Portuguese Needlework Rugs,
also called Arraiolos Carpets (Tapetes de Arraiolos)

by Senhora Rafaella d’Allemtejo, GdS
(rafaella@easystreet.com)
October 2001/A.S. XXXVI

History of the Carpets

Needleworked rugs are a challenge to the researcher of historical textiles. Used as both wallhangings and floorcoverings, they are often overlooked in discussions of carpets and tapestries. Named for the town in central Portugal where the technique has remained popular (fig. 1: map of Portugal showing Arraiolos), it is difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of the Arraiolos technique on the Iberian peninsula. Similar techniques are found in other parts of the Continent as early as the 13th century. Handworked needle rugs are found in the paintings of Holbein, famous for his Tudor era portraiture.[3] A needleworked tablecarpet was given to Elizabeth I as a gift in the late 1500s.[2]

The design of Arraiolos carpets exhibit the Western European fascination for Oriental rugs. The rug patterns are based on Islamic interlaced tiles called azulejos, animals, flowers, and other abstract motifs. Some Arraiolos rugs display heraldic devices.[6] While appearing to be copies of Persian rugs, textile scholar Fernando Baptista de Oliveira traces a lineage of these carpets from the 14th & 15th century “bordado mourisco” technique (as near as I can tell from my poor translating of the Portuguese). Also in his book are pictures of the earliest textile (probably a wallhanging) using the Arraiolos technique. It currently resides in the Cathedral of Astroga in Spain and is dated to the 12th century.[4] According to Sherrill, “no documented examples survive from before the seventeenth century”.[5] Most of the examples accompanying this handout are from de Olivera’s book and are "attributed to the 17th century.”[4]

The Arraiolos technique

The long-armed cross-stitch is the basis of the technique used in making these carpets. Arraiolos carpets are distinctive for their use of contrast and highlighting techniques. Each carpet has a central design with multiple elements. In period the borders were worked in strips or had a square block in each of the four corners (unlike modern carpets which have their designs mitred in the corners).[4] Arraiolos carpets in period were worked in either wool or silk on linen (from the eighteenth century on they have been worked in wool on jute).[5]

There are 3 variations of the Arraiolos stitch: outline, travelling, and fill. The outline stitch blocks borders and central motifs. The travelling stitch outlines design elements. Interiors of motifs and borders are completed using the fill stitch. The stitch is worked over 2 threads of 10 count evenweave fabric using 3-ply tapestry yarn. When done correctly the finished straight row resembles a braid. Worked from the outside in, an Arraiolos rug is totally covered with stitches when finished. They rarely need blocking and should not be lined.

Supplies needed for Portuguese Needlework Rugs

Fabric ground: Evenweave Linen, Cotton Aida, or Jute. Do NOT use Burlap Jute. When using tapestry wools, use 10ct evenweave linen/11ct Aida.
Yarn: 100% Wool Tapestry Yarn; can substitute acrylic or blended fibers; Silk also used in period.
Tapestry needles (#18/20)
Marking Pencil: Fine mechanical pencil (sharpies can bleed!)
Scissors
Design/pattern

Steps in completing an Arraiolos Rug:

1. Plan design
2. Baste edges and mark central axis
3. Mark the design
4. Stitch outer borders (Outline stitch)
5. Stitch outlines of design motifs (Travelling stitch)
6. Complete background of rug (Fill stitch)
7. Finish with fringed or buttonhole/whipstitch edge
Stitch technique

Popular period yarn colors (based on color plates from de Oliveira):

Period projects

“Creative” projects

Endnotes/Bibliography

1. Black, David (ed.) The Macmillan atlas of rugs & carpets. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1985.

2. Clabburn, Pamela. The Needleworker’s Dictionary. New York: William Morrow, 1976.

3. Godwin, Airmid (mka Bennett, Elizabeth). "A needlemade Oriental rug of the Renaissance". In Tournaments Illuminated, 71:28-31. [Included in packet with permission of the author.]

4. Oliveira, F. Baptista de. História e técnica dos tapetes de Arraiolos. (4th ed.) Lisbon: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 1983.

5. Sherrill, Sarah B. Carpets and rugs of Europe and America. New York: Abbeville Press, 1996.

6. Stone, Patricia. Portuguese needlework rugs: the time-honored art of Arraiolos rugs adapted for modern handcrafters. McLean, VA: EPM Publications, 1981.