A flowery, head-spinning, sweet breeze overpowers any trace of jet fuel as I stand on the tarmac of Santa Cruz airport on the island of Madeira, located off the northwest coast of Africa. In my hometown, New York City, the jasmine and lily scents are called aromatherapy, and it's sold by the hour or bottle. But here on Madeira, best known for producing the fortified dessert wine favored by French chefs, even the airport's lone runway (built on stilts extending over the Atlantic Ocean) smells like a lush bed of tropical flowers spiked with salty sea water.
The Portuguese island, sometimes referred to as the "floating flower pot," attracts mostly red-cheeked English and German nature lovers who trek along its irrigation canals, known as levadas. One of the few Americans, I, too, came to explore the island's botanical bonanza, but I prefer my flowers satin-stitched on snowy-white linen.
For more than 150 years, Madeira embroidery extravaganzas have covered the tabletops of the rich and famous. Among early lovers of Madeiran linen were British monarchs and European royals, but today it's Celine Dion, Elton John, and Oprah Winfrey who set their tables with luxury linens stitched by island women. "The tradition of Madeira embroidery goes back to the needlework practiced in Portuguese convents in the Middle Ages," curator Teresa Klut tells me one sunny morning as we walk through the Instituto de Bordados Tapeçaria e Artesanato de Madeira (Institute of Embroidery), a small but wonderful museum devoted to fine needlework. "The church was the first great embroidery patron," she points out.
To understand the craft, the curator encourages me to explore the island and meet its embroiderers. "Not many are left," she warns. They're mostly women, who stitch the linens at home, often outdoors in the sun. "Embroidery is so intimate, both in the way it is made and how it is used," explains Klut. Indeed, bed linens are made to cover us. Embroidery, however, is also about showing off both the talent of nimble fingers and the good taste of the family who commissions the work. A century after a tablecloth in the museum was first made, needlework lovers still stop and gape (and sneak a touch when backs are turned).
Madeira (on the map, a thumb's-width away from Morocco) is the kind of island that thrives on its warmth and good nature. Madeira means timber in Portuguese, and laurel trees cover the island. Thanks to the balmy weather, flora carpets every nook and crevice. Blue-and-white agapanthus and super sized hydrangeas line narrow roadways. Orchids and birds-of-paradise grow wild, and the bougainvillea blooms in eight colors.
But like most visitors, I stuck mainly to the area around Funchal, the island's capital (about 25 minutes from the airport). There's enough in town to explore for a week. Ride the cable car over clay-tile rooftops and tiny farms carved into the mountainside. The cable-car ride ends at the entrance to a gorgeous park, Monte Palace, built by the art collector José Rodrigues Berardo. Artfully designed, Monte Palace offers a mother lode of craggy rocks and shimmering crystals if you can peel yourself away from the bird's-eye view of Funchal's harbor. Fly downhill stashed inside a sleigh like wicker basket (carros de cesto) on greased runners. (Ernest Hemingway survived the thrilling ride, and so will you.) Before descending, stop by Restaurante Belmonte, where toboggan drivers enjoy uma bica (small espresso) and where, on the top floor, I dug into delicious grilled fish in a noisy smoke-filled room. Before waddling downhill (OK, so I didn't dare hitch a ride in a wicker basket), check out the prehistoric tree ferns from South Africa and fetch a free glass of Madeira wine that comes with admission to the park.
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."
A bird's-eye view of Funchal rooftops from inside a cable car on the way to Monte. Don't miss the ride downhill stuffed inside a wicker basket, carros de cesto.
Ernest Hemingway reportedly described the wicker-basket ride as one of the most exhilarating experiences in his life.
Made by hand, Madeira embroidery. Susanin's Charity auctions in Chicago offered a famed collection of Madeira embroidery last year. For auction results, call 312/832-9800 or long onto www.susaninscharity.com . The linens were from the estate of Vera Way Marghab; proceeds were donated to the South Dakota Art Museum. More than 500 sets of Madeira linen were sold.
Embroidered Black Dress
Designer Fernanda Nobrega uses traditional cutwork and embroidery in her new collection.
One of the island's oldest embroidery ateliers, Patricio & Gouveia.
Tunnels and a bridge link Funchal, the capital, to near by villages.
Funchal Mayor Miguel Albuquerque and his wife, Elizabete, run an extraordinary bed-and-breakfast, Quinta do Arco, complete with an authentic wine cellar that includes Madeira that was bottled 200 years ago.