The Tapestry Art of Agulha

Portugal is a land swept by vivid color and the sprightly breezes of the Atlantic. Cascades of purple bougainvillea tumble over rococo motifs and garlanded tiles that reflect the penetrating blue of the sea. Brilliant red geraniums on windowsills contrast with the gaudy yellow of nodding sunflowers.

Crafts are a way of life to the Portuguese and their artisanship abounds with the colors of the countryside and the sea that has formed their history. In boutiques and ateliers, and sheltered under lean-tos along the roadway, handmade articles of simple and robust beauty beckon invitingly. Wickerwork, ropework, gaily woven trappings for donkeys, and the bright glaze of ceramics contrast with the soft mauves of local marble and embroidered linens from Madeira.

Portuguese rugs and tapestries hang in palaces and museums around the world. The famous Arriolos carpets are woven from ancient rug patterns, ranging from Persian to Moorish, or in modern designs of swirling flowers in soft pastels. The Arriolos were originally made as embroideries, and it is Portuguese needlework that has been renowned for centuries as this country’s most precious and unique craft. In the 1850s an English spinster, Elizabeth Phelps, took samples of embroidery from Madeira to London. Since then, hand-embroidered Portuguese blouses and table linens have been highly prized around the globe.
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Twenty-two years ago in Lisbon, a Scottish gallery owner was struck by the unusual method of hand stitching he observed in a tapestry sample brought to his attention by the wife of an artist whose paintings he stocked. Long columns of slightly irregular stitches gave a rippling, mobile quality to the design. The picture seemed to breathe with life. Eric Tannock sensed that he held in his hands the possibility of a new art form. He began to commission designs for tapestries from leading contemporary artists. Not just painters, but well-known sculptors and ceramists as well, contributed their artwork to create a new medium that would reflect the many facets of Portuguese art.

In this art form, the artist was not the only one involved in the creation of a thing of beauty. The skill of the artisan was of supreme importance. The unique stitching technique was adapted by the sewer herself. Working horizontal stitches from top to bottom, in varying widths, she recreated the artist’s picture according to her own interpretation, her own sense of the aesthetic. Now the design was no longer dependent on the monotonous regularity of the loom.