of handkerchiefs


I have a terrible cold. When one is sniffling and snuffling and generally feeling lousy, there’s nothing more comforting than a nice handkerchief, of which, it occurred to me this morning, I possess quite a few. So I took some photographs of the ones that aren’t in use or in the wash.

Some of them are gifts . . .

This one came from Felix


. . .and my sister bought this one for me, probably when the Horrocks exhibition was on at the V&A.

I have acquired the majority of my hankies very cheaply in charity shops and on eBay. I find their workaday machine embroidery very pleasing. . .


. . . and some were once bought in other countries . . .


(I have actually visited Lugano, which made this one a rather nice find)

For some reason this one is my favourite for actual nose blowing: I like its 1960s brown; its tesselated design, and it also has a really high thread count, which makes it very soft.


I have a few nice examples where the corners are edged with lace


and of course, I have also acquired a few that are just too nice to use. This one is an interesting combination of drawn-thread work with machine embroidery.


This one is very fine indeed . . .


. . . it has been torn, and rather inexpertly mended.


This lovely example of whitework and drawn thread work is the oldest handkerchief I own.


. . . but the simple motifs and lines of this example make it my confirmed favourite.


It occurred to me that the simple square of fabric that goes under the name of handkerchief has a long history as an everyday object, with many different meanings, and many different uses. Handkerchiefs are multiply functional and decorative: not merely for mopping watery eyes and noses, carelessly dropped or ardently retrieved they might act as symbols of romantic attachment and desire. Handkerchiefs are intimate and personal objects, and as such, might be means of connecting a wearing-body to a sense of place: as a souvenir, a handkerchief might be a tiny repository of memory and personal connection, or, unfolded from the pocket of an eighteenth-century lady or a twentieth-century airman, might disclose a sneakily concealed map of unfamiliar territory. As furoshiki they are a means of wrapping and transporting food or gifts, and they can be worn about the person in a multitude of ways. I imagine the head-scarf / kerchief springs immediately to mind. . .

Audrey In Paris

. . . but, when considering a kerchief as a garment, my first thought was of this portrait of Frances Burney.

Frances Burney by Edward Burney (1780). National Portrait Gallery.

Kerchiefs — a length or folded triangle of fabric that covered neck and bosom providing warmth, coverage, and decoration — were a familiar staple of eighteenth-century women’s dress. Oddly, this meaning of kerchief does not appear in Cumming and Cunnington’s Dictionary of Fashion History, and receives only passing mention in the OED. If you’ve read as many eighteenth-century letters and novels as I have you would find this omission curious . . . but the issue is probably merely one of shifting nomenclature as well as fashion. Kerchiefs in the 1780s grew ever more voluminous and diaphanous . . .

George Romney, portrait of Catherine Clemens, 1788.

. . . and by the early 19th century these garments were referred to not as a homely English kerchief but as a carelessly elaborate French fichu

Late eighteenth-century American kerchief / fichu in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Well, I have come some way from where I began with my own kerchiefs, which is to say that putting this post together has, for an hour or so, successfully distracted me from the realities of my cold.

PS: thanks for your good wishes: my first driving lesson was OK: despite much swearing and occasional kerb-mounting, according to my instructor I was “no too bad”. I hope to be back behind the wheel as soon as I’ve stopped sneezing.

Swedish inspiration


I have of late been developing an obsession with Swedish textiles, and, it now appears, with all things Swedish. This began at the end of last Summer, when I discovered that several Swedish Etsy sellers had some interesting vintage embroidery on offer . . .


. . . I had to limit my exposure to these wares, as the imperative to fill my house with table runners and cloths and cushions and curtains was just too bloody tempting.

Then I started picking up books about Swedish embroidery, and other crafts . . .


The Eivor Fisher book (which was published in Paisley) is particularly beautiful and inspiring. (Thankyou, Natalie, for alerting me to its existence).



“The Street”



. . .before I knew where I was, I was following the Gävlebocken on Instagram . . .


. . . and sourcing dvd box-sets of Swedish historical dramas

(Anno 1790, which I highly recommend)

The last straw came a couple of days ago, when Mary Jane posted a link on Twitter to this set of images of Bohus knitting





(Reproduced from digitalmuseum.se)

Well, there is nothing for it. I have to go to Sweden. I am perfectly serious, and I would really appreciate any suggestions from readers in that part of the world for must-see textile collections or museums.

Tack så mycket.

Gawthorpe, encore


In between developing kits and other designs, I’ve been working on my Gawthorpe project (which you may remember is a commission to produce a pattern inspired by the wonderful textile collections of Rachel Kay Shuttleworth). The piece on which I’ve decided to base my design is a large coverlet, featuring deep teal-coloured woollen embroidery on a plain linen background. I knew that this beautiful piece had been stitched by Rachel Kay Shuttleworth herself, but I had only seen it behind glass on my first visit, as it was part of the collection on display. So I decided, a couple of weeks ago, to pop back to Gawthorpe to take a closer look, and do a little research.


I had assumed, when I first saw the coverlet, that the motifs were ferns, or fern-inspired, but this turned out not to be the case. In her notes about it, Rachel Kay Shuttleworth describes the motifs as “big feathers” and gives two sources of inspiration for the pattern she’d used. The first is another piece in her collection, which had been embroidered by Rachel’s contemporary, Hilda Ashworth . . .


. . . which had in turn been inspired by an original Tudor piece, purportedly embroidered by Amy Robsart (the wife of Robert Dudley, whose death in mysterious circumstances made her something of a sentimental cause célèbre at the turn of the twentieth century). Robsart’s original crewel-work, featuring the “big feathers” was part of the collection of Rachel’s friend, and champion of the Arts and Crafts movement, Lewis F. Day, and Rachel had borrowed it when drawing up her own design.


Rachel’s coverlet features a total of 100 feathers, each of which features a different embroidery stitch.


Rachel described the coverlet as “a sampler of line stitches.”


The embroidery is made with a lovely teal-coloured wool, which due to its provenance from different sources and dye-lots, has faded over time into several different deep blues and greens. I find this uneven fading both attractive and intriguing, because of the way it writes the time and process of Rachel’s stitching into her finished piece.


The colour Rachel chose for her stitches is a similar shade as the ink she familiarly used to write with. The annotations to many pieces in her collection are written in her hand, in a shade of ink, which has also faded over time in an uneven way, to a series of greens and blues that echo the varied hues of her stitching on the coverlet.


And just like her handwriting, Rachel’s signature is evident in the coverlet she embroidered, which is a showcase of the varied possibilities of crewel embroidery, and the skill of a truly talented needlewoman. It is a piece in which Rachel’s deep knowledge, and love of, stitch is immediately apparent. But it is a piece with a family story as well.


Around the border of the coverlet, Rachel stitched a Latin inscription in Lancastrian red. Translated, the inscription reads:

“He who would have ordained that his children should acknowledge the supreme Lord has survived by family descent a great many generations. His granddaughter of the tenth generation fashioned this work of devotion with her needle.”

Rachel had designed the coverlet to commemorate her ancestor Richard Shuttleworth, also known as Richard the Roundhead, or “Old Smoot”. A prominent parliamentarian, Richard had led the Lancashire forces against the King during the civil war, served as a magistrate during the commonwealth period, and, having reconciled himself to monarchy under Charles II, was the parliamentary member for Preston for a total of eleven terms.

Using motifs inspired by Tudor embroidery, the coverlet speaks to Rachel’s heritage in a prominent Lancashire family (a heritage of which she was clearly very proud), and perhaps quietly celebrates the commonwealth politics of her famous ancestor.


Rachel completed her work by stitching her own initials around a crest of her own devising depicting weaving shuttles, thereby connecting her heritage and family name to her own profound love of textiles.

(Rachel Kay Shuttleworth, at work on the coverlet)

Rachel stitched away on her huge “Richard the Roundhead” bedspread for several decades. Though she embroidered the finished date of the piece as 1966, she was actually still working on it at the time of her death in 1967. Her niece, Rosemary Kay Shuttleworth, completed her aunt’s work, and it is now a key piece in the Gawthorpe collection.

The coverlet has such a wonderfully rich context, which I’m glad I took the time to find out about, and which I hope I’ll be able to speak to a little in my own design. There will be feather-y motifs, shades of wool inspired by Rachel’s stitches and handwriting, and a nod to Rachel’s (and my own) Lancastrian heritage.

More soon!

All images in this post are the copyrighted property of Gawthorpe Textile Collection, and are reproduced here with their permission.

a day at Gawthorpe

Some days I wake up and I feel massively, incredibly lucky to have somehow landed here, in this curious new life, as a designer of hand-knits. Last Thursday was one of those days. Because I had been invited — along with Debbie Bliss , Jane Ellison, Claire Montgomerie, and Emma Varnam — to visit Gawthorpe Textiles Collection.

Gawthorpe Hall. Left to right Emma Varnam, Claire Montgomerie, Jennie Pitceathly and Debbie Bliss.

Originally built for Lancashire’s prominent Shuttleworth family in the early 1600s, with a Victorian redesign by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, Gawthorpe Hall itself is extremely impressive. But the building wasn’t what we had come to see.


Gawthorpe is home to an important textile collection, ammassed by Rachel Kay Shuttleworth. Born in 1886, and heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement, Rachel Kay Shuttleworth used her means and her position to gather textiles from all over the world, and to disseminate information about the traditions and skills that were involved in their production. By the age of 26, she had gathered over 1000 items, and began organising, cataloguing, and sharing her collection with interested visitors. Today the collection that Rachel Kay Shuttleworth began over a century ago now comprises more than 30,000 amazing textiles, showcasing a diverse array of needle crafts from elaborately embroidered Chinese Emperor’s robes, to Mechlin Laces; from Bolivian chullos to Indian shawls; from embroidered maps to soldier’s quilts.


We designers had been invited to take part in an exciting project. We’d been commissioned by Gawthorpe (with funding from the Arts Council) to produce an accessory inspired by an item (or items) from Rachel Kay Shuttleworth’s collection. We began the day with a tour of the part of the collection that’s on public display.


I particularly liked the display of Rachel Kay Shuttleworth’s desk and work boxes, complete with blotting paper, original haberdashery and notions, and projects in various states of completion. You could imagine her having just left the room, to take a break from her lace work.


One of the most appealing things about this collection is the way that the hand and mind of its creator is so apparent in it. Reading Rachel Kay Shuttleworth’s annotations and catalogue cards give a great sense of the extent of her vast knowledge about textiles and textile history . . .


. . . as well as a flavour of her personality through her idiosyncratic – and strongly held – views.


Rachel Kay Shuttleworth was also an incredibly skilled needlewoman herself, and the collection includes many examples of her work. I was particularly taken with this beautiful crewel work bedspread that she embroidered for herself.


Begun in 1905, work on this bedspread and its accompanying accessories took Rachel thirteen years. She completed the project with a palm-tree flourish on Armistice day 1918.

After tea and cake (cake!) we adjourned to the library where Rachel Terry, the collection’s curator, had gathered an incredible range of objects for us to examine and be inspired by.

There were beautiful and intriguing knitted items . . .


. . . and work involving other media and skills.


One of the real highlights of the day for me was getting to examine some eighteenth-century pockets – of which the collection has several examples. You know I dearly love a pocket.

Here, Debbie and I . . .


. . are checking out these beauties . . .


. . .which date from the early eighteenth century and whose neat chain-stitch is still beautifully fresh and bright.


Here, Rachel is showing us a tiny pocket . . .


. . . which had been fashioned for an infant.


And I was gobsmacked by the detail of the beautiful corded quilting on this pocket . . .


. . . which had clearly been cut from an earlier garment. The fabric was certainly too glorious to waste!


Can you think of anything better than hanging out in a library with great company, getting to examine beautiful historic textiles, and being able to learn about those textiles from their curators? Well, I certainly can’t. It was an amazing day. Now Debbie, Jane, Claire, Emma and I have to go away and have a think about the design we intend to create. The idea is that we all produce patterns for our designs, which will be available as part of a kit from Gawthorpe this coming Spring. I will keep you updated as to my progress with the project as time goes on. I also imagine it may be hard to keep me away from Gawthorpe . . . I definitely intend to be back.

I was deeply impressed by the collections at Gawthorpe, which really are superb, and are a definite must-see if you have a chance to visit this lovely part of Pennine Lancashire. It was also fantastic to spend time with my comrade-designers, all of whom were tremendous fun and none of whom I’d met before. But more than this, I was blown away by the dedication, knowledge and generosity of Jennie Pitceathly, Rachel Terry and their small team at Gawthorpe. “I have a vision,” wrote Rachel Kay Shuttleworth in 1912, “of a place of meeting where neighbours will come for many reasons to seek stimulating thought by meeting other active minds, to find refreshment and inspiration and a joy in beauty”. This truly is what Jennie and Rachel are creating at Gawthorpe, and I feel honoured to be involved.

Gawthorpe Hall – including the Rachel Kay Shuttleworth Textile Collection – is open to the public 12 noon-5pm, Wednesday – Sunday until 3 November 2013. The hall will re-open in the Spring of 2014, when our patterns and kits inspired by the collection will go on sale!

For more information and updates see the Gawthorpe Textiles website. You can also follow them on twitter: @RBKS_textiles

All images in this post are reproduced courtesy of Gawthorpe Textile Collection, and are not to be reproduced without permission.

a kiss from France


I so enjoyed your translations and comments on this post, that I thought I’d continue the First World War theme with some of my favourite items in my postcard collection. Known to collectors generically as “silks”, these machine-embroidered cards first appeared around 1900, and were produced in vast quantities during the twentieth century’s first two decades. As an attractive and eminently portable form of sentimental greeting, these cards proved particular popular among British troops serving in France. Some estimates suggest that, in their wartime heyday, more than ten million were produced.


Sources used to suggest that these cards were hand-embroidered, but this isn’t the case. Though particularly elaborate panel designs might involve finishing by hand, I have never seen one that didn’t feature machine embroidery. Using innovative Heilmann or Schiffli embroidery machines, a design could be repeated up to 400 times across large panels of organdy before being cut out, and individually assembled into framed and embossed cards. There were several factories in France and Switzerland where cards might be manufactured from start to finish, but some machine-embroiders also produced piece work from home, sending completed panels to be finished and assembled elsewhere.

The cards were usually sent in military mail pouches rather than being stamped and posted in the ‘open’ mail. Because they were protected in transit, the embroidered panels could be quite delicate in design. Many of the cards use the structure of the embroidery to create a tiny envelope:


Into which another card, with a personal greeting might be inserted.


This is one of my personal favourites: the card would have been placed inside an envelope; the card is, itself, an envelope; and the embroidered panel also depicts an envelope-carrying bluebird.

Cards might be designed for specific occasions . . .


. . . or with specific addressees in mind . . .


While many of the designs are conventional (though nonetheless appealing) others feel perhaps more modern and innovative.


and while theres a tremendous variety of embroidered designs, the same might be said of the paper-embossing, which on some cards is more elaborate than the stitching.


These cards carry human stories.


And there’s a particular kind of confluence between these stories and the stitches through which they are conveyed.


Here is one of my favourites: it is a scene unmistakably French with trees and tiny church; ploughed field and red earth . . .


. . . flowers bloom at the field margin . . .


. . . framing a message of poignant reassurance.


The roses hide. . .


. . .an envelope . .


. . . containing a message.


It is a simple, mass-produced, material object.


It is also a massive conveyer of meaning.


I began this needlepoint back in March, while I was still in hospital. I had managed to teach myself to knit again, but it was very tiring for my left hand (and brain) and I could only manage a little at a time. So I bought a kit for a needlepoint cushion, and when I found myself unable to knit, I picked it up. All my left hand had to do was steady the frame. It felt good to at least be doing something.

As a non-taxing activity that I didn’t have to think about, this needlepoint became very important to me over the next few months. I stitched indoors and out. In Spring, when the weather was nice, I took it to the park, and worked on it there. While sitting on my park bench with my stitching, I met a lot of dogs who seemed to be having a lot of fun. I decided that it would be nice to have one of my own.

Then my sister came to see me. When she saw the needlepoint, she remembered that my maternal grandmother (who taught me to knit, and who died in 1994) had a needlepoint cushion in her living room just like mine. It was curious – I bought that particular kit because there was something evocative for me in those tent-stitched fuschias, and when Helen mentioned it, I could immediately see my Grandma’s fuschia cushion in situ in her house on Heywood Road. Perhaps Grandma stitched herself a cushion from a similar kit design, I don’t know.

As time went on over the Summer and Autumn, knitting became much easier for my left hand, and I put the needlepoint aside. I took it up again a couple of weeks ago, finished the stitching, and got out the sewing machine (for the first time since February). I shall be gifting the finished cushion to my Ma for Christmas. (As she is wending her way here now from deepest Lancashire, I can show it to you).

It is just a needlepoint cushion. But the ten most difficult months of my life, and many memories — good, and bad, and some associated with my wonderful Grandma that I didn’t even know I had — are stitched all the way through it. I think my Ma will like it.


When thinking about process, there is nothing more instructive than unpicking someone else’s stitches.


I found a beautiful hand-embroidered cloth on ebay. I have plans for it. The plans involve deconstructing and transforming it into something else. I began by undoing the slip stitches of its heavy, worn cord edging.


Then I started to unpick the tiny stitches which attach the embroidered front to the cloth’s very fine silk back. The silk is faded but luminous, alive with copper and green.


The secrets written in the cloth began to reveal themselves. Neatly folded hems. Pale green silk thread that moved through the cloth like clockwork. An outer layer of heavy cotton satteen. An inner layer of lining satteen, fresh and bright because unseen for decades. Embroidery worked through both layers. Each thread end carefully woven and hidden. The back of the work faultless in its steady execution.


. . .and just as mesmerising as the front.


It was then that my fascination with the little mysteries of this cloth changed into a something else. I felt a sense of privilege and respect — in unpicking the stitches I was re-living the work of their making, admiring the skill of a talented needlewoman. But my act was also one of trespass: me and my snipping embroidery scissors were destroying a once-whole thing. And as I, blithe, curious, surgeon-like, began to examine the cloth’s insides, I uncovered the truth of its age: the satteen was of a certain kind, and a little older than I’d imagined. I was an historical vandal, cutting through the threads of time.

In cutting someone else’s threads, as in wearing someone else’s clothes, there is the frisson of encounter. We don’t know and will never know the person who made or wore the thing, but they are speaking to us nonethless, in the movement of their hand through the stitches, or in the the shape of their body left in the garment. There is something deeply uncanny in the silence of cloth and clothes: the trace of an unknown and never-to-be-known physical presence. (One does not buy second hand shoes, because one shies away from the ghost of the foot inside.) As I unpicked the stitches, then, a simple encounter between me and the cloth changed into a more complex one between me and its maker. Because I was un-making a made thing my act seemed an intimate one, but it was an empty intimacy, an intimacy with no content. The embroidered cloth was both speaking and not speaking: of a someone living in those stitches and of the silence of the grave.

Wallace Stevens’ brilliant poem, The Emperor of Ice Cream, (1922) has much to say about the dumb intimacy of embroidery — and of death. Stevens describes the covering of a woman’s corpse with a cloth she embroidered when alive.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam
(lines 9 – 15)

Here the corpse is, like the cloth she embroidered, an everyday material object. She reminds us of death’s easy finality. Yet she also suggests the mute compassion of the world of things. We feel the weight of her hands on the lost knobs of the well-worn dresser; her fingers quick movement through the stitches of the cloth that decorates her dead countenance. She does not speak, all we can know is her corpse and her cloth. And it is in the relationship between these two material objects that the essence of the poem (perhaps another object in itself) lies. Gaudy embroidered fantails will never cover death, but each small act of making is an end in itself, capturing the (perhaps pointless) vitality of the human. Now get back in the kitchen (says Stevens) and enjoy your ice-cream.


Having unpicked my thoughts I will get on with the uncanny work of unpicking.

York Craft Tour

(Felix in Duttons).

I am busy. I do not find long working days particularly good for either body or soul. During periods of insane activity, one must always find a little time to spend in the restorative presence of friends, and it was great to meet up with Felix the other day. We spent a lovely, crafty few hours in York, highlights of which included a cake shaped like a cauliflower, and these amazing tea-cup buttons that Felix found in Duttons (of course).

(very Felix buttons)

After this, and my earlier button pilgrimage with Ysolda, I thought it might be a good idea to produce a map, linking together my favourite York crafty locations. You can click each map-marker to see my notes on each location, or click on ‘larger map’ to zoom in and see the full thing in much more detail.

Each marker takes you to one of eleven craft hotspots. In no particular order, they are:
1. Duttons (for Buttons)
2. Betty’s (tea. baked goods. confectionery.)
3. Viking Loom (embroidery, quilting, beading)
4. Sheepish (best place for yarn)
5. The Japanese Shop
6. York Beer and Wine (and cheese and cider) shop
7. Priestley’s Vintage Clothing
8. Quilter’s Guild Museum
9. York Castle Museum
10. York Brewery
11. Monk Bar Chocolatiers

(Betty’s. Yorkshire delicacies indeed).

This list is entirely personal, and a bit idiosyncratic. For example, I like ‘Sheepish’ for Yarn, and the ‘Viking Loom’ for embroidery supplies, and I prefer both to ‘Craft Basics’ on Gillygate. On my list you will find beer and cheese, wool and cakes, the finest local produce and ingredients, and (perhaps incongruously) some lovely stuff from Japan. There are also two brilliant museums: the York Castle Museum (chock full of fabulous textiles and intriguing domestic objects), and the museum and archive of the UK Quilter’s Guild (now happily housed in their new home in St Anthony’s Hall). Check their websites for opening times and listings of current exhibitions.

(Ysolda by the River Ouse).

One of the best things about York is how compact and pedestrian-friendly it is. All of the craft hot spots on my list are within or near the city centre, and all are in in easy walking distance from each other. Walking around York is aided by two of the city’s unique geographic / architectural features: its rivers and its walls. The city is bisected by the rivers Foss and Ouse, the latter of which is lined by a lovely Georgian path known (then and now) as the “New Walk“. As well as being a genuine pleasure in itself, a quick walk along the “New Walk” takes you to the haven of refreshment that is the York Beer and Wine shop. A York organisation has produced this great guided tour of the New Walk, which I strongly recommend reading. (I used to live in the first location on this tour many moons ago when I was a student. Ahem.)

(The New Walk in 1756)

The Romans built the original walls around the city they named Eboracum. These defensive walls have been rebuilt several times since over the centuries, and today you can walk almost the whole way round the city centre along well-maintained wall paths which, according to York City Council, are tramped on by around a million people a year. Several of my craft hotspots are near to the bars (or gates) which form the stopping-off and getting-on points for wall-walkers. These include Monk Bar Chocolatiers (located, unsurpsingly, by Monk Bar) and The Viking Loom (close to Bootham Bar).

(Felix walks along the city walls toward Bootham Bar).

As I said, this list is entirely personal, but if any of you Yorkshire folk feel I’ve missed a really vital craft hot spot, do tell me, and I can make additions (or amendments) to the map. Hope you enjoy it! Thankyou!

(tree of knowledge on the doorway of York Minster).

bordado Madeira

Madeira has distinctive textile traditions. I had a vague sense of these from my grandma (who taught me to knit), who visited Portugal several times, and who owned several beautiful pieces of Madeiran table-linen. I particularly remember a very fine cloth, decorated with Richlieu-style cut work in pale brown against white. The Madeiran traditions of hand-embroidered whitework and cutwork are still very much alive, and I was able to find out more about them at the IBVAM museum (their super website is available in both Portuguese and English) and the Bordal embroidery workshop in Funchal.

(Nineteenth-century view of Madeira. Library of Congress).

Like other colonial communities, Madeira’s first Portuguese settlers brought and developed their own traditions of embroidery for domestic use and trousseaux. But by the eighteenth-century, the island’s nuns were also successfully producing and selling textiles for an international market. In the letters I’ve read, there are many references to the nuns’ roaring trade in artificial flowers, made by hand from cambric and linen. The fine embroidery of Madeira’s rural women also drew the admiration of the English commercial families who had settled on the island, as well as the many wealthy tourists and travellers who often came seeking rest-cures from the island’s restorative climate. By the mid-nineteenth century, English families who had prospered in the wine trade also saw the market potential of Madeira’s hand-embroidered textiles. And after Madeiran embroidery received tremendous acclaim in London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, it began to be successfully exported to foreign markets.

In a particular way, Madeiran embroidery flourished on the failure of the other commodity for which the island is famous: wine. During the mid-nineteenth century, Madeiran vineyards were ravaged by blight and entire agricultural communities were put out of work. Rural women’s domestic and decorative labour — the fine white-work and cut-work embroidery for which they were famed — then came to provide an alternative source of income.

(Madeiran embroiderers of all ages)

Cross-cultural comparisons are perhaps all too easy to make, but the story of Madeiran embroidery puts me very strongly in mind of that of Shetland lace. Here are two liminal island communities; two increasingly impoverished agricultural populations; and two groups of women producing decorative work of exceptional fineness and quality. Both Madeiran embroidery and Shetland lace were displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851, after which both acquired prominent aristocratic patrons and a certain international cachet as luxury products. This cachet had several components, but a large part of it, it seems to me, was about the work being produced on an island, by several generations of talented women who lived in isolated, rural communities and who were also of course, exceptionally poor. Like the women of Shetland, the Madeiran embroiderers worked from home, with the quality and sale of their work largely overseen by commercial agents from the export houses. While their work was sought after and commanded high prices, they were very poorly paid — until the welcome advent of 20th century unionisation, and the protection of Portuguese (and later, EU) employment law.

A final point of comparison with Shetland lace is the fineness, delicacy and incredible beauty of Madeiran embroidered textiles. You can get some sense of this from an amazing nineteenth-century matinee coat on display in the IBVAM museum, whose intricate scallops flow all the way from the neck to the floor like the delicate crests of waves. (You can see it by following this link and clicking on the images. The matinee coat is on the far right, on the second row from the bottom of the page).

(Madeiran Embroidery pattern from Dillmont’s Encyclopedia of Needlework (1884))

The IBVAM Museum was very interesting, but even more so, in some ways, was the embroidery workshop at Bordal, because you really got a sense of the whole process of the production of Madeiran hand-embroidered textiles from start to finish. We saw exactly how patterns were transferred to cloth (with a speedy pin-pricking gadget, indigo and paraffin) and how the cloth was cut and prepared. The embroiders largely work from home, and several were there to drop off their completed work for washing, ironing and finishing. One showed me a large, circular table-cloth of unbelievable beauty. It had taken three women a whole year to embroider. We saw one room piled high with several decades worth of paper patterns, and in another, women sat sewing hand-embroidered bodices onto skirts to create gorgeous little girl’s dresses. When the items are finished, they are taken to IBVAM (a short walk away) who check the quality and authenticity of every single embroidered item, which is then given its own holographic seal. This protects the tradition of hand embroidery against the machine-made imports with which it has been threatened for the past half century. The women who worked at Bordal were just lovely, and very tolerant of my impertinent questions, and broken Portuguese. Being able to see them at work was incredibly eye-opening and inspiring.

If you are wondering what makes Madeiran embroidery so distinctive, it is the combination of raised stitches and cut work, usually in white, or sometimes in brown or blue. Flowing and floral lines in padded satin stitch, or long-and-short stitch, mingle with detailed cutwork, (cavacas, caseados), areas of removed threads, (escada, ilhos) and large numbers of raised dots (granitos, seguidos, rematados). You can see many of these distinctive elements — the ladder (escada), the scalloped edge, and the raised dots in this small and very beautiful piece of embroidery, which I bought. I think it may well be the most lovely piece of fabric I have ever owned.

I also bought a couple of other cloths as presents, and a less delicate, but no less lovely cloth for myself for wrapping bread. A four-cornered hand-embroidered loaf wrapper! I just love it.

(yes, I baked a loaf, then wrapped it up! Hurrah!)

Further information:
You can find out more about Madeiran embroidery in the book “Madeira Embroidery” by Alberto Viera, which is produced and sold by Bordal and which also comes in a slightly shaky, but nonetheless informative, English translation. If you are in Funchal, the Bordal embroidery workshop can be found on the Rua Doutor Fernăo Ornelas and IBVAM is on the Rua Visconde do Anadia.
On Shetland Lace I highly recommend the work of Sharon Miller , which I’ve recently been reading.


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