• Jennifer Marks

Madeira Means to Modernize

On the island of Madeira, the tradition of hand-made embroidered linens stretches back two centuries, and little has changed in the painstaking production method since its inception.

But the Madiera Wine and Embroidery Institute has launched a program to pull the island's cottage industry into the modern age, with more contemporary designs as well as new cloth and fiber technologies that will make the pieces more useful in a day-to-day context.

"In the future I think we will see easier pieces — easier to iron and to wash, easier so that you can keep on using them," said Paulo Rodrigues, president of the institute. "It has to be a form of art, but it has to be something you can use every day."

The institute is building a laboratory that by next year will begin experimenting with methods of making the pieces more durable and stain-resistant without degrading their quality. Currently most of Madeira's embroidery shops use only linen, cotton, or organza base cloths — variously from Belgium, Switzerland, or Ireland — with threads from Italy or France.

The institute is also looking at ways to speed a production process in which every bit of the work is now done by hand:

  • drawing the design on stencil paper;

  • punching out the stenciled design;

  • washing ink off the stencil to transfer the design onto the cloth;

  • calibrating the number of stitches each piece of the design will require and writing them on the cloth;

  • bundling the piecework;

  • distributing piecework to handlers who travel into the countryside to hand off new piecework to the sewers and gather the finished pieces;

  • washing the finished pieces;

  • ironing the finished pieces;

  • cutting excess fabric from the finished pieces;

  • packaging, labeling, and mailing the finished pieces.

The steps involved are extensive, and more intricate tablecloths can take up to a year in the needlework alone.

"Why not print the drawing onto the cloth in a more efficient way?" Rodrigues asked. "Why not remove the many stages in between that don't add value. It will still be man-made with the soul of Madeira."

The object is not to cheapen the product or knock down prices — which can run to thousands of dollars on an individual piece. "The world is flat. Hand-made is for people who can afford it. We don't want to make a thing that there are 10,000 of them. It is unique," he said. "But you have to fight for your market."

Some 5,000 needle-workers here — nearly all women — supplement their incomes by doing piecework. Most live in the island's craggy rural areas, and they specialize in certain types of stitches. Ludres da Silva, now in her 50s, has been embroidering since she was 10. From 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. most days, the Calheta resident goes at her piecework, passing the time with her daughter, aunt, sister, and mother — all concentrating on their own embroidery.

"It's very different for young girls today," da Silva said. "They don't want to do it. They want other jobs."

For that reason, the institute is also putting together educational courses to pass along the techniques to future generations.

"We want to stay healthy regarding our traditions and social values," said Rodrigues. "If we don't fight for that, everything will be eroded and there will be nothing left but price."

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