Madeira is said to have been discovered by the Portuguese in 1419, though there are stories from intrepid sailors of much earlier times, that tell of two verdant islands far off the African shore. Settlers arrived just a few years later; they found this paradise to be perfect for developing first the sugar cane industry and then the production of wine. Meanwhile, the noblewomen of the island practised and refined their needlework, and embroidery became a popular pastime.
The beautiful products of this intricate fabric and thread art were brought to the attention of the English market in the 1850s by Elizabeth Phelps, a member of an influential Madeiran family of English descent. She worked with the Madeiran ladies to turn their hobby into a thriving cottage industry. This helped to counter the disastrous economic effects that the phylloxera disease was having on the island’s vines and wine industry. Sales of Madeiran embroidery to Victorian England burgeoned. Although there were lean times in the early twentieth century, the appreciation of quality, skill and refinement have ensured the success of this traditional craft. Today the USA, the UK and Italy are the top export markets.
Paid by the number of stitches
Embroidery skills are passed from mother to daughter, and the actual stitching work is still dispersed around the rural areas of Madeira. The central factory draws the design onto paper, then uses a machine-driven needle to pierce the paper with small holes along the lines of the pattern. Then the material to be stitched is fastened under the paper and a blue indigo dye is pressed through the holes. The cloth, now marked with the design to be embroidered, is sent to the home-workers; they are paid by the number of stitches needed to complete the design. When the piece comes back it is washed, inspected, and the cut-out holes carefully snipped away. This is a step calling for the utmost precision, as it comes right at the end of the production process. A slip of those sharp little scissors would spell disaster!
On your visit to Madeira, take time out from sun, outstanding food and wine to immerse yourself in these delightful cottons, organzas and linens by visiting Bordal, one of the best-known embroidery shops and factories in Funchal. There you will see examples of this most meticulous handicraft ranging from great tablecloths and christening gowns to little coasters and bookmarks. All are decorated in colours from subtle creams and traditional beiges to day-glow oranges and greens. The variety of items on sale is breath-taking; there is no shortage of gift ideas for brides, babies, and beautiful homes, be they classic or contemporary. Bespoke items are a speciality, many pieces having been made here for the British royal family; you can order your own family heirloom, and Bordal will deliver it to you in just a few weeks.
On request, you can tour the three floors of the factory to see exactly how these wonderful articles are designed, stitched, cut out and finished – all entirely hand-made, there’s scant automation here! You can even book a place in a class where you will learn the various types of stitches that you need, and you will take away a handkerchief that you can finish at home with your newly-found skills.
Rua Dr. Fernão de Ornelas, 77