Eva Palmer Sikelianos and Her Loom: Weaving the Ancient Greek Dress

Eva’s loom. (Picture from the Museum of Delphic Festivals.)

The newspapers mocked that she was the only ancient Greek in modern Athens. The locals would stare at her classicized dress. Her handwoven tunic and leather sandals clashed with the Parisian dress style of the Athenian women. In 1906, American-born Eva Palmer turned her back to conventional western dress for the liberated, simple, straight-lined tunics inspired by Greek art. She left her native New York to move to Greece, where she married the poet, Angelos Sikelianos. There, she dedicated her life (and her inheritance) to reviving the Greek handicrafts and the Delphic Festivals.

The influence of Greek culture

Eva Palmer was born to wealthy parents on January 9, 1874, at Gramercy Park, New York City. From a young age, she was exposed to liberal thought, Greek education, music, and theater. Her mother was a talented pianist who supported the arts, and her father was a lawyer who encouraged his students to study Greek philosophy. After the death of her father, her mother remarried a surgeon who had studied Greek and Latin and was seriously interested in archaeology. This upbringing led to the seeds for Eva’s Greek education and love of old things. When she attended Bryn Mawr College, she embraced her studies in classical languages, literature, art, and drama. She had learned enough ancient Greek to recite the poems of Sappho in theater performances that she participated in.

Sculptured folds

Eva left college before she finished her degree and joined her brother in Rome, Italy, for one year for independent studies. Then she went to Paris, France, where she polished her French and participated in theater performances. In Paris, she attempted to weave cloth for the costumes of the Greek play Equivoque. Eva had studied the Greek style dresses in sculptures and paintings, and she was fascinated with the sculptured pleated folds. She found that modern fabrics were too stiff to drape and she was frustrated because she couldn’t produce her own cloth that imitated these folds. Her friends, the married couple Raymond and Penelope Duncan shared her frustration and fascination with weaving. The three of them decided to solve the problem by weaving their own cloth, even though they were inexperienced with weaving. Raymond built a horizontal loom, and they experimented to produce the cloth that draped as they observed it on Greek statues. After trial and error, they produced those desirable rich folds by weaving heavy silk wrap with a lighter silk weft.

The Delphos gown

Around that time, Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny Madrazo was in the process of patenting a technique to permanently create hundreds of pleats on silk using heat. One year later, in 1907, he produced the Delphos gown that was inspired by the ancient Greek bronze statue of the Delphic Charioteer. This gown had over twelve hundred pleats and it was designed to be worn without a corsetry and only undergarments. The process of making the pleats was a well-guarded secret that Fortuny took to his grave.

Fortuny’s Delphos gown, 1907.

Angelos Sikelianos

In the summer of 1906, Eva followed the Duncans to their home in Athens, Greece. By that time, Eva had abandoned the Western dress for the Grecian tunics. When she arrived in Athens, she wore a light silk tunic that she had woven with leftover fabric from the Equivoque performance. It was there when she met the poet Angelos Sikelianos, Penelope’s brother. As she and Angelos became acquainted, they found that they shared an interest in poetry, art, music, and theater. They also discussed the idea of reviving the Delphic Festivals[1]. In 1907, they traveled to Maine, United States where they married on September 9. They returned to Greece, settled in Athens, had a son, and pursued their dream of recreating the Delphic Festivals. Eva financed her husband’s artistic endeavors with her inheritance — until it was exhausted. She ordered a walnut loom, and she continued to weave. She wove all the costumes for all the Delphic performances. (Eventually, their efforts and money and their marriage failed, and they separated in 1934.)

Lecture on Weaving

On May 17, 1919, Eva addressed the Athenian upper-class women to take up weaving their own cloth and reforming their dress, when she appeared at the Lyceum of Greek Women. She talked about the inhumane working conditions of people who labor in textile factories to create the latest fashions. She argued that by weaving cloth and crafting homegrown materials, the women would boost Greece’s economy, boycott the French fashion industry, and contribute to a classical way of life. She strengthened her argument by reminding her audience of the timelessness of the Greek classical tunic: it is airy, uncut, and unstructured with straight lines; two rectangular pieces of cloth sewn at the shoulders and sides and tied with a rope around the waist. Eva gave a similar lecture on Greek fashion in 1921 at the Hall of the Archaeological Society. She published these lectures that same year.

Friendships in weaving

Over time, a few high society Athenian women bought looms and started weaving their own cloth in their houses. Eva bonded with these educated women and some American women such as folklorist Angeliki Hatzimichalis who constantly advocated the preservation of Greek crafts; Muriel Noel, Eva’s American student, who taught Egyptians how to use the Greek horizontal loom; and Mary Crovatt Hambidge, an American who learned to weave from Eva in Athens, and returned to the United States to set up a creative residency program in the mountains of North Georgia. Eva also formed friendships with local village women who taught her how to weave, spin, and dye yarn. For her art of weaving, Eva won the gold medal in the Decorative Arts at the International Exposition in Paris in 1926.

Weaving Greek costumes for drama

When Mary Crovatt Hambidge returned to the United States, she set up a business in New York City where she sold unique, handwoven dresses, coats, and scarves to wealthy New Yorkers. They loved the Grecian style, and they lined up to place custom orders. Eva helped Mary weave the cloth on her loom to fulfill these orders. Mary, in return, helped Eva weave 100 costumes for performing Bacchae at Smith College in June 1934.

Weaving was also the key to Eva’s collaboration with American dancer Ted Shawn from 1939 to 1941. Eva taught Ted the Greek chorus, and she wove hundreds of yards of cloth for his and his dancers’ costumes in the performances of Kinetic Molpai, Isaiah, and the chorus of The Persians. These costumes are housed in the Killinger Collection of Denishawn, Ted Shawn, and His Men Dancers Costumes at Florida State University. When the Greeks declared their victory over the Italians in 1940, Eva wove a special gift for Ted, an embroidered silk chlamys.

The dream lives on

Eva died of a stroke in her beloved Greece in 1952, while attending a theatrical performance in Delphi. All her letters and artifacts, including 41 of the costumes that she had made for the Delphic Festivals are housed at the Benaki Museum. One of her Greek costumes was donated to Bryn Mawr College for performances in Greek drama. Her dream of reviving ancient Greek art, drama, music, and poetry still lives on within the International Delphic Council, a nonprofit organization that aims to promote worldwide art and culture through various activities such as exhibitions and presentations.

References

The “Delphos Gown.” The Delphi Guide. Accessed May 21, 2021.

The Delphic Idea.” Greek Travel Tellers. April 8, 2020.

https://greektraveltellers.com/blog/the-delphic-idea

Leontis, Artemis. Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins. 2019.

Palmer-Sikelianos, Eva. Upward Panic: The Autobiography of Eva Palmer-Sikelianos. 1993.

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Footnote: [1] The Delphic Festivals were based on the idea that different people in antiquity could coexist peacefully and interact through artistic and cultural events.