October 11, 2012

Stitches from an island in the Atlantic - part II

Olá! Beginning where we stopped last week
By the hand of Elizabeth Phelps, born to an English family settled on the Island, Madeira Embroidery was introduced to the British and after the 2nd half of the 19th Century these works of art began to be recognized as merchandise for trade between Madeira Island and the outside world.

She began with a school where poor workers where taught how to embroider. Initially, their works were sold to family and friends but when they were introduced to the British market their success occurred rapidly.

postcard - from Mindee, Finland
Embroiderers dressing regional costumes, old postcard from here
Madeira Embroidery began to be included in the families’ economy. At the beginning, embroiderers were responsible for the choice of fabrics and designs, using old family pieces of embroidery as inspiration. When the work was done, they would go to the harbour or door-to-door looking for someone to buy them, especially foreign tourists.

But with the growth of exportation, an enormous change in the fabrication process occurred: the designing and tracing phases went out of the hands of the embroiderers. The women living in the countryside received the fabric already prepared and then developed an extraordinary work of perfection with their agile and patient hands transforming the designed fabrics in unique works.

Madeira embroiderers gathered, photo from here
The embroiderers usually worked at farming with their husbands and they learned the art of embroidery from their mothers who were also embroiderers. Since the end of the 19th century, beautiful postcards captured and popularized images of the embroiderer seated in front of her cottage and groups of women who gather on the edge of ways to embroider.

Throughout the whole island, married and unmarried, old and young women were found together embroidering while talking about their lives and other’s lives…

But, as said before, embroidery in Madeira changed forever with Miss Phelps… As documented by popular oral tradition not only women knew the arts of needlework: Embroiders the father, embroiders the daughter, embroiders the mother… (popular verses)

Mother and daughter embroidering, image form this book
Another difference brought by Miss Phelps’ transformations was the fact that many embroiderers were no longer embroidering for pleasure but for need… But this has not diminished the value of their work… Madeira Embroidery is still a luxury item. Its value comes not only from the beauty and refinement of the design, the combinations of materials and the profusion of stitches but also from being an authentic handcrafted work. Each embroidery is an unique work of art, receiving the embroiderer’s personal touch.

Max, a famous Madeiran (born in the island), co-composed a song in honor of these women.
This is an old record, but we can hear in his voice with a strong Madeiran accent (I believe only Portuguese people can distinguish it..). Here you'll find a more recent version.

The lyrics says (talking about Madeira Island):
Like you there is no other
And in the dreamy nights
The waves foam is stitched
By the fingers of the embroiderers

In Portuguese (I made a very, very free translation...)
Como tu, não há nenhuma
e, nas noites sonhadoras,
Bordam das ondas a espuma,
Os dedos das bordadoras.

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