The embroidery of Cilaos


Article written with the collaboration of Mrs Myrella Baret, head of the Maison de la Broderie de Cilaos (or Cilaos Embroidery House) – A warm thank you!
Translation – Claire de Pourtalès

The center of the Reunion Island (Indian Ocean) is made up of large cirques which have long been cut off from the rest of the country. The road to Cilaos was not built until 1932. Before that, the village could only be reached on foot via steep and dangerous paths. This remoteness allowed the development of a unique embroidery style: Cilaos embroidery.

The isle of Reunion and its 3 cirques – pattern based on the bird phaeton or Straw Tail ©Maison de la Broderie de Cilaos

Angèle Mac Auliffe was born in 1877 in the Salazie cirque. Her father, a doctor, moved to the neighboring cirque (Cilaos) in 1897. His daughter followed him. Angèle received a careful education especially for needlework. With the Encyclopedia of Ladies’ Works (1884) by Hélène de Dillmont, she was able to sew and embroider her trousseau.
In Cilaos she opened an embroidery workshop for the young girls of the place in order for them to earn a better living.

Angèle Mac Auliffe ©Maison de la Broderie de Cilaos
Work in progress ©Maison de la Broderie de Cilaos

Angèle was inspired by the embroidery of Tenerife. This was done on a loom, then sewn to the fabric to be decorated. Angèle decided to embroider her drawn threads works directly on a linen canvas, a bit like the Norwegian Hardanger. But the embroidery of Cilaos stands out by going beyond the strict diagram of the weft thread / warp thread. The embroiderer can add (we say “throw”) threads, which allows her to create all kinds of patterns. The rich and varied nature of the island offers a magnificent source of inspiration.

Pineapple flower pattern ©Maison de la Broderie de Cilaos

On a linen canvas, we draw the threads which allow to materialize the contours of the drawing. Then we throw some threads across this space. Everything is fixed by a blanket stitch on the edges. The pattern is always started in the center. The threads used are above all DMC 50 or 100, depending on the fabric and the pattern.

Tea linen ©Maison de la Broderie de Cilaos
Hawthorn (May blossom) and snail patterns ©Maison de la Broderie de Cilaos
Dream catcher ©Maison de la Broderie de Cilaos
Made for glass coaster ©Maison de la Broderie de Cilaos

There are 48 patterns, all coming from the plant or animal domain: the chrysanthemum, the dahlia, the lily of St. Joseph, the coffee flower, the grenadine, the phaeton or Straw Tail (a sea bird, emblem of the island), etc.
Only one of these patterns, in a 5 cm square represents a working day for a confirmed embroiderer.
This embroidery is mainly used to decorate household linen, but can also be chosen for clothing and even christening gowns.

To safeguard this know-how, the city of Cilaos created the Maison de la Broderie (House of Embroidery). Every day, embroiderers (including two Meilleur Ouvrier de France – or Best Craftsman of France) work there to show visitors their techniques and teach it to them during training days.

©Maison de la Broderie de Cilaos

After Angèle’s death, at the age of 31, the workshop was taken over by the Sisters of St Joseph de Cluny. Among them, Sister Anastasie, from a local peasant family, stands out for her skills as an embroiderer. She will train more than 200 young girls in this delicate art. She also received a gold medal in the Meilleur Ouvrier de France competition (Best Craftsman of France), in the Whitework category. Today there are around 30 embroiderers in Cilaos who, like Angèle, do not hesitate to innovate and add color to this famous white embroidery.

Maison de la Broderie de Cilaos

Flowers from Reunion ©Maison de la Broderie de Cilaos

The content of this site is free and is not damaged by un-welcomed publicity. I do this work with love and passion but it requires a lot of time. I would like to continue to offer a wider market to our artists, to show how embroidery is a wonderful art. But I do need a little bit of help. If you feel like it, you can participate with a little donation to help me continue. I will be so grateful! Thank you! Claire