fiar linho santana madeira

The ancient saying from the North of Portugal, the motto of this article, honours linen as a symbol of family wealth, a heritage transmitted from parents to children. In the old days, the young ladies’ layettes were all woven with linen and tablecloths, with crochet trim, only used on festive days.

With the importance of linen in mind, Mar d’Estórias went to Santana, a village on the north coast of the island of Madeira, to hear the story of Lurdes. It is in Santana, in one of the typical thatched-roof houses that Lurdes has been weaving all week long, for more than 20 years.

Lurdes, 64, tells us that her grandmothers worked on linen, but it was not them who taught her to weave. This handspinner was a house-wife until her eldest son enrolled her on a municipal authority (Casa do Povo) course to learn the art of linen making. For 9 months she specialised in growing, harvesting, submerging, washing, drying and finally weaving these precious threads of flax into pieces of great value: “My son was to blame. He took the papers without my knowledge and signed me up. And then when it was time they called me.”

The Casa do Povo, at that time, saw the value in maintaining the traditions, which is why it made this course available, to those who were interested and paid for their admission: “they paid me more than twenty contos (around 100€ in the old Portuguese currency) plus food allowance.” With pride, Lurdes said: “with that money I gave him the driving license.”

Lurdes says that working with linen is similar to the work of the ant; you work a lot in the summer to have a good winter: “in a week that I am not here working, I work even more” to leave the linen ready to spin and weave.

Flax needs three-and-a-half-months to grow: it is sown in March, and at the end of July the roots are ripped off, and the seeds are removed. Then the linen is tied to sheaths and placed in water, “in a well or river, with stones on top.” Depending on the water temperature, flax is removed when it is breaking, which usually happens after 7 days: “when it comes out of the water it smells bad, so it has to be washed well and placed on a terrace to dry until it turns yellow.”

This tradition is hard work, especially the “scutching”part, which consists of striking the linen with a wooden shovel to remove the flax from the stalk: “oh, I have linen to “scutch” but it is so backbreaking,” says Lurdes. After that, it is time to separate the tow from the flax, by straightening the fibres in preparation for spinning. Before going to the loom, it still goes through a “three o’clock boiling process with lots of blue soap” and is sun-dried on the caneleiro (a rug made of canes).

It takes three people to put the threads onto the loom: “One holds the loom, the other turns one of the parts, and the other one goes to the front to straighten the linen threads.” After the  loom is assembled Lurdes coordinates the process by passing the shuttle from one side to the other to create the unique pieces: “At the loom I do what I want. Even the crochet is made on the loom.”

Lurdes already has some innovations in the way she works: she doesn’t use an old spinning wheel, and her spinning machine is electric instead of pedal. However, it continues to be a time-consuming process that entails immense immaterial value with the originality of the handmade work and the underlying tradition. For Mar d’Estórias the saying “after the gold, is linen” continues undoubtedly to be present in Lurdes’ work and exists in all the people who continue to keep the art of linen alive.