I’ve been haunted by this picture since I took it a few weeks ago while in Madeira, Portugal. It’s of an embroidery pattern artisan. The boxes behind her extend far beyond what I was able to capture in this photo. We were literally surrounded by them. In each box were countless patterns—most far, far older than me. What makes this image so stirring is that the patterns are made of the thinnest tissue paper imaginable–whispery and ghost-like. I was reminded while standing there of the soft, crepe-thin skin of my grandmother’s hands, the near transparency of them, and how I could see the delicate bones and trace the fretwork of veins beneath.
The original embroidery patterns were created by women long gone, whose own hands, like their artwork, eventually grew thin, fragile, transparent. What moved me so was how this woman would painstakingly cover the old patterns with new tissue paper and trace each filigree, curl, and spiral. She wasn’t preserving the past. She was vivifying it. Then she would carefully fold the originals along their deeply creased pleats and tuck them back into their slots, some not to seen again for decades. The carrying forward of a dying art, from century to century, from woman to woman, from hand to hand.