September 27, 2012

Castelo Branco Embroiderers and a treasure kept in a chest

Olá! This week I’m returning to Portuguese traditional embroidery and I’m very happy to get back to my research…

I’ll talk about what inspired the embroiderers of Castelo Branco, one of the most famous and rich Portuguese regional embroideries.

Embroidered colcha, image from Castelo Branco Municipality
In the first quarter of the 20th century, Maria da Piedade Mendes, a Portuguese woman living near Castelo Branco, received as an inheritance from her uncle a house and furnishings. Inside, she found chests with at least one Arraiolos tapestry and chests filled with beautiful colchas (coverlets) made of linen and embroidered with silk thread. Inspired by the silk works she begun reproducing the embroidery techniques and the patterns, which she continued doing her entire life with increasing perfection and creativity. Soon she also mastered the entire production cycle of silk thread and even the art of weaving linen and silk.

At that time this type of embroidery was known as “loose embroidery”, bordado frouxo, owing its name to the type of stitches used, and only later it begun being known as Castelo Branco embroidery.

Working on linen with silk, photo from Castelo Branco Minicipality
A famous Portuguese writer, Aquilino Ribeiro, described what happened some centuries before, during Portuguese maritime expeditions. The lords of Castelo Branco returned from the Orient, bringing their suitcases crammed with textiles. So women, home embroiderers, were offered new inspiration sources and maybe people who taught them too, since it’s plausible to believe that some of the slaves coming from India could be experts in the art of embroidery.

The inspiration and the access to the techniques were there and the necessary materials, too…
There are references to linen embroidery with silk in other places but maybe the tradition of flax cultivation in the region of Castelo Branco, the fact that mulberry grew very well, allowing the creation of large scale silkworm silk, created the special conditions unique to the development of this embroidery art.

With oriental inspiration and the use of flax and silk, the art of embroidering colchas was very common in this region through the 18th century. Although this kind of work was reported since the 17th century it’s difficult to rigorously define when and how this art begun. But we can tell some curiosities about the original use of colchas

Piece of embroidery being worked on, photo from Castelo Branco Minicipality
As we saw in Nisa and with lenços dos namorados the great inspiration for embroidery was love… And getting married!!

The Castelo Branco needlewomen prepared the thread themselves, breeding silkworms and spinning and dyeing the thread with which they embroidered the bridal colchas. The girls at the age of marriage decorated their beds with profusely and colorfully embroidered colchas placed near the window overlooking the street where the boy could see them and possibly be impressed and enamored. The colcha was used in the marriage night and some authors say that afterward it was kept out of use and saved for very special occasions.

Similar to what happened in Nisa, there was a small locality in this region where the bride and groom’s home was opened on the eve of the wedding so that everyone could visit it. It usually ended in a pilgrimage to 'go see the bed' (most faithful possible to the Portuguese words…).

The idea of the colcha only being used in festivities is, however, contradicted by those who argue that they were used in everyday life, which would justify the poor condition in which many were found.

After this period, and without any known reason, in the 19th century there was a decline in this art… And linen and silk colchas were forgotten.

Until the day when a treasure was discovered in a chest…


  1. This is spectacular work. I especially love the colours and intricate fine lines of the of the first piece - it's amazing.

  2. Wow, it is beautiful work!

  3. What beautiful embroidery! I really love that one at the top, so lovely!

  4. Is the colour on the top embroidery faded or are those the colours it was made with? The others seem darker and brighter. They are all beautiful samples.

  5. This is stunning! I love the shades of blue in the top image.


  6. I
    believe it’s not faded… The choice of the colors is very important in Castelo
    Branco embroideries, some are very colorful and others are not. Some are even monochrome
    and in that case embroiderers use stitches and the embroidery direction to
    simulate different shades. But I believe this is not the case… You can see
    here: the 49 colors used in Castelo Branco
    Embroidery. And following that link you’ll find more interesting information.
    You may also follow this link
    and see a bigger image of the same “colcha”… I believe that those blues were a
    choice of the embroiderer…