Colonized by the Portuguese in the 15th century, Madeira quickly became an important hub, connecting Portugal with its African colonies. But it was the famous fortified wine that really gave the island's economy a heady bouquet in the 17th century, when the export of the drink began. In exchange, wine traders, mostly Englishmen, imported British traditions to the island. Even today, posh hotels serve afternoon tea and Madeira wines are named after Brits.
In fact, it was an English wine importer's daughter, Elizabeth Phelps, who popularized Madeiran embroidery in the 1850s. Lace-collared Londoners couldn't resist the romantic embroidery-embellished table linens stitched on the island. Soon, no trousseau was complete without lacy lingerie and cutwork bed linens. "Wealthy English brides ordered Madeiran embroidery by the trunkful," explains curator Klut, who designed the museum's exhibition around some of the needlewomen's favorite techniques. Cutwork, for instance, is achieved by snipping away fabric to form open designs that are then outlined in buttonhole stitching, while the ponto bastido stitching forms a raised design.
Stitch by stitch, a cottage industry was born. "Each stitch had a certain price," explains Klut, who displays a workroom's price manual from 1935. "The richest families commissioned the most intricate designs." Like a Rolex watch or a designer handbag today, embroidery signaled a family's net worth. One of Madeira's oldest embroidery workshops, Patricio & Gouveia, continues to create lavish linens embellished with fine thread and cutwork. The atelier, located in the main town of Funchal, is lined floor to ceiling with brown cardboard boxes that contain embroidery patterns dating back to 1925, when the store opened.
In the mind of proprietor João de Sousa, who remains hopeful about the future of the craft despite a slowdown in business, fine dining without an embroidered tablecloth is impossible. "Embroidery brings romance to a table, but young people have no time for it," says the bespectacled businessman and grandson of the company's founder. "We try to keep the craft alive, but it's not easy."
From sketch to last stitch, a fully embroidered tablecloth can take as long as two years to complete. And it doesn't come cheap-"about $5,000 for a large tablecloth with open cutwork and embroidery," he says without apology. A visitor can find a set of 12 ivy-embroidered cocktail napkins for $250 or a pair of dreamy pillowcases edged with delicate openwork for $350.
De Sousa hopes young people develop a feel for hand-embroidered linen; otherwise, he says, "They are missing a great pleasure. Much embroidery is made by machine today, but machine embroidery doesn't count. Hand embroidery has a human feeling-the touch of a hand."