I took this photo last month at lunch in Porto because the tablecloth reminded me to tell you about this charming Portuguese tradition relegated to history but preserved in fabric.
The tablecloth is a reproduction of the love messages embroidered into handkerchiefs which were popular in the north of Portugal up until a generation ago when people stopped using handkerchiefs and declaring their love publicly this way. These days it’s far less personalized: public declarations of love or engagement are usually expressed in the form of
hardware jewellery, which probably lasts longer but who makes their own jewellery? I mean, look at the cursive handwriting, the hearts, the birds… they’re hand-embroidered Valentines. The tablecloth and handkerchief reproductions are even faithful to the era — in those days girls of marrying age were very young (by modern-day standards), naïve, and less educated, but their girlishness and spelling mistakes add to the authenticity.
Sandra of Pocket Cultures has examples of these love messages here: A Portuguese Lovers’ Tradition
From Visit Portugal and North:
Sweetheart Handkerchiefs or Fiancé Handkerchief are handkerchiefs made of linen or cotton and embroidered with several love patterns and amorous phrases. These pieces are typical clothing accessories from Minho and were used by young single women who would embroider sweet messages to their boyfriends who were sent off to sea or war to the former colonies.
Young women would embroider the handkerchiefs in code using symbols like a rose; meaning woman; a heart for love; a lily meaning virginity; a red carnation expressed flirtation and provocation and doves were the symbol of a couple in love.
Also known as “Lenços de Pedidos”, “Lenços dos Namorados” are closely related with the 17th and 18th centuries Nobility handkerchiefs. Later, they were adapted by the general female population becoming more widely used. Common folks would write like they spoke which would produce charming spelling mistakes.
This year I’ve been to quite a few local festivals and seen ranchos perform traditional dances where handkerchiefs played a part. Catarina of Positively Portugal mentions it here:
The girls would also wear handkerchiefs tucked into their waistbands, which at dances and festivals were often stolen by the young men who would play at being matched to the girls at the event.
I tried to find a video on YouTube that showed the handkerchiefs in the dances, but I haven’t come across one yet. So this is a placeholder until I find it — a video of traditional folk dancers from Minho (the kids are so adorable!):