too involved, and I learned early on to appreciate the unique joy of real, time-consuming hand-work. 

By the time I was in high school, my love for textiles was beginning to grow and by my early twenties, it had broadened and deepened and I had began to study more about all sorts of handwork. I read about Amish quilting and admired both its technical mastery and exquisite color combinations, Jacobean embroidery, Deerfield embroidery (a lovely type of embroidery based on early American motifs which in their turn dated back to ancient designs originating in India), Opus Anglicanum work (very rich, liturgical metal-thread embroidery work produced within the English Church around the 13th-14th centuries), Asian silk embroidery, Norwegian Hardanger pulled-thread work, and many others. I took knitting classes and hand-quilting classes and metal-thread embroidery classes. I hand-quilted an entire quilt, made most of my clothing, and definitely gravitated towards “big” projects—the ones that took months or, in a couple of cases, even years to complete. I was intrigued by the technical mastery of embroideress’ and seamstresses of previous generations and spent time trying to learn some of these complex skills, often having to hunt through the library to find old instruction pamphlets or books.

It was during this period that my husband and I joined the Episcopal Church. After one of the priests complained about the state of some of the vestments in the sacristy, I began doing small sewing repairs to the church’s vestments. After a few small projects, I did some more complicated projects for a local Roman Catholic church, one of which was working on a 17th-century chasuble covered in silk embroidery. While I was fascinated by the very old vestments and their richness and complexity, the newer, more modern vestments with their strange colors and discordant motifs left me cold. I dreamed of being a vestment maker, but didn’t want to sew gold lame sunbursts onto bright kelly green altar cloths!  I also found the modern approach of treating the ecclesiastical seamstress as some kind of self-absorbed artist quite off-putting. I didn’t dream of being an artist, but rather an artisan or craftsman in the historical sense of the word. I didn’t want to be producing the new and shocking, but rather the old and revered. I wanted to make vestments beautiful enough to stand on their own, not pieces in which I had to explain what my influences or emotions were while I was “creating” the work.  The death-knell in my non-career as an Episcopalian artist who makes vestments came during one of my metal-thread embroidery classes in which the “artist” teaching the class encouraged us to prick our fingers and mark the inside of the vestments with our blood. I went home and fumed for days over the shocking irreverence of this and decided to just keep working on my personal projects and give up vestments since there was really no place for me in that world.

During these years, a dear friend introduced me to William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and socialist, but more importantly to me, the producer and champion of natural dyes and founder of the Arts and Crafts movement. Most people have heard of a “Morris” chair, one of the most famous pieces of furniture of the Arts and Crafts movement of the 1860s through the 1920s, but Morris also produced some of the most exquisite textiles of the modern age. He revered the poetry and craft of the Medieval Age and recreated large embroidered tapestries, and various textiles for use within the home. Because of his socialist beliefs, he argued for beauty being available to the average working-class man and his most famous quote is “Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” He was a perfectionist and a consummate craftsman and would not sacrifice his own artistic ideals. To say I was besotted with William Morris at the time is an understatement—I was completely enchanted and obsessed! I read about him, studied his tapestries, and learned the names of his textile designs. Here was the beauty, complexity, richness, and skill of which I longed to partake. William Morris trained my eyes and taught me that it was possible, if not easy, to be committed to a historical textile tradition.

Shortly after this period, my husband and I converted to Orthodox Christianity. I remember my first sight of Orthodox vestments to this day. The priest was wearing a set made of lovely Roumanian cross-stitch design in white and red and I was completely taken with the lines of the vestments and the freshness and frankness of the colors. They weren’t abbreviated fiddle-back chasubles, but real, draping, flowing garments that looked historical and beautiful. There wasn’t a bit of gold lame in sight and boy, was I glad! After a year in our home parish, my husband and I continued on to seminary. Seeing Orthodox vestments reawakened my dream of sewing them, but I didn’t want to just sew a set or two, I wanted to understand vestments on a stitch-by-stitch level. I wanted to know what made them tick, so to speak, but I thought it would probably never happen, since I couldn’t find any books on the subject and I didn’t even know where to purchase supplies for this kind of work. I contented myself with analysing every set of vestments I saw and since we were at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, there was much to see since many clergy brought back their vestments from Greece. In faith, I purchased some silk cloth and had silk embroidery floss naturally-dyed by a company that supplied museums and I began hand-embroidering the fabric for my husband’s ordination vestments. I hoped and prayed that by the time I finished embroidering the silk, I would find out a way to sew the vestments. It took two years and several hundred hours to finish the embroidery, but by the end of the work, I had my prayer answered.

During the second year of my husband’s seminary education, and through an unusual chain of events, I suddenly had an opportunity to study with a master vestment maker. It meant commuting between Boston and Connecticut every few weeks and quiting my day job, both of which were quite terrifying, but I knew I needed to seize this opportunity. I packed up my sewing machine and headed off to my first training session. During those first training sessions, I worked 14-16 hour days, beginning by learning how to sew altar servers sticharia and progressing through deacon’s vestments, then anterria and exorassa, and eventually priest’s and bishop’s vestments. I would be shown how to sew each stpe of the garment, take copious notes, and then have to recreate the same steps. Anything that wasn’t perfect, had to be taken out and redone. I remember learning my first set of priest’s vestments and working on the epitrachelion neck lining, a rather tricky technique that I was having trouble with. After redoing the lining for the third time, I bent over my machine in tears, overwhelmed by discouragement and despair. Even though I was a fairly accomplished embroideress by this point, and had studied and mastered quite a few handwork and sewing skills, the techniques specific to vestments were like nothing I had ever seen and they were difficult to master. After each training session, I would come home and sew 30-40 hours per week and it was this time spent sewing hour after hour, day after day, that taught me the garments inside and out. For the next year and a half, I kept to this schedule, picking up a nanny job part-time to help pay the bills, which meant that most weeks I worked 60 or more hours. It was the hardest I had ever worked in my life and I simply loved it. Every set I completed, every anterri I finished, encouraged and refreshed me, and added to my skills.

Towards the end of my husband’s time in seminary, I trained in the next skill needed to produce Orthodox vestments—pattern-drafting and cutting. There are two basic skills needed to produce any garment—sewing and pattern-drafting. Sewing is like the building of a house and pattern-drafting is like the architect’s plans. For the house to turn out right, the plans must be correctly drawn. The same is true with pattern-drafting—I could be the best seamstress in the world, but if my “blueprints” or patterns are not done correctly, then nothing will save the garment. I have always really enjoyed sewing, but in pattern-drafting I found my true love! I learned how to manipulate the master patterns, called “slopers” or “masters”, to a client’s measurements to obtain a garment that fit the client correctly, and, how to cut vestments, which is a more complicated technique because of the designs in the fabrics needing to be matched in a specific way.

After my husband and I had been given our parish assignment, St. George in Portland, Oregon, I continued working with the vestment maker I had trained under for awhile, but it eventually became difficult for us to collaborate at such a great distance and, so, with her blessing, I began sewing vestments on my own. A friend who was starting a website design business asked if he could design a website for me as a guinea pig, testing out his theories about how the Web worked. I didn’t know much about the Web at the time, but I said yes since he was a good friend. Imagine my surprise when the phone began ringing from people all over America and as far away as Denmark and New Zealand who had seen the website! I started going to national conventions and clergy symposia and met many new clients. Over time, as orders increased, I began training apprentices and journeyman seamstresses to help with the sewing work so that I could devote most of my time to the cutting and fitting.

Now, I spend my days in a variety of tasks. About half of my time is spent on the cutting and fitting work and this requires a lot of concentration—since almost everything I make is custom-tailored, I have to hold a lot of measurements in my head while I’m working on a specific project. The other half of my time is spent speaking with clients, doing bookkeeping, overseeing seamstresses, reading and researching, and procuring supplies. Obtaining high-quality, beautiful supplies is one of the most challenging tasks and it takes by far the majority of my time that is not spent cutting. I import fabrics and crosses from Greece, hand-embroidery and silk brocades from India (one of the world’s oldest and most respected sources of hand-embroidery—remember the ancient Silk Road? Well, it’s still there!), and then a variety of supplies from here in the US, like poplin and buttons and canvas interfacing. It can take months and even a year or more to obtain certain supplies due to limited availability or limited production—for example, the interfacing I use for epigonatia is only produced twice a year by the mill and it can take six months to receive a bolt. Even though this can be frustrating at times, it can also be highly rewarding, especially when I find something I’ve been searching for for a long time. Recently, I found a “polystavros” silk brocade, similar to that which is seen in the icons of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great, and I was thrilled—I’d been looking for this for over five years! It’s a little bit like being Nancy Drew, girl detective, of the textile world!

Over the last few years, I have focused even more on researching the history of vestments and on increasing my pattern-drafting skills. A couple of summers ago, I took a series of classes to understand even more about this wonderful craft and was blessed to work with a wonderful instructor who has worked in the fashion industry for many years. Continuing to practice this skill is vital, since it allows me to replicate historical designs that I’ve seen in books or photos or find more efficient ways of producing a garment.

Occasionally, I find myself in a social setting or being introduced to someone, and it seems that the question, “So, what do you do?” inevitably comes up. Once I explain a little about my work, it sometimes happens that the person inquires if I get bored making the same things over and over again. My first inclination is to respond, “But, I don’t make the same things over and over!” since every set of vestments or cassock seems an entirely new project to me as I am working on it and there are so many variations of brocades and galloons and crosses not to mention the various heights and sizes of clients!  But then I remember that from their perspective, what I do seems tedious and monotonous. Even as I say this, I want to laugh, because nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, it might seem that I could get bored using the same traditional forms over and over, but actually, the opposite happens—it seems that the more I work within the craft, the deeper and richer the experience. Photios Kontoglou, who is so forceful and pointed a writer, says this about the same experience with iconographers:

“The works of Eastern iconography attained an hieratic perfection and venerable stability which can be accounted for by the faith which the painters had that their work was fearful, like the dogmas of the Church. For this reason, they worked with humility on the archetypes which had been handed down to them by earlier painters, without inopportune and inappropriate changes. To this stability, which we see in their works, contributed the fact that they painted in every church the same forms, century after century. In this way they developed forms which were more and more stable, because through elaboration they were freed from everything superfluous and inconstant.”

And in another place, he states…

“The Orthodox Church has been criticized by many light-headed and irreligious men as having been petrified and barren, preventing art from advancing. But it is such persons instead that are petrified and sterile, because they are not refreshed by the deep mystery of truth, not suspecting, in their foolish arrogance, something deeper than their own wisdom. Inconstancy and arbitrariness are taken by them for freedom. But ‘eternal life is the fatherland of freedom,’ according to St. Isaac the Syrian. What wisdom can the improviser acquire? And of what precious gift can one become worthy who does not respect one’s work as holy and dreadful? Has knowledge ever been bestowed upon a babbler? ‘A silent mouth interprets the mysteries of God, whereas the quick talker moves far from his Creator.’ Now is not the painter who improvises, and who at every moment rests his hopes on inventiveness, similar to the quick talker? O! How crooked a road man has taken whenever he has relied only on himself and not on the divine guardianship. How false have been the fruits which he has reaped from his efforts!”.

I pray that the divine guardianship will be with me and bless the work of my hands.