madeira, m’dear

I just came back yesterday from a blissful holiday in Madeira. It was hot and sunny every day, I went swimming in the sea, saw the most incredible views, ate delicious dinners (and rediscovered my love of prawns) and generally just had a wonderful time. What I didn’t do, which might seem odd, given what Madeira is famous for, is drink any Madeira wine – though I did bring a bottle back with me – or engage with the traditional embroidery in any way while I was there. This last point might seem even more surprising, given my primary interests in life, but I simply wasn’t interested in buying any of the embroidered items produced as souvenirs for the undiscerning cruise-ship-goers who visit the island in their hordes. There are two reasons for this: firstly, I don’t use handkerchiefs; there is no space in my life for embroidered wine bottle covers; I don’t feel the need to wrap my bread in cloth before eating it… I could go on. And secondly, although I fear it may be heresy to admit this, I don’t actually really like the style of traditional Madeiran embroidery. I find it quite fussy and old-fashioned, and I’m just not into lacy cut-work embroidered tablecloths. There we are, I said it.

Madeiran thatched houses

So how, you might well wonder, did I end up coming home with this – a kit with which to embroider my own frilly Madeiran-style table doily? A good question. Well, although I avoided entering a single embroidery shop on our visits to Funchal, and merely looked in the windows instead, I was caught off guard at the airport, where there was a large-ish shop in the departure lounge, at which point I had quite a lot of time on my hands and little reason to resist. Plus how many airports are there in the world with embroidery shops? Given the hideous nature of airports, who was I to turn my nose up at a whole shop full of something that I have a serious interest in? So off I went for a little nose around, and in fact I did find myself teetering on the brink of temptation to buy myself a hand-embroidered handkerchief. They really were quite pretty, and definitely the most useful of all the possible contenders. But just then, when I thought I had seen everything and was content to leave it all where I found it, I spotted a basket of embroidery kits, and there went the last scraps of my resolve.

Madeiran embroidery kit

Before I spied them, I had just been thinking to myself, in a very Mrs Armitage on Wheels style, ‘what this shop needs… is a way of catering for those who enjoy doing embroidery, rather than just those who buy finished embroidery’. As although I couldn’t see the point in buying embroidered goods that I had no need or use for, I was hugely impressed by the quality of the hand embroidery on every item in the shop, and I could really appreciate the skill and time that had gone into each and every piece. So I absolutely admired the work, just without desiring it. And that, I suppose, is how I ended up giving in and buying an embroidery kit to make my own doily, when I think there must be little else in the world that I want or need less. I was torn between this and a handkerchief kit, but the design on the handkerchief was less interesting, and it only had a straight rolled hem all the way round, unlike the doily, which features a frilly scalloped edge, which will be more fun to stitch and better practice for me.

Embroidery design

It was definitely the best airport purchase I’ve ever made in my life, and I don’t expect it will ever be outdone. I opened the kit on the plane home, and felt wonderfully pleased with my last-minute luck. It’s a very basic kit: there are no instructions, just a needle, lengths of thread and a piece of fabric with a printed pattern. I began stitching the little spots on the plane, but thought it best to play safe and leave the other bits until I had internet access with which to look up more detailed instructions for the foliage and edging. If anyone else is looking for similar material, it seems that the website of the company who produced the kit is currently down (, but I can recommend this tutorial on padded satin stitch, and figs 181–190 of this online version of Thérèse de Dillmont’s Encyclopedia of Needlework as useful references. So far it looks as if this will be pretty slow-going, so it’ll be a little while before I need to decide what on earth to do with my finished doily. I’m still thinking…