Leila is part of a group of 40 women embroiderers called ‘As Três Baianinhas’. The women are located in and around Brasília. Their embroidery can be found on table linens, home decor items and accessories, inspired by Brazilian flora, fauna and local traditions. Through embroidery the women connect with their part of Brazil and the land of their ancestors, sharing beautiful local landscapes.
Image: Leila Muniz (far left) and some of the embroiderers of 'As Três Baianinhas'
History of embroidery in Brazil
We asked Leila to tell us a bit about embroidery in Brazil and where it comes from. Leila explains: "In Brazil, the many immigrants coming from Europe introduced the art of embroidery. Mainly in the north and northeast of Brazil, the Dutch were known for their classical style of embroidery, using white tones on white or light colors. In the south of the country, the Ukrainian and Hungarian immigrants passed on their knowledge of embroidery in very colorful tones, now typical for this region. Italy and its immigrants, being the center of all arts at that time, have also contributed enormously to the development of the art of embroidery in Brazil. And finally the embroideries of the Portuguese islands of Madeira and the Azores left their mark, in particular the openwork embroideries (crivo stitch).
In the recent past, learning to embroider was part of the tasks of well-educated girls, even if most of them, in wealthy families, would not embroider much once married. As labor was not expensive, they preferred to order their tablecloths, nightgowns and baby clothes from embroiderers.”
A transfer of skills, stories and traditions"I would have liked to tell you that the first embroideries in Brazil translated the stories of life and regions of Brazilian women, but nothing could be further from the truth,” explains Leila. “The themes belonged to countries they didn't even know existed, but by reproducing them they became more familiar than the birds and flowers that surrounded the women in Brazil.
In our group, the themes have allowed both the embroiderers and their family members to know more about local Brazilian trees, animals and traditions. Through the use of folkloric motifs, they learn about the origins and social values of their community and the cultural heritage of their region.
Nowadays Brazilian embroiderers feel free to express themselves through their work: some embroider their region, the architecture of their cities, nature, as well as their opinions on political events. After the 2018 assassination of Marielle Franco, city council member in Rio de Janeiro, who was murdered because of her political and social views, we saw her face embroidered by several groups, accompanied by expressions of protest demanding that the case be investigated.
However in the past, before young women decided to leave their villages to work in the big cities (often as domestic workers, since education in these villages stopped just after the first years of elementary school), the art of embroidery as a profession was passed from mother to daughter for several generations.”
It's in the details
Embroidery is considered a traditional craft in Brazil. On what occasions do people give embroidered items? “Traditionally, the perfect occasions for embroidered gifts were births, baptisms and weddings” says Leila. “For a very long time, embroidery was only available on large pieces, which made these kinds of gifts extremely expensive! Nowadays, we see embroidery on smaller, everyday pieces. Just a little embroidered detail makes a difference, yet keeps the price affordable. Besides perfecting the skill of embroidery, we have learned to use it to create a sense of originality. Funny or poetic messages give embroidery a more dynamic and expressive dimension.”
As the driving force behind ‘As Três Baianinhas’, Leila is continuously on the lookout for new designs. We asked her where she gets her inspiration. “Nature and scenes of daily life in our countryside and cities is what inspires me,” explains Leila. “These are my designs, drawn freely or from photos taken in gardens of Brasília or the Cerrado, but I also use pictures taken during trips to the countryside of Brazil. We have also embroidered very old patterns from botanists where flowers, birds, mammals and insects were represented. Some photographers specializing in birds and mammals allow us to use their photos, and I often consult books on ornithology or mammals.”
Craft inspiration from nature
Work from home
“We did not look for a studio for our embroidery group,” says Leila. “First of all, because we wanted the mothers to be able to work at home, allowing them to be close to their children. Secondly, the rental prices are too high, even in the smaller towns. So each embroiders at home, when they can, after taking care of their families, bringing children to school etc.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, those with a bit more space opened up their homes so the women could work together in the afternoon. In the past when the group did not yet exist, these women sometimes lived in the same neighborhood without knowing each other! Those moments of togetherness are very much missed at the moment. Their bond helps dealing with individual problems too; even more serious issues such as domestic violence have been resolved with the support of the group.”
Slow handmade craft versus fast made
We asked Leila if the embroiderers face challenges in a modern world where things are manufactured at a fast pace. “It's not an easy job. And you are right; thanks to modern techniques it is possible nowadays to make beautiful things in a short amount of time. Why spend so much time creating an embroidered piece by hand and why should people pay a higher price for such work?
Very often on markets or exhibitions, people find our products very expensive. Then we take the time to explain to them why and how each flower petal on an embroidered tree is made. And people are very surprised to learn about this slow craft as nowadays everything is done so fast! It is important to point out that in Brazil handcrafts are not valued as much as in Europe as manual labor has always been, for the most part, performed by slaves and their descendants.
Fortunately, handmade embroidery is gaining popularity: people want to reproduce the clothes of famous artists and the cushions and home decor items they see in ‘telenovelas’ (Brazilian soap operas). Additionally we are discovering that embroidery is a very good therapy. Introducing modern graphics and themes into embroidery, makes it more attractive, even to a younger crowd.
A great challenge for us is to find our customers, who usually only attend certain fairs or exhibitions organized in the city. These are people belonging to the most affluent social classes of Brasília. Outside the city, the buying power remains too low for our kind of products, and after having tried without success, we now only focus on events in the city.”
Image: Detailed embroidery of a local Brazilian tree
From back to the roots to continued support
We asked Leila what made her form the group and why it is important to keep supporting them. “My mother used to embroider; she made many beautiful things with her hands," says Leila. "I learned a little bit of everything from her, and especially the amount of time it takes to create something by hand. At a young age I started sewing, embroidery, etc. During my studies I liked creating things in my free time.
I moved to Geneva in 1975 where I accepted a well-paid job. Unfortunately it was a non-creative position and this ultimately led me to do what I liked most; creating products for two boutiques that sold old-fashioned items: pillowcases, sheets, baby clothes, table linen, etc. I liked it, especially their taste for traditional embroidery. Some of the more complicated work I produced in Brazil, which led me to go and see the craftswomen every time I came home for a visit.
I began to realize that the work of the women was underpaid. They were not aware of the value of their work, and did not realize their bargaining power. They didn’t know how to establish and organize themselves as an association or cooperative.
Influenced by television and images in small magazines sold in tobacco shops, I noticed that the embroiderers were abandoning traditional stitches and replacing them with cross-stitch, which does not allow for a precise reproduction of a bird or a flower. They didn't realize how valuable their traditional techniques were, leaving them at risk of losing their skills.
When I returned to Brazil in 1989, I started my project of working with women embroiderers, creating a group with a truly Brazilian identity. I wanted to show the women the value and non-material value of their work and how to preserve this artisanal craft that was in danger of being lost; replaced by less gratifying, but safer trades.
So far it has not been possible to change the situation of all the embroiderers in the Northeast (these are the ones I got to know best), however I am happy to be able to influence a small part of that world and make it a better place. I will continue to support this group as I am the link with the clients and fair organizers, and my creative input to their work is important for the women. More than anything, after all these years we have become friends who work together.”
For more information on As Três Baianinhas follow them on Facebook and Instagram.
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