Monday, July 27, 2015

Madeira Linens-A little history

Madeira is a Portuguese owned island in the Atlantic Ocean South of Portugal and to the west of the north African coast. It is on this little island that the Madeira embroidery story began in the 1860’s when the youngest daughter of a wealthy British wine shipper helped turn what was an island pastime into a cottage industry.  The island’s wine industry was under threat from a disease of the vines (Phyloxera) and this was affecting the income of the local vineyard workers and therefore their families.  The concern for the families and their future lead Elizabeth Phelps to use her own skills of organization and motivation and her overseas connections and to begin to sell the work of the Madeiran embroiderers to the Victorians back in England.

The industry was vibrant throughout the early 1900’s but suffered a decline in the years of the First World War (1914-18). The quality declined and the product was not of the previous high standard. There was a resurgence of interest in the post war era as the demand for high quality products increased. It was then that many of the companies were founded Patricio & Gouveia (1925); Imperial de Bordados (1926); J.A. Teixeira (1937). Many of these linens were exported to the US, a huge market with the peak period being the 1950’s. Several companies were then American owned (Jabara; Marghab Linens and Imperial). Much of the trade was lost in the 1970’s due to the opening of the market to Chinese imports.

Linens embroidered in Madeira are still held in high regard as the quality of workmanship remains high. They are still exported and those of the highest standard are given the Gremio, a silver metal disc attached by a thread to the work.

One of the names that has become the benchmark for the quality of Madeira linens is Marghab.  Marghab Linens, Ltd. was founded in the 1930’s by Emile and Vera (nee Way) Marghab. Vera, an American, was born in 1900 in Wesley, Iowa and grew up in Watertown, South Dakota. Vera had hoped to follow a career in music and studied in New York where she met Emile Marghab, a British subject from Cyprus and an extended courtship began that lead to their marriage in 1931. They divided their time between New York and Madeira, where Emile had started an embroidery firm. In 1933 Vera joined him as a business partner and the business became Emile Marghab and Company, incorporating in New York the following year as Emile Marghab, Inc.

Marghab pattern known as 'Knight'
The reason the Marghab linens became the benchmark for the industry was the fact that Vera oversaw all aspects of the production and her desire for ‘perfection-nothing less’ made sure everything was of the highest quality. Vera selected the embroideresses; chose the fabrics and threads and also designed many of the pieces. She also selected the shops where the products sold-Neiman Marcus; Lord & Taylor and Marshall Fields, to name a few.
                                                Marghab pattern known as 'Flower Lady'

The highest quality Irish linen; a form of organdy,  called Margandie was made in Switzerland especially for Marghab (it was harder wearing than the usual organdy) and threads from France and England were used to produce the Marghab linens. The work was done by the embroideresses in their homes and per Vera’s instructions, they were paid for each stitch they made. In a single placemat you could count over 70,000 stitches! Everything was checked and nothing but perfection allowed to bear the Marghab name. The Marghab linens had a paper tag pinned to them with the company logo, a Portuguese sailing ship, along with the pattern number and size of the item.

Detailed buttonhole edging on Marghab napkins
Emile died in 1947 but Vera continued to supervise the business for a further 30 years until its disestablishment in 1980 due to political changes in Portugal. Vera returned to live in her childhood home in Watertown, South Dakota and remained active in business affairs and charity work. She donated her collection of Marghab linens to the South Dakota Art Museum in 1970 which, with subsequent donations from Vera and her estate (she died in 1995), now consists of over 300 patterns and is the most comprehensive collection of Marghab linens in the world.

Reverse side of Marghab Knight
Want to know if you have any pieces of Marghab linen? You can see many of the patterns by doing an Internet search. You can also make an appointment and take your piece to the South Dakota Art Museum for museum staff to verify the authenticity.

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