Isabel Costa and her husband João Tomás founded their textile company Burel Factory in 2006, but the building and infrastructure traces back much further. The factory was first opened in 1947, known then as Lanifícios Império, in the village of Manteigas in the Serra da Estrela mountain range of Portugal. That name lives on as a range of fabrics Burel Factory produces – the pair’s committed approach to conserving and sustaining traditions and livelihoods is at the heart of their company.
“We wanted to recover life in the area,” Isabel says, having first visited on a hike while working alongside João in Lisbon. Having fallen for the rugged landscape, they decided to open a hotel, Casa das Penhas Douradas. It was when finding textiles for the interiors that they came across the factory, which was in the process of insolvency. “A lot of people had left over the past 20 years,” she says. “Originally there were 11 factories in the area, and this was the last one left. We decided we had to save it.”
They knew they had to act while people still had knowledge of the machinery and techniques. “Our major proposal was to recover and pass down knowledge through generations,” she says, and now, it has also become about increasing the number of sheep in each flock. “It’s so important for biodiversity. The shepherds really care about their flocks, and take good care of their sheep.” The factory supports the shepherds, running workshops such as cheese-making. They go home with blankets, proud that they have been produced with wool from their own flock.
The wool from the local Bordaleira sheep, which live only in the region, creates a fabric known as burel. It’s weighty and robust, reflecting the rugged environment the sheep live in, which has the highest mountains in Portugal. “I loved how Burel Factory could achieve a rustic, textured feel by using the local wool,” says Clementine Thomas, our House&Home designer. “This is why we chose to work with them – the quality of what they are producing, as well as their support for the community around them.” Providing wool and milk to sustain life, it was the sheep that allowed people to originally settle in the area. Shepherds have lived there since ancient times, and the village has a generations-old link to textile manufacture, with techniques passed down through families. Driving water-powered machines and looms, the fresh water running through the area provided the perfect environment for processing the fibres. Today, the factory uses modern machinery alongside 19th century machines.
There are two different types of shepherds in the area – those who stay in the valley year-round, and those who journey to the top of the mountain between July and September for fresh grass. “We celebrate different moments with them,” says Isabel. “When we shear the sheep, it’s a very important moment. It gets very hot here, so it’s joyful when we remove the wool, and you can see the sheep are happy.” The amount of wool to make one blanket is roughly the same amount as is shorn from one sheep.
It takes two weeks to make a blanket from start to finish, from raw material, through carding, spinning, weaving and finishing. “The wool passes through a lot of hands,” Isabel says, because everyone is a specialist in their particular area. There are around ten people involved in the process of making a single blanket in the factory. “We’ve had some people with us from the beginning, who have been working for more than 45 years, as well as some who have retired but come back to teach the next generation,” she says. Two newer recruits, Dina Almeida and Sonia Brazete Da Silva, are the first women to head the looms in the history of the factory, a position traditionally reserved for men.
José Luís Abrantes, the director of the factory, is a master of all the patterns and designs. “He is a brilliant teacher,” Isabel says, and has passed on knowledge to others who can now create new patterns across the four different generations of looms they use. The factory building is home to extensive archives which have been preserved, with swathes of weaving patterns sketched in old faded books, running into thousands of designs. “And it’s growing,” Isabel says. They rescue patterns from abandoned factories, and have become a great resource for designers.
The company continues to work to bring people to the area, and recover historic buildings to support the community. In 2014, they bought the abandoned Pousada de São Lourenço and transformed it into Casa de São Lourenço, a hotel high in the mountains. Originally designed by architect Rogério de Azevedo and built in the 1940s, it has been reimagined with a new building surrounding it by architects P-06 Atelier and Site Specific. Guests are encouraged to visit the factory to see the fabrics being woven. “We need to be committed and strong to maintain the local industry,” Isabel says. “We are putting processes in place with the shepherds with a view to the future. By having people in the village, we can work together to protect the mountains.”
Interview by Alice Simkins.
Photographs courtesy of Burel Factory.