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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Marghab Linens—The Finest Embroidery Ever Made

Marghab Linens—The Finest Embroidery Ever Made
by Lynda Kolski (04/23/09).

Yellow and white Margandie and linen placemat and napkin in the Iris design.
Close-up of the Iris napkin showing the intricate detail Marghab Linens are known for.
Imagine a tablecloth of the finest Irish linen, embroidered with the best French embroidery floss in a design of exquisite colors and flowing lines. Not a stitch out of place or less than perfect; a design so intricate that it consists of more than 85,000 tiny stitches. Only one company ever produced such magnificent work—Marghab Linens.

Started in 1937 by Emile and Vera Way Marghab on the island of Madeira—a Portuguese archipelago in the mid Atlantic Ocean—Marghab produced the finest hand-embroidered linens in the world. The company produced nearly 300 designs, many of which had several variations. Until the company closed in 1980, Marghab reigned as the finest of the Madeira embroidery houses. Several competitors, such as Imperial and Jabara, also produced fine linens in Madeira, but they were always second to Marghab. To date, no other linen house has been able to match Marghab’s exquisite workmanship.

A native of South Dakota, Vera was the driving force behind the quality and design of Marghab linens. Her insistence on the most perfect embroidery and the finest materials was unparalleled. Every piece was inspected before being sold. She was known to have rejected an embroidered piece that took months to create if just a few stitches were missing or not to her very high standards.

A tablecloth with matching napkins in the Hibiscus pattern. Some tablecloths had 100,000 stiches.
A close-up of the Hibiscus pattern. Photos do not do justice to this exquisite needlework.

At the height of their business, Marghab employed nearly 90 people in its Madeira facility. However, the majority of the embroidery was done by hundreds of highly skilled women throughout Madeira’s countryside. Then, needlecraft was a skill passed down through the generations from mother to daughter. Only the most skilled embroiderers worked for Marghab. These ladies usually worked outside in the island sunlight. Few wore glasses, and almost none used any kind of magnifying glass to do their needlework.

The embroiderers were paid by the stitch. Some of the tablecloths contained nearly 100,000 stitches. Many of the designs took months to complete, and some of the more intricate took as long as a year.

Marghab used only the finest fabrics and threads. Many of the linens were woven in Ireland specifically for Marghab. Emile and Vera made frequent trips to Ireland to supervise and ensure the quality of their linen. Marghab is also known for its own trademarked organdy fabric, called Margandie. The organdy available on the market at the time was not up to Vera’s standards, so she partnered with Swiss weavers and developed Margandie, made from Egyptian cotton. To ensure the perfect colors for their embroidery thread, Marghab had thread dyed specifically for them in England and France.

A set of Dancer cocktail napkins, which came in several colors.
Two fingertip towels in the Water Leaf pattern.
In keeping with the high standards of quality that Vera demanded for her linens, she allowed them to be sold only in chosen stores. Vera personally inspected each store to ensure it met her standards. Fifty-four stores in the U.S. were granted the right to sell Marghab linens. These salons had to agree to very strict guidelines set forth by Vera. For example, Marghab linens could never be displayed with other linens and were never to be put on sale.

Marghab linens were not signed. When new, they had a paper label pinned to them. Although you can occasionally come across a piece with the original Marghab tag still pinned to it, or still in the original Marghab box, it is unusual and a real find. The best way to identify a piece of Marghab linen is to become familiar with the designs. While some patterns have been copied, such as Rose Tree, Jacaranda Tree, Knight and Ponto Grego, there are often small details that give them away as a copy.

The book, “Perfection, Never Less – The Vera Way Marghab Story,” by D.J. Cline, is the only published reference available on Marghab linens. Unfortunately, a great deal of the book is spent on Vera’s personal life, and not on the making of Marghab linens. It has some nice full-color photos of about 30 of the Marghab designs, so it is a fairly limited resource.

Jacaranda Tree placemat and runner, one of Marghab’s more popular patterns.
A Marghab Linen cocktail napkin with the Calla Lilly design.
The largest and most complete collection of Marghab linens is in the Marghab Gallery at the South Dakota Art Museum. Vera was instrumental in organizing this gallery, which opened in 1970. In 1995, Vera died at the age of 95, and left her personal collection of Marghab linens to the South Dakota Art Museum. Its web site has photos of a few of the patterns on exhibit there. There are also a few pieces of Marghab in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Another good resource for Marghab designs is the WorthPoint website. Go to Research Your Items and under the Price Guides, do a search for Marghab linens. Susanin’s Auctions held a sale of Marghab linens for the South Dakota Art Museum in 2005, and most of the items sold are shown here with a description and photo. This is one of the most reliable resources, since these descriptions were provided by the South Dakota Art Museum, the pre-eminent authority on Marghab. If you are a registered member of WorthPoint, you will also be able to see the prices realized for each item.

Because of their limited numbers and the high quality of workmanship, Marghab linens command high prices. If you are buying them online, be sure to deal with a knowledgeable and reputable dealer. I have seen a number of embroidered linens described as Marghab that were not. I have also come across embroidered linens described as “Marghab-style.” There was only one Marghab—a piece either is Marghab or it isn’t. Once you have seen firsthand some of the exceptional embroidery done by Marghab, you will understand why it stands alone as the finest embroidery in the world.

Lynda Kolski is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage textiles.

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