Arraiolos - The Portuguese Needlepoint Rugs

In the beautiful village of Arraiolos in the South of Portugal it is not uncommon to find ladies sitting at their doorsteps busy making needlepoint carpets. It is a craft that has been passed down from generation to generation and is ingrained in the culture of Arraiolos. The world-famous Arraiolos Stitch is a long-armed cross-stitch, the basis of the technique used in making these carpets. It is type of counted thread embroidery using wool thread on canvas which can be jute or linen.

Recently a monument was built paying homage to Arraiolos' needlewomen. The author of the monument justifies it: "(the embroiderers) patiently dominated the motifs of birds, flowers, medallions, geometrical bars, developing a decorative art that settled in the daily life of population. Carpets are intimately related to the way of life and sociability of Arraiolos providing unique moments of familiarity: we see groups of women sitting in the shade of the houses and walls, in the long and bright days, patiently embroidering rugs then installed in the interior of homes. The needlewomen are, still today, the foundation of a cultural circuit that connects the house to the street and Arraiolos to the rest of the world."

This famous Portuguese craft, however, was imported from Spain. There are no documents explaining the exact history but legend has it that the craft of embroidering carpets came with the Jews and Moors that were expelled by Queen Isabella from Spain. In 1492 she issued a decree by which all Jews and Moors were given three months to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. They were allowed to take their possessions with, but all gold, silver and coins were to be left in Spain. It therefore stands to reason that the Jews, who have been involved in making carpets for thousands of years, would use this skill to create an income in their new abode. Many Jews and Moors were given refuge by the Ottoman Empire who even sent ships to help them move, but some went West and landed in the beautiful village of Arraiolos. It is here were they taught the local citizens the art of embroidery and making carpets until 1511 when Portugal too expelled all Jews and Moors.

Since then the Portuguese needlewomen have continued this art, at first using the azulejo designs (a form painted tin-glazed ceramic tilework) and later developing their own designs.

Recently the largest Arraiolos carpet was completed. This project began in 2010 and ended over hundreds of working days and half a million stitches later. It is now in the collection of the National Museum Machado de Castro.