Madeiran inspiration

One of the many things I admire about Portuguese culture is the way that pattern and design are part of everyday life.

There are beautiful tiles everywhere. Most interiors are tiled, and almost every public space is enriched by a particular experience of the decorative.



Even Brutalism approaches the ornamental.


Wandering around Funchal – Madeira’s ‘capital’ – is a peculiarly graphic experience. By simply walking one is taking a sort of masterclass in pattern.

The narrative of one’s footsteps, of one’s movement through the street, is told out in tiles.

These distinctive mosaic pavements are everywhere in Funchal, from the town’s alleys . . .

. . . to its squares.

The patterned pavements seem to invite the pedestrian to the act of leisurely promenading, strolling, window-shopping.

The aesthetic is all pervasive – here is the entrance to a supermarket . . .

. . .and here is the exterior of a parking garage.

These pavement mosaics are made up of alternating pieces of basalt and limestone. Over the years, Funchal’s designers have clearly enjoyed playing with the high-contrast potential of these materials.

For someone pattern-obsessed like me, the streets of Funchal are exciting and inspiring spaces. For example, I love the way that these right angles . .

become diagonals

The particular design repeat used on this mosaic also appears in one of my Latvian weaving books, and another book I have about Estonian mitten patterns. Such cross-cultural aesthetic connections really intrigue me, and are one of the reasons that I am so looking forward to Rosa Pomar’s forthcoming book. Just pottering about the streets of Funchal made me reflect on the fundamental nature of the repeat and on how the same basic principles tend to govern the surface decoration of very different media (textiles, pavements etc). The OXO, for example is a ubiquitous feature of Spanish and Portuguese tiling, Baltic weaving, as well as Fair-Isle knitting patterns. I particularly liked this playful example.

Anyway, as you might imagine, the streets of Funchal have inspired me to produce a design of my own. I began work on it while we were in Madeira and finished knitting it last night. Here is a wee taster.

No, it is not a hat, but something altogether different. More photographs and a pattern this weekend!

40 responses

  1. They are wonderful pavements! I’ve just returned from Cordoba & I was equally impressed by all the pavements (& did a blog post about it-Simple Things 3rd Nov) I love the way you’ve used the shapes as inspiration for knitting…

  2. Oh, what lovely pictures. They take me back to 1994, when I spent 3 months studying in Lisbon thanks to an ESF transnational scholarship which was part of my masters degree programme. These pavements are known as ‘dragons tooth’ pavements because of the shape of the individual stones – and – the story goes – they were invented by a Portuguese ruler (can’t remember if it was a king or a not) as a labour intensive activity for prisoners. There are several brilliant things about these pavements, apart from their designs. The first is that they are completely reusable – need to dig a hole? – no problem. The dragons teeth are traditionally set into sand, not mortar or concrete – so they can be easily taken up, set to one side and then reused. Of course, the pattern may not survive, but hey – at least you dont have to cart lots of broken slabs/tarmac to the tip. The second brilliant thing about these pavements is that they are porous. The rain drains into and through them, and is not channelled into urban drains in the same way as it is on paved and tarmacked (tarmaced?) surfaces. For aficionados of urban drainage and flooding, this is quite a big thing… Sorry, this is all very dull – can you spot the urban planner here?! But, I’m with you on those lovely azulejos (tiles). Even in the dodgiest bits of Lisbon, they were glorious. Must go back sometime, sigh.

  3. Those streets! They’re like giant mittens one can walk on!!

    I would forever be looking down, and probably be walking into things gawking at them – or I’d be too busy with my camera playing with
    composition to actually be able to GO anywhere. But if the alleys (the alleys!!) are like that too, I’d just have to know what pattern is around the corner..!!

  4. Thank you for the memories! Your post brought back thoughts of my visit to Rio De Janeiro. As you walk along the various beachfronts, the tile patterns change beautifully and I could tell if I was in Copacabana, or Ipamena, or Leme, or wherever, just by the pattern changes. You have inspired me to pull out those old photographs and breathe them into knitwear.

  5. I had no idea that there were so many patterns to be trod upon! I have added this destination to my bucket list :-) And looking forward to the new pattern very much (is that a sleeve on your head?)!

  6. trying to explain the beauty of Spanish tile is SO hard to do in class, even with the internet pictures. HS students hear “tile” and they think of the very tame versions we get in bathrooms and kitchens here. There just isnt a good paralell for them to match it to. sigh. I miss them. Thanks for the smile this morning.

  7. The streets are so interesting I would never look at the buildings. Except that I’d look at the buildings too, then walk into traffic. But now I need to add Madeira onto my list of places to go.

  8. Blue-and-white tiles – beautiful, whether Iberian azure or Delft blue. But the project isn’t going to be a tea cozy, is it?

    Thanks so much for the pictures of Funchal. I’ve seen photos of Portuguese street paving before, and these are whetting my appetite for travel even further.

  9. Thank you so much for the pictures of the tiles which I have seen in books but never in situ like that. And thank you to knitlass for the comments about the drainage and re-usability of the tiles! I have seen so many streets paved, only to be dug up for another utility to put in a new pipe, then repaved (badly), and so on, that the original paving might as well never have been done in the first place! What a wonderful use of material that can be reused over time, and still be in place keeping streets even and usable, and decorative, and probably directing traffic too if one thought about it. Portugal is definitely on my list of places to visit! Thanks Kate. Can’ wait to see your knitted concoction!

  10. Maybe we’ll get to see you in Lisbon sometime in the near future!
    Thanks for letting people learn something more about my big little country.

  11. I couldn’t agree with you more … for a culture to be so connected to pattern and design is a joy. Thanks for the sneak peak … can’t wait to find out what it is (tea cosy, perhaps?).

  12. fabulous mosaics – this is now on my travel list…just beautiful…I think I could wander around this town for weeks…just following the patterns…thank you for sharing!

  13. Love, love, love these tiles and mosaics. Thank you for sharing them with us. One day I WILL get to Spain and Portugal to see them myself.

  14. Very enjoyable, love those patterns. Haven’t been there, but was in Majorca, where the plaza was wide open and simply gorgeous. These photos are so inspiring, wish I could design like you!

  15. Hi Kate! Just came across this post and had to ask you if you know what that Brutalist building is? I’m not usually in to Brutalism but I kinda like it! Hope you’re feeling better!
    Stuart (off of Jamieson & Smith)

    • Hi Stuart, as I recall, it’s a residential apartment building. I know exactly where it is & will try to locate on google maps for you…

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