July 12, 2012

Portuguese Fiancé kerchiefs

Olá! This week I’ll continue talking about Minho embroiderers, showing how feelings inspired their ingenious work. Did you know that a piece of embroidery can be a love letter? That's what happens with Portuguese "fiancé kerchiefs"...

I believe that nowadays the “fiancé kerchiefs” are the only kind of Portuguese traditional embroidery that all Portuguese people know and care about. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but for better or worse, fiancé kerchiefs became fashionable!

Let’s try to understand the history behind them… Many, many years ago, when a girl was close to marrying age she made an embroidered handkerchief of fine linen or cotton cloth. To carry out this work, the girl used the knowledge she had acquired about cross-stitch in childhood. The handkerchief was proof of the embroiderer's devotion to the man she was in love with and was, for such a purpose, offered to him, the 'boyfriend'. It was in accordance with his attitude of using or not using it publicly, over his Sunday best suit or as neckerchief, that the dawning of a love connection was decided.

Cortejo Etnográfico das festas de Nossa Senhora da Agonia em Viana do Castelo -Portugal
A reproduction of original cross stitch kerchiefs, photo by Cida Garcia

Originally they were embroidered using cross-stitch in red and black. But as it was very time consuming, representing weeks and sometimes months of patient evenings spent by the embroiderer, girls were compelled to find a quicker way of doing it. So, with time, free embroidery stitches replaced cross-stitch and many other colors were added to the red and black, bringing much more folklore; but the feeling behind them remained the same, along with their primitive symbology, too.

Lenço de Namorados
Embroidering a fiancé kerchief, photo by Carlos Lourenço

The kerchiefs have portrayed various kinds of sentiments felt by marriageable girls, expressed through symbols of faithfulness or religious devotion in regard to the wedding act, and through quatrains that in most cases reveal the illiteracy of the embroiderers, as bad spelling or misspellings were common. Here you have a quatrain that I tried to translate... I know I cannot be faithful to the genuine beauty of these words and above all to their simplicity, but I did my best!!

Escreve-me, amor, escreve.
Lá do meio do caminho;
Se não achares papel,
Nas asas de um passarinho.

Write to me, my love, write to me
In the middle of the way;
If you don’t find a sheet of paper
Write on the wings of a little bird.

Recently the fiancé kerchief became the symbol of another kind of love: the people’s love for their culture and traditions. In 2009 the initiative of joining together to embroider a giant fiancé kerchief was born in order to attract public attention to the government's intention of replacing the Museum of Folk Art, that had been closed and abandoned for many years. The objective was achieved, the Museum was not closed, and nowadays this kerchief is a part of the Museum. You'll find a video on this great initiative here... The meaning of the embroidered words is (more or less...): Museum of folk art, without you what will I be. You want to replace me by another one, but still you will regret. (In Portuguese these are rhymes and some words are intentionally misspelled)
The giant fiancé kerchief embroidered by many hands, photo from this blog

*You can find more about fiancé kerchiefs here... (scroll down to read in English)


  1. What a beautiful, sentimental tradition.  

  2. I had never heard of fiance kerchiefs, but what a lovely sentiment and tradition! :) Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. What a fascinating blog today I just love the  fiancé kerchiefs and would like to adapt this idea and make a special kerchief for each of my two little granddaughters as a memory keeper for them, they look very precious to me and a wonderful idea and you could make them so pretty.  Thanks for your thoughts and words Gabi.


  4. This is so interesting.  My culture (Hutterite) had the very same tradition.  I was in a sewing room last summer, where the ladies' mother in law's kerchief to her betrothed was framed and displayed.

  5. www.aliancaartesanal.pt

    lenços de namorados / fiancés kerchiefs