Weaving the ancient Greek tunic
By: Harikleia Sirmans
I was introduced to Eva Palmer while researching the life of Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos. Palmer, an American actor and philhellene, was married to Sikelianos from 1907 to 1934, and shared his dream of reviving the Delphic plays. Her greatest performance, however, was as a significant figure behind the revival of ancient Greek dress.
Since her arrival in Athens, Greece in the summer of 1906, Palmer had been dressing in handcrafted leather sandals and tunics. She abandoned Western dress in favor of the ancient Greek inspired, liberated, and straight-lined tunics that she wove and sewed herself. She adopted these handmade tunics as her every day dress and not as a fashion statement. They symbolized her transformation after her arrival in Greece.
Passionate for classical Greece
Palmer’s interest in Greek culture was rooted in her nineteenth-century upbringing, a time when the study of the classics was ingrained among American elites. Her parents supported progressive ideas, the classic arts and philosophy, and enacted Greek ideas daily. Palmer studied classical languages at Bryn Mawr College as well as the works of the lyric poet Sappho. She recited Sappho’s poems and performed the tableau of Sappho at a theatrical fund-raising event for the new Bar Harbor hospital. Early in 1906, Palmer travelled to Paris where she met Raymond and Penelope Duncan. Raymond, the older brother of American dancer Isadora Duncan, was a philosopher, dancer, director, poet, actor, craftsman and mystic. His wife, Penelope Sikelianos, the sister of Angelos Sikelianos, was herself a music theorist, weaver, singer and actress. Palmer was impressed by their simple and flowing Grecian style of dress.
Replicating the Grecian dress
At that time, Palmer was staging the play Equivoque, and she was looking at the clothes of Greek statuses and paintings for inspiration such as the pleated chiton of the Charioteer of Delphi. She wanted to replicate the soft drapes on the tunics of sculpted statuses, but didn’t know how to produce such cloth. The Duncans came to her rescue. The three decided to weave their own version of the cloth. Raymond built a loom and, once threaded by Penelope, they learned how to use this loom to weave. After many trials, they wove enough cloth to make a wool and silk dress, a linen tunic, and a silk tunic. Their technique of replicating the drapes of the Greek sculptures was to use fine silk weft thread, and heavy white wool warp thread. Armed with knowledge of weaving, Palmer wove all the costumes for the play.
The loom is the answer
Two months after the play in August of 1906, Palmer followed the Duncans to Greece where she permanently adopted the ancient Greek tunic as her daily dress. When she walked on the streets, she made heads turn. The newspapers also criticized her eccentric dress. She was a modern ancient Greek! In Greece, she met and married Angelos Sikelianos, Penelope’s brother. The two pursued their dream of renewing the ancient Greek dramas in Delphi, financing all the theatrical projects to the point of bankruptcy. Palmer wove and sewed the costumes for all the Delphic plays.
Driven by her own vision, Palmer sought to create a different society, where women could be creative with weaving in the company of other women. The loom and weaving were the ideal means to accomplish her vision because they are associated with women’s work. Hoping to revive the use of the horizontal loom, she urged Greek women to buy a loom and learn to use it themselves. Through weaving, they could learn discipline and regain the dignity of work. At the same time, they could boycott the French fashion industry and oppose the inhumane working conditions of laborers in textile factories to create the latest fashions. They would also boost the Greek economy, and participate in the creation of a classical and simple way of life.
Palmer made many friendships through weaving, including the local Greek women who taught her how to weave, spin, and dye yarn. She used these skills to help a friend, Mary Crovatt Hambidge, weave cloth for dresses, coats, and scarves in the Grecian style that high-class New Yorkers would buy. She also wove 100 costumes for the performance of Bacchae at Smith College in June 1934. During her collaboration with American dancer Ted Shawn, Palmer wove hundreds of yards of cloth for his dance performances. Her art of weaving did not go unnoticed: Palmer won the gold medal in the Decorative Arts at the International Exposition in Paris in 1926.
The loom and weaving sustained her during old age throughout bankruptcy and poor health. Following her death in June of 1952, 41 of her handwoven costumes were donated to the Benaki Museum in Athens, Greece; one costume was donated to the College Theatre of Bryn Mawr for performances of Greek tragedy; and the American Hellenic Union organized an exhibit of Eva’s work in 1965.
Classical Greek education impressed Palmer from her youth. She devoted her life and wealth to the revival of Greek culture, theater, and weaving. Her artistic endeavors were centered around the creation and wearing of ancient Greek clothing. When she decided to wear only clothes that she wove herself, she left behind the industrialized West and capitalism. She supported simplicity and freedom in women’s dress. She also inspired other women to be creative, and she revived the horizontal loom and hand weaving.
 In Greek drama, tableau is the artistic imitation of a picture through the performer’s poses, costumes, gestures, and props.
 A rectangular piece of linen or wool cloth, fastened at the shoulders with broaches and at the waist with a belt.
 Thread carried with the shuttle from selvage to selvage.
 Stationary thread stretched vertically over the loom.
Leontis, Artemis. Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins. 2019.
Patakis (2022). Retrieved May 10, 2023, from https://www.patakis.gr/files/1195027.pdf
Harikleia Sirmans is Librarian at Valdosta State University, and Dressmaker and Owner of Grecian Needle. She is also translator of two Greek novels, and indexer of four film books. She writes articles on textile and fiber arts. She is a TSA member since 2022 and lives in Valdosta, Georgia.