European Fashion Heritage Association

Journal EFHA World

Greek Embroidery AKA ‘The Joy of life!’

embroideryEuropean craftEuropean fashion

Guest post by visual artist Loukia Richards from SMCK Magazine #6

Embroidery accompanies all aspects of Greek life from birth to death. While the mermaid motif protects newborns against the evil eye, a black cross stitched on the shroud shields the soul against dangers lurking beyond the grave. Embroidery motifs on garments and household or ecclesiastical textiles reveal gender, class, marital status, origins and cultural roots, trade and exchange, conflict and adaptation; they manifest and increase fertility, abundance, happiness.

A fusion of cultures and styles

Although it is often claimed that embroidery comes from Persia, in Euripides’s drama Iphigeneia in Tauris” (fifth century BC) embroidery provides the plot twist. In one of theater’s most suspenseful scenes, Iphigeneia, the abducted princess of Mycenae and priestess of Artemis in the barbarian Tauris, learns that the stranger she is about to sacrifice is her long-lost brother Orestes. His identity is revealed and confirmed when he describes the intricate embroidery that Iphigeneia mastered when she was young.

More than 150 different stitching styles are used to reproduce the rich visual language of Greek motifs that vary from region to region. The same motifs can be traced in sculptural ornaments, mosaics, and murals in Byzantine churches and the sacred manuscripts of Mount Athos. Textile historians note that Greek embroidery is a fusion of traditions that flourished in the eastern Mediterranean. Embroiderers integrated new elements into existing patterns, making ‘Greek embroidery’ a milestone in textile history. The same motifs can be read as a chronicle of Greece across the centuries. Despite enduring numerous invasions and conquests by foreign armies, Greeks preserved their cultural identity and heritage by adapting to these new conditions, incorporating and Hellenizing them.”

“The embroideries were the product of the native culture, fused with the cultures of all the nations that had conquered and settled or had passed through the area,” writes Roderick Taylor in his classic volume Embroidery of the Greek islands. “The native Greek culture was based on that of the extended Classical Greek world and on later manifestations of the Hellenistic world, namely Greece, Coptic Egypt, and Byzantium. The conquerors were the Franks and the Latins, Aragonese and Catalans, Venetians and Genoese, and later the Ottomans. Some stayed longer than others and although some influenced the native Greeks and the way they lived, it was the conquerors themselves that were influenced by their stay and it was their lives that were changed.”

The Greeks’ intrepid character was shaped by maritime trade dating back to the Age of Bronze, as epitomized by Homer in The Odyssey. This so-called bible of the Greeks embodies their faith in the concept of life and death – and this has not changed much since the Homeric Age. The brief ‘joy of life’ is followed by an anemic eternity in the kingdom of shadows.

This ‘joy of life’ is discernible in all aspects of Greek culture – food, music, hospitality, social gatherings, and celebrations – but finds its most vivid expression in embroidery compositions depicting the united cosmos. In this universe gods, spirits, monsters, angels, humankind, flora, and fauna, both the natural and the supernatural, are presented in detail and exist in their own right.

By comparison, the tunic-shaped shroud, which was the same for everybody, rich or poor, was stitched simply with a cross during the lifetime of the deceased.

The mirror of society

Needlecraft masterpieces are now part of international collections, including The Textile Museum in Washington DC, V&A in London, Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation in Nafplio, and the Byzantine and Christian Museum and the Benaki Museum, both in Athens. Embroideries also reflect the prosperous eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that laid the ground for the 1821 Greek War of Independence.

Both men and women engaged in professional embroidery. Jeleks (vests) were stitched by men twisting stiff gold and silver threads; ceremonial textiles, such as those used in the Good Friday litany, were stitched by women who can be identified by their embroidered signatures. Amateur embroidery also had to be impeccable and aimed to highlight the embroiderer’s character: patient, committed to family, diligent, thrifty.

“My grandmother’s work reflected her times. As a result, it was primarily decorative, stemming from her desire to beautify her world and create a home she would be proud of,” says Greek American textile artist, writer, and academic Maria Karametou. Her grandmother Marika was a Greek refugee from Asia Minor who escaped to Greece when her hometown was razed in the First World War. “Although some of the motifs were copied from sources available at the time, my grandmother often redrew and re-invented them to create her own designs. Embroideries that were used for more formal functions were all made on silk fabric. But my grandmother embroidered pieces for everyday use as well. These were made on coarser fabrics and usually cross-stitched in geometric designs. She embroidered everything.”

Social status was reflected in the techniques and choice of motifs. Simpler motifs were used by the lower classes; a shepherdess, for example, who worked hard to survive, only embroidered a monogram on her kerchief, apron, or chemise. Women of wealth, however, had all their dresses embroidered, even undergarments and slippers.

The luxury of stitching

“By 2030, 3D printing will overtake conventional manufacturing in the fashion industry thus making exquisite embroidery and hand-crafted pieces the ultimate luxury,” British Vogue predicted in June 2016. The intellectual pleasure of deciphering the Esperanto of motifs, as well as the aesthetic enrichment of discovering sophisticated compositions and color arrangements, are the additional benefits of studying Greek embroidery – and there is more to learn from the craft.

At the onset of the Greek economic crisis, about twelve years ago, the government shuttered the state-run EOMMEX Crafts Council. The institution offered rural women training that opened opportunities to earn a living from embroidery while at the same time preserving the precious tradition.

Some women took the initiative to promote Greek embroidery by their own means. Aggeliki Symeonidou, a former civil servant and writer from Olympia (Peloponnese), believes embroidery teaches values that could help Greece confront the interconnected financial, ideological, and environmental crises.

“By studying old embroidery, I saw how skilled women were. Contemporary values, such as recycling, independence, respect for nature were fundamental in their work and lives. These women did not have to reflect on or to argue about why these values were important; they had been part of their heritage and had the right to be present and inspire them,” Symeonidou says.

Textile artist Maria Karametou also believes that embroidery still has an important role to play, even if the context has changed. “Today embroidery and textile-related art in general communicates not only succinct narratives but also embraces sociopolitical statements. Alongside other art forms, embroidery has empowered women to express themselves dynamically and ‘speak’ openly about things that matter to them,” she says. “In the age of Covid isolation women – and men – have rediscovered the calming and therapeutic aspects of embroidering.”