Stitch by stitch

Yes, that’s a C for Cátia!

For today’s blog post I’m bringing you a traditional style of embroidery found in Central Portugal, with  a touch of witchcraft and deep roots in the East. But that just didn’t seem enough, so I’m also introducing you to a very special embroiderer!

Living in Portugal I have, over the years, obviously come across several different types of traditional embroidery and weaving. One style, which always struck me because of how unique it seemed when compared to others, was Castelo Branco embroidery. 

Recently I discovered the work of Cláudia Simões, aka LittleStitchesPortugal, on Instagram and that renewed my interest for this intriguing tradition. The fact that she *is not* an elderly lady only contributed to my interest for her and her approach to embroidery.

One of the amazing things she has done so far was a collaboration with her friend and award-winner perfume maker Miguel Matos in a very special creation called Fado Jasmim: a limited edition of 24 pieces of what he calls “olfactory art”, using 70 year old bottles and each including a handmade Castelo Branco embroidery of a jasmine made by Cláudia, of course. If that’s not amazingly cool I don’t know what is!

Photo credits: LittleStitchesPortugal

Besides that, and certainly having in mind all of us mere mortals, she took the art of Castelo Branco embroidery and applied it to a different, more modern and versatile medium, creating pins/ brooches which are both traditional and modern in their simplicity.

Given the fact that most designs in this type of embroidery actually symbolise something (more on that later), this would be a way of conveying a message using one single element – and that is something found simultaneously in old European and Eastern traditions. Maybe a bit too nerdy? Sorry, but that’s how I roll!

At this point I thought this would give an interesting blog post and went on to do some research.

Although its origins are uncertain we know that Castelo Branco embroidery dates back to the 17th century and it is believed to have been brought to the Portuguese court by Eastern embroiderers. The region of Castelo Branco would become the ideal home for this art because it had the perfect climate for the production of linen and silk, both used in this kind of embroidery: linen for the embroidery canvas and silk for the thread.

Castelo Branco embroidery is traditionally often used in quilts, with its structure being similar to that of Eastern quilts, where a central element will have other smaller elements of decoration added around it.

Originally, the whole process was handmade, of course, and the more I thought about it the more it seemed like a sort of lengthy ritual, full of elaborate steps that included a wealth of knowledge that had been passed down from one generation to the next – ultimately, it would almost always end in an elaborate quilt painstakingly made by women.

It was after a chat with Cláudia that I learned something that further convinced me of the ritualistic nature of the Castelo Branco embroidery: the fact that it has no knots whatsoever. The silk thread is “glued” to the canvas using a bit of saliva from the embroiderer! So when you have something made using Castelo Branco embroidery you actually also have something both physical and invisible from the embroiderer who made it. Funky? Groovy? Odd? Wow? Eww? Whatever your choice of words I find this fascinating!

Photo credits: LittleStitchesPortugal

Castelo Branco embroidery uses a variety of fauna and flora designs, most of which have a symbolic meaning. The carnation is one of the most common elements, symbolising manlihood, while the lilly stands for virginity. The albarrada, a sort of vase commonly featured in this type of embroidery, represents the family, and so does a bunch of grapes.

Pomegranate means abundance and fertility, forget-me-nots signify kisses, tendrils symbolize hugs and ivy means affection. The two-headed eagle stands for the union between a man and a woman and the rooster personifies virility. Floral elements, like the peony, magnolia, lotus, chrysanthemum and plum bud are not so common these days, but interestingly enough they also happen to be popular decoration motifs in Chinese tradition. Scenes typical to the region, like orange picking and hunting, are also commonly depicted. 

Photo credits: LittleStitchesPortugal

I decided to ask Cláudia a few questions, since she was always so helpful and I thought readers of this blog post would also be interested in knowing a bit more about her:

How did you end up working with Castelo Branco embroidery? 

First of all, I have to say I never thought of embroidering and I often think I got too late into this “world”. Ideally, I should have started at a different age, but I also know there are no ideal situations in life. The traditional embroidery from Castelo Branco, which is also the city where I live in, showed up at a time when I felt a strong need to learn new stitches to embroider small items in free embroidery in order to make them richer and more appealing. I’ll admit I was never interested or identified myself with the aesthetic and design of an embroidery so traditional and full of dogma like this one. Today I realise I simply didn’t understand that language that my feet stepped on every day on the sidewalks of Castelo Branco. One day, when going to a haberdashery in the city I saw that someone was teaching Castelo Branco embroidery in a local society and decided to check. What started by being just a need became a great love and I eventually surrendered to the tradition and originality of this special embroidery. 

On average how many hours of work are needed for an item like the pins/ brooches? 

The number of hours changes a lot and depends on the design. A more complex design with plenty of details will always take up more time. The “forget-me-not” pin, for example [the first photo on this blog post], implies about 8 hours of work. 

If you could use the Castelo Branco embroidery in something not traditional (like you did with the pins), what would you choose?

The Castelo Branco embroidery is actually limited, in the sense that we work with noble materials, like linen and silk. Silk is very resistant but also very delicate, which means it must be handled with care. Still, I’d love to see Castelo Branco embroidery used in fashion. The greatest houses of haute couture still use these traditional techniques to create true works of art. It saddens me that the Castelo Branco embroidery hasn’t been chosen yet to add beauty, value, and tradition. 

Do you have a funny story or anecdote you’d like to share? 

Perhaps the best one, the one that I find funnier, is the fact that people don’t usually associate a young person with such a traditional type of embroidery and are very surprised when they get to know me because they were expecting someone older. At the same time, however, they’re happy that I’m keeping this tradition alive. 

Could you share a few lines about yourself? 

My name is Cláudia, I have a degree in International Journalism and live in Castelo Branco. Castelo Branco embroidery has been a tradition in my family, on my father’s side, but nobody in the generation previous to mine ever picked up a needle to embroider or to make a living from it. Currently I have an Instagram page through which I’m accepting orders for personalized free embroidery and Castelo Branco embroidery. In the future I hope I get to teach all those who want to learn this ancient way of embroidering that began in the 17th century so we can take this art into the future. 

** My renewed thanks to Cláudia for the videochats and for her patience in answering all my questions! 🙂 **

Photo credits: LittleStitchesPortugal

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