Being a good needle

The case of the Arraiolos rugs


De Nederlandse vertaling lees je hier.

Welcome to Arraiolos, a village on a hill with a 14th-century castle overlooking the surrounding flatlands. Located in Alentejo, southern Portugal, its particular landscape of cork oak forests immediately evokes one of the region’s paradoxes: the ecologically unique and immense savannah-like landscape with the horizon afar, its freedom, the slow passage of time and the nostalgia; contrasted with the desertic, extremely hot atmosphere of the summer’s dried out golden monoculture fields.

It is in this land of simultaneous abundance and scarcity that a traditional form of hand-embroidered tapestries prospered but now faces diverse challenges to its continuity. Today’s intergenerational passing on of its crafting knowledge is compromised by the economic viability of its production and the international market’s pressure with low-priced counterfeit versions coming mostly from China. On the other hand, there is a proliferation of this stitching technique’s application in more contemporary designs sparking the adoption of this textile practice as a popular hobby in Portugal and abroad.

Arraiolos, the place, is at the heart of this craft, as it has been for centuries, lending the name to its rugs. The oldest reference to Arraiolos’ rugs is from 1598, and the oldest rugs preserved today date back to the XVII century. There is however archaeological evidence of 13th-century dye pots in the town’s square, revealing an older tradition of textile production.

The Tapetes de Arraiolos (Arraiolos rugs) are hand-embroidered tapestries of wool yarn on a special open warp. This rug constitutes a unique artisanal manifestation with a singular production method and both a functional and a decorative function. Technically simple, its fabrication does not require a loom or a frame. The Alentejo rugs are needlework rugs, hand-embroidered with only one type of stitch, the Ponto de Arraiolos (Arraiolos Stitch) as it is named in Portugal, but also known as oblique cross stitch or long-legged/long-arm cross stitch. Weaved into this tapestry’s history is its global ancestry traced directly to ancient oriental rugs. 

Similar to other world crafts, this artisanal expression is grounded in its landscape, seemingly sustainable in the application of local natural materials even if not providing economic sustainability to its makers. The process for the preservation of this heritage is a great challenge due to the curious mix of values it has acquired up to the present day: it is simultaneously an ancient cultural asset and a contemporary commercial good, both aspects being vital to the prosperity of the village and the villagers of Arraiolos.

A great example of this dichotomy is the village’s annual event: “O Tapete Está na Rua” (The Rug is on the Street). I have visited it with my family several times during my upbringing and having returned as an adult this summer I witnessed this town’s celebration as a vibrant and recreational manifestation of traditional food and souvenirs. However, it has also turned into an event highly designed by and for the tourist sector. The rug had naturally, not only the main stage, but was also hanging in all the balconies while having its production shown on the streets. As the name of the event itself indicates, the rug is outside, and at least once a year it is out of the domestic and private environments where it is otherwise fabricated. This public display is used as an activation of its technique to ignite the curiosity of the visitors and hopefully produce some much-needed economic return. These activations and the event itself are thought of as holistically as possible: they aim to show the entirety of the process of fabrication, from fibre to full rug, including natural dying installations and live sheep being sheared the traditional way, with scissors. Conversations with a few local practitioners, mostly women embroiderers and their grandchildren, confirmed my initial suspicion: the holistic fabrication process is by now fictional. The traditional manufacturing process is no longer practised and inevitably no longer embedded in the landscape. Accounting also the fact that virtually no sheep are sheared with scissors anymore, the yarns used – a special kind of yarn, only produced for the making of Arraiolos rugs and obviously named after it – lã de Arraiolos –, is now spun industrially, most likely industrially dyed too, and most likely and fortunately, by one of the very few remaining mills in Portugal.

My earliest memories of Arraiolos rugs are from the house me and my family moved to in the early 2000s. I remember walking up the stairs and observing the flowers of the Arraiolos rug my mother commissioned from a single mother who was in need of an extra income; we imagine a kind of labour she could perform from home while caring for her child. It was a long rug covering 14 stair steps. It took this one embroiderer a little over a year to produce. My mother recalls that after providing the materials (the burlap and the wool yarn) she would pay around 100€ per month. A not at all atypical method of payment, since embroiderers are, still today, after more than two decades, paid by the square metre and rarely have the stability of an hourly or monthly based salary.

This is the myth of the Boa Agulha de Arraiolos.

The Boa Agulha de Arraiolos, meaning the good needle of Arraiolos, is a master embroiderer of Arraiolos rugs. She is the most skilled worker for she is the fastest embroiderer which earns her the title. The “good needle” Felismina, a local I befriended, confesses: “a square metre takes 11 days to make; the price is €120; they can make 2 square metres in a month and earn €240!” That accounts for a third of the Portuguese minimum wage working in a clandestine fashion and in absolute solitude out of their own domestic spaces. 

It is no news, especially for crafts makers, that the current liberal capitalist market holds many stakeholders hostage. In the case of these women, it imprisons them in their own homes and homelands, sweatshopping their productivity by pushing them into the fastest of needle athletics for the meagre success of the businesses and incidentally the preservation of the Arraiolos rug tradition. Even if the mayor of Arraiolos acknowledged, in a conference aimed at brainstorming ways for the preservation of this heritage and taking its people out of precarity, that “without the embroiderers, the Arraiolos rug cannot survive”, many other stakeholders imagined: how can this production system be redesigned to sustain the very bodies that give shape to it?[1]

There is pride around the rug; you can feel it in Arraiolos. Many youths hold the knowledge of the tradition but seem to not be attracted to it to the point of dedicating their lives to the craft.[2] However, there is not much pride in the actual making of the rug. The contemporary duality sustains itself, being a “good needle” is considered a “minor job”, a sign of precarity, preceded either by unemployment or an acute need for an income supplement in the household. It is a common example among retired women. The “good needles” are factory line workers without a factory. They learned an artistic expression they can now only execute in a machine-like fashion. Inadvertently competing with a textile industry where workers earn 1-3% of the retail price for an equally repetitive task while producing hundreds and thousands of items. If you carefully observe a “good needle” at work, you sense the needle becoming a body extension of the embroiderer. It is the needle, but above all, the dexterity of the embroiderer, that defines the labouring body.

Therefore, the current preservation issue seems to put the value of the Arraiolos embroiderer on her production capacity, equating the case of the Arraiolos rugs and its embroiderers to one of profit-specific economic concern. It is a fact that the Arraiolos rugs continuity throughout the times; its materials; its aesthetic transformation and its perception as an artistic craft revolve around its production, being therefore dependent on its viable commercialization. 

One of the most interesting features of this rug is colour and, surprisingly, its perception. Recent research has shed historical and literal light on the contradictions in the understanding, production, and use of Arraiolos rugs. The colour palette of Arraiolos yarns is vast, but predominantly pale tones. What is now known, is that the current colours of the Arraiolos rugs have been a direct translation of the visually perceived colours of centuries-old rugs preserved in the country’s institutions and museums. These fading colours are in fact only a memory of their original natural colours which have faded due to the region’s strong sunlight.[3] Dye pigments included madder root, indigo, woad, cochineal, Brazil wood, and logwood, among other natural materials not native to Portugal. It is in this way that the Arraiolos rug proves to be a world tapestry, as its history is intrinsically linked to the birth of global commercial links.

In more recent history, the rug was naturally impacted by the end of fascism. Portugal had its political revolution in 1974, with a particular impact in the region of Alentejo where the agrarian reform took place.[4] Even though generally unsuccessful, the reform sparked a new mindset regarding the accessibility to goods that impacted both the designs and the ways of producing these local rugs. The motives became more a reflection of the local popular vernacular and a direct representation of the local fauna and flora, while the materials started to lose their quality and delicacy. This triggered not only a rise in productivity but also in the number of producers as more people started manufacturing the rugs and expanding the market. Its customers were now no longer just the aristocracy but the newly ascendant middle class. By the 90’s these rugs had spread all over the world, as they were also economical to European and Western markets, with prices oftentimes lower than those of Persian rugs. Still, today the rugs are taxed at 23%, like a luxury item and cost on average 240€ per square metre to the consumer. 

What is the relationship between the reduction of production costs and the increase in productivity, and ultimately profit? And how does the community relate to it?

The rug house shops have been struggling to keep the prices low as they believe they wouldn’t be able to sell this product at a higher cost. Because of this, the rug-making process evolved particularly in the usage of materials: it is now generally produced with thicker thread, with the exception of the rugs that follow the tradition of Arraiolos that use a thinner yarn. Arraiolos canvas is now no longer hand-woven linen but industrial jute burlap, cheaper, wider, more resistant, but also rougher to the touch. On a technical level, the Arraiolos rugs also lost plasticity. Today’s criticism is mainly regarding the motifs used but also the way in which they are explored: they are now closer to pixel art than to free-hand embroidery. Trapped in the rigidity of its pattern grid, it lost a type of stitch that previously put forward all its richness. Before, the motifs were transferred directly onto the linen canvas and brought to life with stem stitch, an embroidery stitch technique that would create a linear contour to the drawing. 

The first embroiderer I spoke to on the streets of Arraiolos, during the rug’s festivities – Crispina – told me that she never learned the stem stitch, while curiously struggling to execute it in the showcase she was leading. When I enquired why, she replied that we can only assume this delicate outline stitch is too time-consuming. It also suits a freer interpretation of the pattern, which is not viable for the mass production of contemporary designs for the rugs.

The Arraiolos rugs are at present only made-to-order, meaning their production only starts when an order is placed. There is of course room for customization, but it comes at an extra cost, with only a small percentage of that extra income going to the embroiderer. Even so, this can be a glimpse of a more sustainable business model as it responds directly to the demand, generating minimal surplus and by-product. 

Felismina, my “good needle” friend, recalls with nostalgia her childhood memories: “I remember when I was a little girl, seeing my cousin and my aunt delivering the rugs they made for the Kalifa factory, which no longer exists. They used to carry the rug in a cloth bag because they couldn’t be seen, but now it’s different; they no longer hide.” Since the Arraiolos rugs constitute a sort of domestic industry, a rug house (rug shop) runs no factory and thus operates with very few hired staff if at all. In general, the work is outsourced to local embroiderers. Most of the time, informal or illegal work where payment is in all cases black money, cash in hand at a very low rate. 

It was interesting to find out that there are actually better-paid job opportunities being created for the Arraiolos embroiderers. With a focus on the historical and cultural value, the municipality of Arraiolos started to commission work and “performance hours”. In the local museum, or during the festival “The Rug is on the Street”, embroiderers earn an hourly rate of 5€ to demonstrate the technique and teach visitors. A live performance of the work otherwise hidden and underpaid, ironically resisting the economically stressed and speedy performance. This contrasting job opportunities are nonetheless scarce and punctual and do not result in systemic labour changes for these workers.

Beyond Arraiolos and its efforts for cultural preservation and certification,[5] the production of these rugs was industrially registered on Portuguese law in 2015 by an apparent union of producers based in the north of Portugal, with no members based in Arraiolos, nor the Alentejo.[6] This is an industrial certification – a copyright license – that ignores not only its historical context but also its technical, material, and decorative tradition. And is, most likely, profit driven as it requires economic compensation in the likes of the village seeking the commercial certification of its own tradition rugs to entities unrelated in cultural, geographical and productive output. This industrial property is registered under the name “Portuguese Arraiolos rugs” which prevents any other registration, even by the municipality of Arraiolos, even if the local shops collectively wouldn’t oppose the consequent increase in the retail price of a certified product. This is in fact a known tactic of textile industrialists in Portugal, to invest in patents and registrations, seeking compensation from designers and artists who failed to protect their brand names. This ferocious economic competition, an action of strict legality, interferes directly with the preservation of the rug’s history, its tradition and its generational bequeath. 

The current production and labour conditions of the Arraiolos rugs reveals the poor vision and the lack of social justice in the promotion and the preservation of this heritage. Rui Lobo, historian for the Municipality of Arraiolos and director of the Interpretive Center of Arraiolos Carpet (CITA), calls out the Portuguese state to recognize its failure in safeguarding the continuity of this immaterial heritage. He sustains that the government should present a clearer positioning and, exceptionally, interfere in this crafts economy, while following UNESCO guidelines which are very clear in their protection of cultural value over economical dysregulation.[7]

It is easy to see that the Design strategies developed around the Arraiolos rug have been purely driven by financial considerations. Stripping down cultural aspects can decrease production costs but it will come at the cost of the craft’s very soul. Interestingly, this research has allowed me, above all, to reconsider Design’s neutrality. If one can speak of Design as a problem solver and an enhancer, one can think of Design always as a positive force. But in Arraiolos, instead, we can speak of Design bias under capitalism, and it is not only me that believe that these recent redesigns were actions of “down-designing” the Arraiolos rug.[8]

Felismina expresses her sadness albeit with a certain amount of local wit, for this “an art that should not be lost, but unfortunately, it is fading away. (…) Often, we share that information with customers to help them understand the Arraiolos rug; we are saddened when they come to Arraiolos and buy a Chinese counterfeit rug, which has already happened. Even though we barely speak Portuguese (referring to Alentejano, the local accent, a slightly dragged and slower sounding Portuguese), let alone any other languages, we manage to sell to all parts of the world, which is very good and amusing. (…) For me, these rugs represent our culture.” 

This is the responsibility I inherited. A guardianship of continuity, but transformed, by shifting the focus from resilience to the many existing forms of generational wealth of my land and my ancestors. To Design up, reversing the current process down-designing.

[1] “Without the embroiderers, the Arraiolos rug cannot survive”, said Sílvia Cristina Tirapicos Pinto, Mayor of Arraiolos, during the conference “Defense, Safeguarding and Promotion of the Arraiolos Rug – 20 years of the ‘The Rug is on the Street’ and 10 years of the Interpretive Center of Arraiolos Carpet”, 9th June 2023. This conference had representatives not only of the local and regional political bodies, but of those of Tourism, Employment, Culture, Science, Arts and academia, missing an essential piece of this puzzle: the businesses, especially those that sell the rugs.

[2] “I don’t embroider anymore; I did in my childhood and teenage years. But I am not on the rug making for years, even tho I know how to. This is an art form that, once you learn it, you will never forget.” told me Helena Espadaneira, president of the civil parish council of Arraiolos, via e-mail.

[3] A laboratory chemical study and fibre analysis of the old rug specimens, conducted by the Hercules Laboratory (University of Évora) and commissioned by the Interpretive Center of Arraiolos Carpet (CITA) was vital to understanding both the past and the present of the Arraiolos rug.

[4] The agrarian reform in the Alentejo region was a popular movement between 1974-76 where rural workers expropriated land and took over the means of production, organizing through the lenses of Marxist-communist ideologies.  

[5] In 2002 was approved in the Portuguese Journal of the Republic (Diário da República), the creation of a Centre for the Promotion of the Arraiolos Rug, which would be the responsible entity for certifications and rug guidelines alike. Later in 2021 there was progress regarding the cultural bureaucracy: it was introduced the “Manufacturing process of the Arraiolos carpet” into the National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage (MatrizPCI) to certify Arraiolos rugs made under traditional guidelines. However, up to today, this public entity is unable to work on any commercial certifications for the Arraiolos rug.

[6] The association ANPROTA stands for National Association of Arraiolos Carpet Producers for the Development, Promotion and Enhancement. It’s an industrial association that since 2013 holds the industrial rights to the Denomination of Origin of “Arraiolos Rugs of Portugal”.

[7] The UNESCO general assembly of 22-24 June 2010 determined the “Operational Directives for the Implementation of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage” where articles 116 and 117 clearly state the cultural and commercial dichotomy is welcomed as long as it sustains communities; again in both their economic and cultural value.

[8] “At the expense of quality and meaning we hear that the motifs of the Arraiolos rug are ugly and stagnated.”, said Filipe Rocha da Silva, Professor in the Department of Visual Arts and Design of the University of Évora, during the conference “Defense, Safeguarding and Promotion of the Arraiolos Rug – 20 years of the ‘The Rug is on the Street’ and 10 years of the Interpretive Center of Arraiolos Carpet”, 9th June 2023.