On a Greek Island, A Stitch Back in Time

One of two looms that dominate Eleni Pavlou's ground-floor shop in Poros, Greece; at left are hand-painted aprons. Far left: When the shop is open, so are the windows, showing off Pavlou's shawls and tapestries.
One of two looms that dominate Eleni Pavlou's ground-floor shop in Poros, Greece; at left are hand-painted aprons. Far left: When the shop is open, so are the windows, showing off Pavlou's shawls and tapestries. (Photos By Dennis Murphy)
Sunday, October 21, 2007

The hand-weaver of Poros, Greece, tosses the wooden shuttle deftly between rows of threads on her loom. Clacks and thumps are the only sounds in her tiny, sunlit shop as a shawl takes shape, its bright pattern reflecting the bold colors of her walls. Outside, children squeal and bells ring down at the harbor. Here in her sanctuary, Eleni Pavlou practices a craft and a calling.

"Weaving is an ancient art" but nearly a dead one, says Pavlou, 33. Rather than learn at a grandmother's knee, Pavlou connected with a museum textile expert while in college in Athens and discovered the joys of color, texture and creation. After two years of private lessons, she married and eventually set up shop on the unspoiled island of Poros in 1998.

An hour south of the Greek capital by fast ferry, Pavlou works and shows her wares on the first floor of an unpretentious house -- her mother's -- above the touristy waterfront. Her two looms take up about half of the L-shaped shop Ergani, a nickname for the goddess Athena, who taught weaving. One loom uses fine thread for curtains and bedcovers; the smaller one has thicker wool for tapestries and rugs.

Walls and chairs display items for sale: tapestries, pillows, bags, scarves, hair accessories, appliqued shirts. "Tourists like curtains, shawls, rag rugs -- practical things," she says. The hand-painted T-shirts and totes come from a cousin. "I like to make things people can use," Pavlou says. "We want here to have things handmade, not artificial or manufactured." (For an idea of prices, handbags cost $27, shawls $41 to $104, table runners $37, T-shirts $36 to $41.50.)

As the only professional weaver on this island of 4,000 residents, and one of perhaps a dozen in Greece, Pavlou tries to maintain ties to long-ago forebears. In Greece, the art of weaving, which predates the Bible, is spun into the ancient myths of the gods and their exploits. Athena, the patron of weaving, punished her acolyte Arachne by turning her into a web-weaving spider. Odysseus, hero of Homer's "The Odyssey," written between 600 and 800 B.C., was married to Penelope, who fended off suitors while her husband was away by weaving every day and undoing her work each night.

"I don't like to copy," Pavlou says. "I like to recycle." For example, the design of an embroidered towel called "Ta Poulia," or "The Birds," which won an award last year from the Colorado-based Handwoven magazine, was adapted from the sleeve of a traditional women's costume in the Benaki Museum in Athens.

"It's a beautiful, beautiful piece of amazing handiwork," says Handwoven managing editor Liz Gipson. "It's so rare to see such consistency. Her inlay is lovely, with very fine threads, and we like work that reflects the weaver's culture."

Pavlou passes on her knowledge to island children twice a week after school and to local women. "Here in Poros there is no one who can do this, so I revive tradition," she says, demonstrating at a craft center how to make natural dyes and weave with leaves and small animal bones the students find. "Children are brave with color. They make patterns that are not logical but interesting to them."

In late 2004, Pavlou led the children in creating a panel of "Ariadne's Prayer," part of American Terry Helwig's global Thread Project, which celebrates unity in diversity. (The cloth was exhibited in Washington two years ago; until Oct. 20, it will be shown in the City Gallery at Waterfront Park in Charleston, S.C.) The Poros contribution, which appeared in the blue section, included shoelaces and bits of cloth contributed by local parents. "For the children, it's amazing to know their work is traveling so far," Pavlou says.

A downside of small island life is missing other craftspeople to commune with. "Searching in the old books for traditional designs is like a journey," she says. With no colleagues or mentors nearby, "new techniques I learn from books and magazines."

Luckily, weaving is both an outlet -- "it gives me power and energy" -- and a business. "In older Greek homes, every house had a loom, and no one had to buy outside," Pavlou says. Now, enough people "buy outside" to support her shop and limited sales through stores in Athens and on Lesvos island.

"Weaving helps to express myself, to communicate with people, especially when I know the person who wants the weaving I make," she says. "I could be a teacher in schools, but this I am more glad to do."

-- Ellen Ryan

* Ferries to Poros leave from Piraeus, the port of Athens, an endpoint on the subway and light-rail lines. Ferry trips take 60 to 90 minutes each way, and fares are about $27; time and price vary by season. See or call 011-30-281-034-6185. For more information about Ergani (Dimosthenous 33, Attiki), go to

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