June 14, 2012

Nisa embroiderers and the "enxoval"

Olá! This week I begin talking about Portuguese regional embroiderers with Nisa needlewomen. Nisa embroidery is not one of the most famous in Portugal but is one of my favorites. You can’t imagine how diversified is the work coming from the hands of these women. Embroidery on linen, felt embroidery (the skirts), embroidered shawls, alinhavados and even more... I’ll show you one of these weeks…

I collected some descriptions of Nisa needlewomen and as far as I understood until the second half of XXth century they were still faithful to reality... Since then the role of Portuguese women in society changed a lot and the "enxoval" is no longer an "embroidery inspiration" to Nisa women - "mulheres de Nisa" in Portuguese...

Nisa, a small town nestled in Portugal’s interior, had a unique expression in Portuguese culture, where traditionally, girls from the age of six, would make embroideries working for years to create a bridal trousseau, which would then be sold on the eve of their wedding. With the money made from the sale, the bride would purchase, through her own means, a house for the newlywed couple. (1)

Nisa embroiderer working on alinhavados and wearing traditional costumes hand embroidered, in Museu do Bordado e do Barro
The women of the Nisa districts cultivate the art of perfection. “Cloth sprays” they are called by the marriageable girls who, in the expectation of a future bridegroom, begin early to prepare towels and sheets that later will form a magnificent part of their bridal linen and, on some distant wedding day, will be displayed in all its glory to admitting relations and friends. (2)

Hands of Nisa embroiderer, alinhavados, in Museu do Bordado do Barro
The bride’s bed, called “solemn bed”, was usually adorned with quilts, blankets, sheets and towels, most of the times made by the bride herself. These were something to be proud of, a joy for anyone who visited, and stirred naive jealousy among marriageable young girls. (3)

It seems that many many years ago Nisa embroiderers were inspired by the idea of one day getting married and having a marvelous trousseau that they could sell or keep… In Portuguese we say “enxoval” - a collection of handsewn housewear pieces to be used after one’s wedding (3)…

This tradition does not go on anymore… And Nisa embroiderers are becoming less and less…
However, recently, a famous Portuguese contemporary artist helped give new life to Nisa Embroidery. Joana Vasconcelos roots a great part of her work in Portuguese culture, doing so in an incredibly creative and surprising way… She works with Portuguese artisans and their productions are used in her art. That’s what happened with Nisa embroideries.

Recalling the “enxoval” tradition she has created Enxoval Valquíria - Valkyrie Trousseau, a sculpture 16 meters in length, in collaboration with textile artisans from Nisa. All of the diversity of Nisa embroidery is represented…
Here you'll find a great video on this long sculpture... No difficulties with Portuguese :)

Valquíria Enxoval (de Joana Vasconcelos)

Valquíria Enxoval (de Joana Vasconcelos)
"Enxoval Valquiria" with Nisa embroidery by Joana Vasconcelos, acrib photos
Next Tuesday, Joana Vasconcelos will be the first woman and the youngest contemporary artist to exhibit in Versailles (Paris). We are so proud!!

I end with a beautiful video on Nisa embroiderers and Joana de Vasconcelos - only 2 minutes... An excerpt from a documentary I would love to watch... I do recommend it!!!! No problem with Portuguese, it has English subtitles...


  1. Obrigada, Gabi, pela pesquisa destes tesouros e por os dar a conhecer ao Mundo. Afinal somos tão ricos e damos tão pouco valor ao que é tão genuinamente nosso. Que raio de falta de auto-estima tem este povo!

  2. obrigada pela divulgação!!! E o muito que aprendi hoje!!

  3. How cool!  Thanks for the lesson on Nisa embroidery, and for showing us the contemporary sculpture and for the video.

  4. A friend of mine took a holiday in Spain and Portugal and brought me back a beautiful pouch with embroidery. Just love it. She also bought a few other things. hankies and a scarf filled with lovely colors. Beautiful.