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From Rugs to Riches in Portugal

April 06, 1986|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer.

LISBON — During the 17th and 18th centuries the Portuguese aristocracy listed rugs in their catalogues of riches. The rugs were treasures: hand-embroidery on linen backing, with beautiful earthy and vibrant colors and intricate patterns.

The origins of the techniques used to make the rugs are cloaked in the clouds of history, but it is thought that the craft was started in Portugal by the Moors, who used carpets as wall coverings and prayer rugs.

When the Moors were ousted from Lisbon by order of King Manuel I in 1496, many of them traveled south to southern Spain and North Africa. Along their route of exile, some settled near the Portuguese trading town of Evora, in a village called Arraiolos (pronounced Ar-ray-oh-loush), where fertile land for farming and grazing was available. Historians say the Moors taught their rug-making techniques to local women, and the town's name thereafter became synonymous with this kind of embroidered rug and the stitch used to make it. Arraiolos rugs gained importance in Portugal after the Moors had retreated from that area, and the Portuguese nobility took up residence there.

Same Exacting Technique

The rugs are still made by the same exacting technique. Rug-making is one of Portugal's traditional cottage industries. Estimates of the number of women making the rugs range from 15,000 to 60,000. Many are regularly employed by merchants. Rugs are traditionally made in the home, but recently sewers have been moved to small factories.

A sturdy jute backing is used, and an elongated cross-stitch, reinforced by a double thickness of all-wool yarn, covers the canvas. Two grades of stitching are used: fine point and gros point. The smaller stitch requires more time to make, is more durable and expensive. It also allows for greater intricacy of design. Original vegetable dyes, which produced vibrant reds and blues, have been replaced by a varied palette of chemical colors. The wool, once shorn from local sheep, is now mostly imported, primarily from New Zealand.

Any Size and Shape

Because manufacture of Arraiolos rugs doesn't require a loom, they can be made in any size, shape, pattern and color. In general, rugs made during the 17th and 18th centuries were rectangular and used four basic design elements. Plants, including two dozen varieties of flowers, were popular, as were geometric patterns based on intricate linear designs of Moorish tiles. Animals and birds, real and imaginary, populated the rugs. And there were hearts, crowns, amphoras and other shapes which might have symbolized strength, nobility and wealth.

Revived in Early 1900s

During the 19th Century, the Napoleonic Wars, exile of Portuguese nobility to Brazil and economic collapse undermined Portuguese rug-making. But the industry was revived in the early 1900s by Portuguese artist Jose de Quieros, who researched ancient patterns and found bright, clear dyes. Rug-making spread from Arraiolos to other towns in Portugal, especially in the north, around the city of Oporto.

Arraiolos rugs attracted international attention between 1920 and 1940, when Europeans and Americans began collecting them. The rugs have found their way into museum treasuries and private collections. New design elements, based on French Aubusson and English floral patterns, were introduced. Today, some of the rugs are made with modified palette and patterns to suit the tastes of contemporary buyers, but fortunately many ancient design elements, especially the florals and geometric patterns, have been retained. For the most part, rich earth tones are still used.

Several women may work on one rug simultaneously. Designs are usually symmetrical. The canvas is divided into four quarters; the design of one section is mirrored in the other sections. Sewers usually work from the center outward. The needle is kept vertical; the canvas is pierced with a rapidly repeated motion. More experienced stitchers work the intricately patterned areas first, then less experienced sewers fill the background. It takes a fast worker about 15 days to complete one square meter of fine point, which has more than 40,000 stitches.

In Specialized Shops

The rugs are exported, and are available in specialized shops in the United States and other countries. Smart shoppers who go to Portugal to purchase the rugs have a great advantage. They can see the full selection and buy those that are ready-made or order to their own color or pattern specifications. Ready-made rugs cost from $9 to $20 per square foot, depending on whether the stitch is gros or fine, and upon the design's intricacy. Special orders cost 30% to 40% more. Prices in the United States are generaly four to five times higher.

Easy to Transport

The rugs are easy to transport. A 9x12-foot rug can be folded into a suitcase-size bundle, ready for the plane's baggage hold. United States customs adds 9.8% of the rug's price to the cost. You can have the rug sent, with shipping and insurance charges added to the bill.

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