From Portugal’s mountain tracks to international catwalks, burel is making a name for itself

Monday, June 24, 2019, 15:34

U-shaped glacial valley of the Rive Zêzere
The glacial valley of the River Zêzere
What would you say if I told you that a good place to learn about how the ice ages altered earth's landscapes was Portugal? I expect you'd think that the confusions of old age were getting the better of me. Nevertheless, in this case, I would be right and you wrong.

To read more about the Serra da Estrela, its inhabitants and their traditional woolen material, burel, click here.

The immense view from the top of the Serr a da EstrelaThe view from the Serra da Estrela stretches for an immense distance

Though most people think of sun, sea and sand in the Algarve when choosing Portugal for their summer holiday, those who like a more active stay than lying on a beach should consider visiting the Serra da Estrela, the romantically named mountain range of the star. This is where people with an interest in countryside and hiking, for example, could see where glaciers formed and how they crept downwards smoothing and hollowing out once v-shaped valleys into u-shaped ones.

Twenty thousand years ago the Serra da Estrela was both high and cold enough to support glaciers and even to the untrained eye, the evidence of ice activity in the u-shape valley of the Zêzere is plain. But make no mistake, it was not only twenty thousand years ago that the climate was brutally cold. Winters here can be harsh and Manteigas, the town at the heart of the massif, is still sometimes cut off by snow. On our first visit a few years ago we drove through a blizzard into a winter wonderland of pine trees and snow drifts and, to our astonishment, only a short time later, came across a snowplough: (January in the Serra da Estrela).  If only the UK could be as efficient.

Even in May there was still snow at the highest points.

Snow still lingering in Serra da Estrela in May
Throwing snowballs in Portugal in mid-May

This time we came in spring when nature paints the slopes and valleys with a restricted, yet subtle palette; we drove through valleys and over passes clothed in grey granite boulders, butter yellow gorse, acid yellow broom and purple and white heather. Fifty years ago, this achingly beautiful countryside, was so remote that it was known only to the locals, who probably took little notice of it - not because familiarity breeds contempt but because life was so hard there was no time to stand and stare. Those who didn't labour in their fields and gardens had little to eat or wear. Their colour palette was even less varied than the countryside. Mostly from an early age, men and women alike, were predominately dressed in black, both for mourning a lost relation or just for convenience. Apart from a first communion and a wedding, who had need of fancy clothing?

Natures palette of green yellow and purple
Nature in the Serra da Estrela does a better job of gardening than we do!

We picked a B&B at random from a web site. You can be either lucky or unlucky doing this. In our case we hit the jackpot. The guesthouse was small, four rooms, and we were the only occupants at the time yet we were treated to a superb breakfast of several kinds of bread and a range of cold meats, cheeses, jams and fruit. We got to chatting with our hostess, Sra Josefa. She told us we were in her original home, now repaired and refurbished. Our bedroom, in fact, had once been the winter lodging of her family's goats and so had a huge photo of a herd of them as its main decoration.

Sra Josefa told us she was one of 7 children whose father had been a small holder and shepherd. As well as keeping goats, he had tilled a few terraces on the lower flanks of the mountain, planting them with oats and maize. At harvest time the whole family would trek to the fields with a donkey, labour all day and, because home was so far away, lay bundles of straw on the ground, cover them with a sheet and sleep under the stars. That may sound like a rural idyll but Josefa would disagree. "Life was incredibly hard. My father would often come home dripping wet and shivering with cold," she said.

Importing protective clothing was virtually impossible in those days. Portuguese main roads were surfaced with 10 cm square, irregularly cut, granite setts, which made speed impossible and a journey boneshaking. (We can remember taking all day to reach places you can now get to in a couple of hours.) Lisbon might as well have been on another continent for all the mountain people knew of it so the Manteigas of those days had of necessity to be almost entirely self-sufficient in food and clothing. People made their own waterproof coats from local resources.

What they then had in abundance was wool from Bordaleira sheep, a breed native to the Serra da Estrela. Beginning in the Middle Ages, for hundreds of years they cleaned, carded, teased and spun it into a thread which was woven on a loom to make a cloth which they wetted and beat until it was felted. The tightened material shrank to almost half the size of the original, making it impermeable. This rustic, rather despised cloth, known as burel, was used to make protective capes for shepherds like Josefa's father.

Three Bordaleira sheep showing three natural coloured fleeces
Three Bordaleira sheep showing the three natural colours of their fleeces

When communications improved after the death of the dicatorship and the accession to the EU, less arduous job opportunities arose nearby and new products made their way in. Shepherding declined and so did burel production. But it didn't die completely and it's now making a comeback. In the Ecolã factory, the original machines, some dating from the 1920s, are still used to make blankets, scarves and felted cloth in the old-fashioned way.

Cloth woven on a vintage loom in the Ecolã factory
Cloth woven on a vintge Ecolã loom

The factory's signature products are made with the natural colours of the local sheep; white, dark brown and, most sought-after because of its relative rarity, beige. Dyes are also used today but none is synthetic: all are made from minerals or plants and officially certified as natural. Quality control is meticulous, with every piece checked by eye and every flaw removed by hand.

A woman checks each scarf for flaws and repairs them by hand
A factory worker scrutinises the scarves and  corrects any flaws by hand

Another factory has gone further, deciding to keep the original product but bringing in modern designers to complement tradition. As well as clothing you can buy cushions, purses, handbags and wall coverings. New ideas are coming in and new products added regularly to the catalogue.

The Burel Moutnain Original shop with its varied decorative output in Porto
Burel Mountain Originals shop in Porto

Despite his burel cape, Josefa's father died young, forcing her mother to bring up 7 small children alone. Feeding them was a challenge and education a luxury. Josefa was sent out to work in a knitting factory, making shawls, cardigans and pullovers. Better communications may bestow benefits but eventually they brought in cheap garments from the far east too, forcing the factory to close.

"Yes, they are cheaper but they're nothing like the quality we used to make," Josefa says, saddened. And I believe her.

However, those burel factories which managed to cling on, are now making a virtue of the labour intensive nature of the original machines and the skills of the workers.

Vintage loom used for making scarves and shawls
Small vintage loom used for making scarves

The owner of Ecolã shows off his ancient felting machine
The owner of the Ecolã factory proudly shows off his vintage felting machine where the cloth is continuously wetted and beaten.

With artisanal certification from Germany, the burel factories in Manteigas are promoting burel as a luxury product enhanced by tradition. They now export their products worldwide. We saw huge bales of blankets being prepared for export to Japan, where they sell at a huge premium.

Those who, like Josefa, lost their jobs have had to adopt a new business model. Manteigas is exploiting the natural beauty of the mountains by taking in hikers and nature lovers from all over the world – America, Brazil, Israel, Scandinavia, Britain..... – and as well as trails to local beauty spots they offer cultural tours round the burel factories.

And what of Josefa's father? If the rigours of shepherding had not ruined his health and he had lived to a ripe old age, he would have been astonished to find that his homespun cloth, once the byword for cheap and coarse, is now considered a luxury, is hugely expensive, in international demand, and being worn not by the poor but by the rich.

Have y0u come across any traditional industries that are being revived? If you have, why not tell us about one? (If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have to write in English. Lembre-se: o que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)



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