Gold Embroidery - Dressing the Virgins

Virgin Mary statue during Holy Week procession © Michelle Chaplow
Left - A cloak is spread out along a 10-metre-long table. The elaborate process of gold embroidery can take up to two years - all the work is carried out by hand. Right - Velvet cloak worn by Virgin Mary statue during a Holy Week procession. © Michelle Chaplow

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GOLD Embroidery - PAge 2 - Dressing the Virgins

by Fiona Flores Watson

...from Page I

If you've ever seen a Semana Santa (Holy Week) procession in Seville, especially at close quarters, you'll have an idea of how impressive and elaborate the Virgin's clothes are - as well as the techo de palio (canopy of her float), which sways gently as she "walks" (ie, is carried) through the streets. But until you study the handiwork closely, the minute detail and amazing varieties of stitches and styles, you can't fully appreciate the hours, days, weeks and months of skilled design, planning and sewing which goes into creating one of these garments. This is the ultimate in traditional Spanish craftsmanship.

Born in the working class Seville barrio of Cerro del Aguila in 1957 - his father was a plumber, his mother a housewife - Francisco, who looks ten years younger than his age, says he knew he wanted to be an embroiderer from a young age. "It wasn't well considered for a man to do embroidery," he recalls. Indeed, even today, all but one of the six people who work in his taller are women. He says of his calling, "I knew it wasn't a commercial choice, but I liked it and decided to do it as a career."

Expanding on the recent history of embroidery, Francisco explains that the tradition of embellishing the Virgin's garments languished for much of last century - just 40 years ago, the craft had all but disappeared. Just as well it was resurrected in the 1970s, since this artisan skill has a long heritage in Seville, dating back to the 17th century (and as far back as the 15th century for ecclesiastical garments). Today, embroidery is alive and well in Seville, with six workshops in total including Francisco's. He notes that his profession is kept going largely due to the enormous and continuing popularity of that great Sevillano religious event, Semana Santa (Holy Week), which sees hundreds of floats carrying statues process through the streets of the city. "Without it, we wouldn't be here," he admits. "We have to take on more people every year before Semana Santa to get the work done."

Francisco explains that when a garment is restored, the gold embroidery must be cut out and removed from the old fabric and sewn into a new piece of velvet. As with another popular local sartorial tradition, flamenco dresses, manto designs go through changes in fashion - at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, geometric patterns were the thing; now, 100 years later, it's all about flower and fruit shapes.

Continued ... Page 3 - Couture embroidery