Lagartera is a pueblo in Toledo, which is well known for its embroideries, its traditional costume, and its Corpus Christi festival. There is a very old tradition of craftsmanship in the village, and it is said that Lagarterans embroidered for Isabella the Catholic. The village also has a long history of trade. The 18th century survey of economic activity in Spain, the Catastro del Marqués de la Ensenada, mentions Lagarteran muleteers, who in the 18th century travelled with their mules selling items. Some people say that they sold cloth from the pueblo’s looms, but we don’t know for sure. If they were good businessmen, they sold what their customers wanted to buy, which may have included embroideries.

We don’t know much about what Lagarteran women were doing in the 18th century, because their economic activity generally wasn’t seen as important enough to document in official surveys, especially if they earned money working in their own homes. This was also true for official surveys in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even in the 1970s, embroiderers were described as ‘housewives’ in the Padrón, or list of the pueblo’s inhabitants and their occupations.

In the early twentieth century, artists such as Joaquin Sorolla, and photographers, such as Ortiz Echagüe, visited Lagartera. Sorolla first arrived in Lagartera in 1912, and he painted several portraits of people posing in the Lagarteran costume. It represented traditional Spain, and stood out within Spain as exotic, especially the versions of the costume used for special occasions. People came from abroad to photograph the costume. This is an autochrome portrait by a French photographer, Jules Gervais-Courtellemont (1863–1931), first published in 1914, according to Christie´s. He was a pioneer of colour photography, and later became famous for his colour autochromes depicting World War I.

Ortiz Echagüe’s book España: Tipos y Trajes came out in 1929. It was a photographic record of traditional costumes, and  included several pages dedicated to Lagartera. In reality there are several types of costume, for example for weddings and for everyday life. Successful artists and photographers offered Lagarterans contacts with wealthy people in the big cities, and in the 1920s, Lagarteran women went out to sell embroideries in Madrid, dressed in the traditional costume.

The costume was wonderful for marketing Lagarteran embroideries. It spoke of authenticity, luxury and a high level of skill. The skills used on the embroideries for the costume could be applied any textile article, whatever clients wanted, so the increasing fame of the costume and the development of handicrafts in the pueblo fed into one another.

The pioneers in the industry were initially women from families with little land, who took their wares to the cities, sometimes accompanied by their husbands, or by another woman from the pueblo. They were often unable to read the street signs, and used landmarks like churches to find their way about. I first arrived in Lagartera to stay in 1978, and was lucky enough to be able to talk to some of the pioneer women entrepreneurs, like tía Monica, depicted here on the right, embroidering in a patio with her neighbour, tía Segunda.

After the war, older women told me, they first went to Madrid to sell food. Once the more difficult years were over, the pueblo´s embroidery business grew. It helped many families who had little land to survive. At the start of Spain’s ‘rural exodus’, Lagartera lost fewer people to the cities than surrounding pueblos.

It became clear that selling embroideries could be a viable business activity, and men joined the women entrepreneurs in increasing numbers. As Spain opened to tourism, a new market opened up in the seaside resorts. Many travelled to the coast to sell embroideries, leaving their families in Lagartera. Wives took over caring for any livestock. Here is Pilar, drawing water for the pigs while her husband is away selling on the coast.

In the 1970s, the major department stores also provided an outlet for embroideries, though the items they sold had to be cheap, so they tended to have just a few decorations, and sometimes had machined, rather than hand-stitched hems, in contrast to the more elaborate work involved in the items for the luxury market.

The late 1970s and the 1980s were times of high unemployment in Spain, as in most of Europe. Many families found it hard to buy essential goods, let alone small luxuries, like an embroidered tablecloth, and this drop in their incomes hit demand for the cheaper products. The luxury end of the market was more resilient. Even so, in 1980, almost all women in Lagartera either embroidered for the local entrepreneurs, or were entrepreneurs themselves, and Lagartera had developed a little ‘Empire of the Needle’, with outworkers in nearby pueblos embroidering for Lagarteran entrepreneurs. The pay was low, it was hard even for a woman with no dependents to live on just her earnings from embroidering, but there weren’t many other employment opportunities for women at the time. There were perks, like being able to chat with neighbours, or listen to the radio as you worked, but even so, most embroiderers would have preferred to earn a decent income.

As the employment situation improved, younger women became reluctant to learn the skills needed to embroider, and parents hoped for better futures for their daughters. As artisans are well aware, most people are not prepared to pay enough to reflect the amount of work that goes into high-quality handicrafts, let alone the skills of the craftswoman or man. Many people simply can’t afford to, unless they buy small items. The entrepreneurs did value the work. As one man commented in 1980, showing me a bedspread that had been wrapped in tissue paper and stored in a trunk, ‘It’s scary how much work was involved in this.’. Bedspreads a

re particularly luxurious, just about all the available surface was covered in intricate embroideries. Here is Antonia working on a bedspread, c 1980.

Lagarterans do value handicrafts from other places, especially pottery. Traditional houses have large entrance halls with walls covered in pottery, much of it from Puente del Arzobispo and Talavera. Even modern houses today usually have a pottery display in the entrance hall. In Lagartera, as in Puente, ‘artistic’ skills, like being able to combine colours in a way that works, are valued. Puente pottery has hand-drawn decorations, and it takes years to learn to do this well. Back in 1980, there was a lady called tía Julia, who specialised in drawing designs on fabric. She kindly drew me some on paper. Here are a few of them.

Most of the embroideries sold involve drawn, or at least counted threadwork, which means you need good eyesight to count the threads. However, embroidering some items, like cushion covers, just involves blocking in a design drawn on thick cloth, and that is possible for older women whose vision is too poor to count threads.

Lagartera has been a favourable place to develop artistic talents, though Lagarterans have usually had to emigrate to earn a decent living from their skills. Marcial Moreno Pascual (1911-1983) was a painter who emigrated to the USA. Lagartera’s museum is named after him, and has many of his early portraits of people in the pueblo. Tomás Alía, interior designer, is another famous Lagarteran emigrant. He hasn’t forgotten his roots, and often returns to the pueblo. He has been a tireless campaigner for the preservation of Spanish handicrafts, which are an important part of Spain’s cultural heritage, and has helped to publicise Lagartera’s Corpus Christi celebrations

Corpus in Lagartera brings together the costume, the embroideries, and Lagartera’s strong Catholic tradition. There is a procession, and on the route of the procession, the house façades are decorated with embroideries and other textiles. Altars are set up at the doors of the houses, decorated with antique embroideries. Little statues of the Infant Jesus, some of them very old, are placed in the centre of the altars. They are all dressed in a version of the Lagarteran costume. Women, men and children dressed in the traditional costume stand by the altars. The priest leads the procession, and blesses each altar. The streets are carpeted with fennel, mint and other aromatic plants. The pueblo may seem a little austere and quiet on a normal day, but on Corpus Christi day, it comes alive.

This photo is from Corpus in 1980. In the foreground, Juliana, tía Felipa, and tía Leoncia, and in the background, Petra Igual.

So, what lies in the future for Lagarteran embroideries? Today, most women in the pueblo who embroider do so as a hobby, and they help to keep the tradition alive. There are also classes for women to learn how to embroider, and again, they help to preserve the skills. However, knowing how to do something is different from being able to do it fast enough to earn a living. Girls used to learn how to embroider from as young as five, doing simple work, like hemming. By the time they were in their teens, they told me ‘the needle finds its own way’. I learnt to embroider in Lagartera in my late 20s, and could handle most of the skills except ‘sembrar’ or blocking in a design in drawn threadwork, from making a tablecloth for my mum, but I’d have starved if I’d been embroidering for a living. As my teachers and companions often laughingly pointed out. Handicrafts will only become an attractive way of earning a living if there are enough people prepared to pay for the effort and skills involved.

Alison Lever, Lagartera, November 2021

Photos by Alison Lever except for the first, by Jules Gervais-Courtellemont

If you want to know more:

This article (in Spanish) explains a little more about the history of the costume. It’s in Spanish, but has a lot of pictures if you don’t read Spanish.

El traje de lagarterana: un lujo artesanal y un enigma histórico | EL PAÍS Semanal | EL PAÍS (

This article is in English:

Corpus Christi devotees in Spain – in pictures | Art and design | The Guardian

This explains more about the arrival of Sorolla in Lagartera (in Spanish):