The embroidery industry, although often spoken of today as one of the
traditional occupations in Madeira, is, in fact, only just over one hundred
years old, and a much more recent development than the wine and sugar
Madeira hand embroidery owes its origin to an English family named Phelps.
The firm of Phelps & Morrison was first registered in Madeira, as shippers of wine, in 1786. In 1821, Joseph Phelps became the first treasurer and one of the founder members of the Funchal Association, which was formed for the promotion of education in the island. At his awn expense he established a school for boys in 1822 which was known as the Escola Lancasteriana. Later a school for girls was started on similar lines by Madames Phelps & Blackburn. It was at this latter school that his daughter, Miss Phelps sold some of the “Broderie Anglaise’, for which they showed great aptitude. Formerly only a certain amount of rough wool embroidery on the local coarse linen had been produced in the island. Miss Phelps sold some of the “Broderie Anglaise” produced here, to relatives in London business houses and thus introduced Madeira hand embroidery to the English markets where a demand for the work crew, until it justified the establishment of a thriving young industry.
Hence Madeira owes the success of its embroidery industry to the interest and initiative of Miss Phelps, and recognizes its debt by re-naming a Square, in the principal
town of Funchal, formerly known as the Largo do Carmo, where the “Counting House” of Messrs. J. .Phelps & Go., was situated, the Largo do Phelps, in honour of her family.
The first manufacturers of Madeira embroideries were English, but with the passing of time the industry passed into the hands of Germans, and remained there until the beginning of the 1914 war. Between the world wars Americans took an active part in the industry. Today there are 96 embroidery factories at work on the island, 91 Portuguese owned, three English and four American. The principal market has varied, passing from Great Britain to the German Empire and thence to the United States which country remains the principal buyer today.
The value of exports for 1953, despatched to 78 markets throughout the world, totalled esc. 162 ;356.660$00, the equivalent at over 5.5 million U.S. dollars.
Today the industry is controlled by the GREMIO, a forward-looking association at
all the Madeira embroidery manufacturers. Inevitably it has been recognised that
industry so important must not demand for survival upon a tradition passed on
from mother to daughter without any formal educational system. The GREMIO
controls three special schools one in the fishing village of Camara de Lobos
(where anyone will show the tourist where Sir Winston Churchill pitched his
easel) and two in Machico on the other side of Funchal. Between them, the
schools take 1,000 pupils who attend for two hours daily during either the
morning or the afternoon. The children go to another school for the alternative
session to acquire the three R’s. Most of the pupils are the children of the
poor. The schools demand no fees. They provide simple overalls, scraps of
material stamped with embroidery patterns, needles and thread.
Their completed works, the less ambitious pieces, at least, belong to the pupils who make from them much needed articles of clothing for themselves. The youngest children are three years old, but occasionally much older pupils attend the schools. The teachers are skilful needlewomen.
A government representative is present at the meetings of the GREMIO, and regulations established by this body are subject to the official sanction of the Minister of Commerce, before they become effective. The GREMIO has established regulations governing every aspect of the industry, namely:
These an administrative centres for the manufacturers, where the designs are made and stamped on the materials and the work distributed to the embroideresses. Finally, when the embroidery has been completed it to returned to the depot, where it is trimmed, washed, pressed and packed for export.
There can be few places in the world where woman play a more vital part in the national economy then in Madeira. It in estimated that, of the islands 68,000 girls and women between the ages of 15 and 50, no fewer than 58,000 contribute some hours daily to the principal industry for which this fruitful Portuguese possession has become famous - the production of embrodroideries. Only 4000 workers an employed in the so-called factories. The bulk of the work is done by the women in their own homes.
The considerable importance of Funchal as a port is not only to its export trade, but also to the island’s powerful attraction to tourists, both in Summer and Winter, but especially the latter. Tourists show keen interest in the now world-famous hand made embroidery and few leave the island without a souvenir or "Lembranca", in the form of some embroidered article. A more acceptable gift to those at home who have not been fortunate enough to visit the island far themselves, cannot be imagined.
Visitors touring the island can see the women at home, high up in the mountains,
where the air has a cool tang, or around the coast sitting at their doorways, or
in their little gardens, perhaps in the shade of some vine-covered trelliswork
producing the pieces of handwork, often with hands gnarled and coarsened from
work tending the fertile soil of the island, that later will go around the globe
to cheer and delight people of good taste in all countries. Madeira embroidery,
during its 100 years of existence has certainly had its moments of glory.
Intricately embroidered tablecloths and gossamer-like blouses, rich work,
artistic and elegant, has been offered to the world and has found its way to the
trousseaux of princesses, to the tables of Heads of State, and to the altars of
great temples, in fact, to places where splendour and good taste hold sway.
This then, is the brief account of an industry which recently completed its first century and which will doubtless continue to enhance the beauty of women and children, and of the home, for many centuries to come.
“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever........"