Serra da Estrela wool is still a product in high demand, with the revamp of burel being the driving factor behind this global notoriety.  But before we get to this, I need to tell you the story of Serra da Estrela Wool.

The sheep are at the heart to the Serra da Estrela. They are the lifeline that allowed human presence to settle this inhospitable area of Portugal by providing wool, milk and meat. Incredibly, up until the half of the past century, the local economy was still very much linked to the products obtained from sheep. From an anthropological point of view, this is fascinating. Even more, when one can still nowadays become in close contact with the entire time and life span of everything sheep related. For more information on this go to my Serra da Estrela Heritage post.

Serra da Estrela - Casais de Folgosinho - Ns Sra de Assedasse

Before the even the first settlements in this region, and long before the Portugal-Spain borders, there was Transhumance. In this case, sheep transhumance developed by seasonal movements of people with their herds of sheep between fixed summer and winter pastures. Records show that at its peak, the big Iberian transhumance route stretched for almost 700 kilometers, all the way from Madrid to the high altitude plateaus of Serra da Estrella. The route was shaped like a fish spine, where all across the way multiple small herds would join the big conglomerate so they moved as one big group.

Serra da Estrela - Sabugueiro - Young Herder

There were other routes such as the Southern route, which started as far as Evora in the Alentejo and most importantly the western route which reached the shores of the Atlantic. This is one of the most important because with the fleur de sel from the Figueira da Foz salt fields brought by the Shepherd of this region that the Serra da Estrela cheese was made. Unlike lamb from New Zealand or Wales, the meat from Serra da Estrela never got international attention, leaving the wool and cheese industries to rule this region. You can find more about the gastronomy of Serra da Estrela here, so on this chapter I will only focus on the wool, as far beyond cheese, wool was the absolute main economic driver of Serra da Estrela since the middle ages.

Serra da Estrela Wool

For a number of years, it was the wool provided by the Transhumance herds that supplied the wool industry in Serra da Estrela. The local herds were just not sufficient to feed the +100 factories that existed at the manufacturing peak. In smaller towns like Manteigas, it was common to have whole families working in the wool factories and up to 50% of the population worked in this industry.

Burel Factory - Manteigas - Serra da Estrela

After the transhumance migrations (ending as a result of the agricultural revolution) wool had to be imported to feed the demand for high-quality wool products. Something that the Serra da Estrela was known for and why the wool manufacturing proliferated to such scale. Serra da Estrela wool was a recognizable quality product. The sole reason for the establishment of this industry in this region was the constant supply of fresh, cold, clean water from the mountain. A vital ingredient in the initial process of cleaning the wool that was to be the threaded. Also, even before the industrial revolution, it was this constant water stream that powered the machines and the looms. This “all in one” wool wonder of Europe meant also that Manteigas was the location of one of the biggest wool washers in Europe.

Burel Factory - Manteigas - Serra da EstrelaBurel Factory - Manteigas - Serra da Estrela

After the WWII and most significantly after the introduction of synthetic clothing in the 1960’s, the industry started to decay. The arrival of cheap clothing and the opening of markets in the 1980’s marked the end of an era that lasted for more than 100o years. It was a tragedy to see these companies go bankrupt, throwing entire families to poverty and misery. Alone, in the middle of the nowhere Portugal, many flocked to the coastal cities, whole others immigrated to foreign countries looking for better opportunities, with the big majority went to France. Now, more than 60 years after, a lot of these persons returned to open a new business, making french the second lingua franca in the Serra da Estrela.

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This would have been the end of the Serra da Estrela wool legacy it  wasn’t for the vision of Mr. João Tomás and his wife Isabel Costa, who saw in a local shepherds clothing product called burel an international business opportunity that nobody had seen before. They put the looms back to work in their Burel Factory and made burel internationally famous.  They tied the revamp of this local product with their investment in the refurbishment of the Casa das Penhas Douradas into the icon of mountain hospitality that it is now.

Serra da Estrela - Casa das Penhas Douradas Design Hotel

What is Burel?

Bordaleira and Churra Mondegueira are the sheep pedigrees most present in Serra da Estrela. This is determined by their good milk production, rather than the quality of their wool. And also, because they are the amongst the few kinds of sheep that can take the mountain environment. These sheep’s wool fibers are very short and thick and therefore not of high quality and value. Especially when compared to Merino or lambswool. Also, since this was a poor region and there was not so much purchasing power, the local wool was mostly used to make Burel. Burel is an artisanal Portuguese fabric made entirely from wool and comes from the mountain regions of Portugal.  After being carded, the wool is transformed into a mesh. The mesh is then twisted in the spinning process and turned into thread. The thread is then woven into a fabric, which is then transformed into bunting at the loom. The bunting is then felted (pounded in hot soapy water) until it is finally transformed into burel.

Burel Factory - Manteigas - Serra da Estrela

Burel Factory - Manteigas - Serra da Estrela

Burel is a very resistant and versatile fabric that has evolved from being used for capes and coats for rainy, snowy or cold days up in the mountains, to now being incorporated in new ideas and design solutions, accompanied by a vast range of textures, patterns, and colours.Another of its greatest assets is its elastic memory. Decoration, design it is an outside fabric because of its thermal and water repellent properties and acoustic properties.Normally burel was only produced in its raw colours  – the colour of the wool from the sheep, which ranged from the light beige to the dark browns. It was the revamp and investment from the Burel factory that they introduced colour to the process, opening up its production to the design and decoration world. The photo bellow shows a handmade red burel rosebud carpet.

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The Burel Factory

It all started in 2010 in an abandoned room of the old Império Wool Factory – the Thread Room – in the Portuguese village of Manteigas, located in the Serra da Estrela mountain range. A personal investment from the owners of Casa das Penhas Douradas, they wished to revitalize the most traditional fabric of the local wool industry – burel. The Burel Factory was their dream to be made true.They envisaged a sustainable project, unique and special, filled with soul and passion, where each piece produced is a part of the history of the know-how of an industry… a part of its own history. Mantecas – wool covers named after the ancient names of Manteigas. 100% Serra da Estrela wool.

Burel Factory - Manteigas - Serra da EstrelaBurel Factory - Manteigas - Serra da Estrela

The most interesting part is to see the machines dating back to the industrial revolution as the cornerstone for the success of this product. The noise of the looms is very loud and repetitive, but vital for the operators to know if the fabric that is being produced at the moment is being done without flaws.

Burel Factory - Manteigas - Serra da EstrelaBurel Factory - Manteigas - Serra da Estrela

Thus, the Burel Factory project came into being, with a strong drive to not only keep alive but also reinvent the value of the region’s natural resources, combining the art and know-how of the village weavers with modern design, creating original works with a contemporary trait. These pieces would invade homes, offices, hotels, companies, in the shape of carpets, pillows, bed spreads, benches, inner wall linings, backpacks, bags, … creating their own pieces!

Burel Factory - Manteigas - Serra da EstrelaBurel Factory - Manteigas - Serra da Estrela

Guided tours of the factory are available by appointment from Monday to Friday, from 8 am to 5 pm. Pictures above are of the Burel Factory Showroom.

The creativity of the New Hand Lab

New Hand Lab is a space that fosters creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship through the implementation of ideas, products and initiatives. The prodigy child of Francisco Afonso (the great grandson of the Antonio Estrela / Julio Afonso factory), he founded this project as a means to fixate his constant search for materializing the free and spontaneous creativity of all those who work for the common interest. Thus, the New Hand Lab was born.which it decided to call New as it is a new place and now is made known publicly through this exhibition 100 % wool. He decided to call New as it is a new place and known through the 100% wool exhibition. It pays tribute to the work of Julio Alfonso and enshrines the common points of sustainability, creative and passion for technology. It intends to position itself as a promotional space and dissemination of the most creative endogenous resources and boost Covilha and Beira Interior in the country and the world.

Serra da Estrela - Covilha - New Hand Lab

Based in the city of Covilhã, a prestigious wool-producing centre, this enterprise pays a tribute to the glorious past of wool industry in the region. And which better way to honour the past than to engage today’s remarkable fashion designers and handcrafters? The city of Covilhã, located in the Mountain region of Serra da Estrela, has always played a major role in the development of a creative wool industry not only in Portugal but also abroad.

Serra da Estrela - Covilha - New Hand LabNelson_Carvalheiro_Serra_Da _Estrela_Wool (11)

The Factory António Estrela built upon a 17th factory was given a prestigious award in 1904 during the Universal Exhibition in St. Louis, USA. Júlio Afonso, the owner of the factory, was awarded “Brilliant Pen 1976” by Men’s Fashion Writers International. His factory closed, but nowadays the Factory António Estrela / Júlio Afonso is the thriving centre of a powerful creative energy known as New Hand Lab.

Serra da Estrela - Covilha - New Hand Lab

New Hand Lab supports young designers, fashion stylists, photographers and artisans. It is a place made by and for local creators to freely develop their works, based on a 21st-century approach. Tradition and modernity hand-in-hand! New Hand Lab offers a beautiful view over renowned Carpinteira Bridge in Covilhã, drawn by Architect Carrilho da Graça, considered one of the coolest design destinations in the world by Travel + Leisure mag.

Miguel Gigante Designer

The prestigious young fashion designer Miguel Gigante, aka the Karl Lagerfeld of Burel, is one of the creators who work at this New Hand Lab. Shaping the future with bare hands with Serra da Estrela Wool. Miguel Gigante is a skilful fashion designer based in the city of Covilhã, who works only with the so-called “burel” wool, the one that it is used by the shepherds of Serra da Estrela Mountain and he makes art pieces out of wool! His label includes a vast range of creations: coats, furniture coverings, lamps, bags, pillows, lapel badges and hats! He was born in Covilhã and his family worked in the wool industry, so it was quite natural that the world of wool has always fascinated him. He studied the whole wool-producing process: design, modelling, cutting and drawing. This is why we can clearly fell a passion for detail on his works.

Serra da Estrela - Covilha - New Hand Lab

He opened his first shop in Covilhã in 1992. A year later, he opened Cool Natura Atelier de Burel studio. Since then he began to sell his collections not only in Portugal but also abroad, namely in Spain, France, Germany and Italy. He now works in New Hand Lab and he has designed the first collection for the Historical Villages of Portugal. He is a witty artisan, but also a forward-thinking designer. Miguel Gigante creates true masterpieces out of burel wool – the wool used by the shepherds of Serra da Estrela – and he knows how to capture the essence of the feminine soul!

Serra da Estrela - Covilha - New Hand Lab

Creative Stories Woolen Dolls by Ana Almeida

“Creative Stories” is a social, cultural and educational nature project developed by the Historical Villages of Portugal in partnership with the municipalities of the network and which had the cooperation of the respective school groups. They proposed a challenge to the local children to draw their Historical village as a person.

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This whole process turned out to trigger the idea of designing and delivering dolls line Creative Stories Ana Almeida, who found there his great source of inspiration. Through the adjustment of the technical know-how more traditional to contemporary design, they are designed twelve models dolls thoughtful touches: six girls and six boys. All pretty similar and made 100% out of Serra da Estrela wool.

Serra da Estrela - Covilha - New Hand Lab

This Serra da Estrela Wool post is a part of a series of 8 posts I wrote based on my journey to Serra da Estrela on January 2016. Please find the links o the other articles bellow:

Serra da Estrela

Serra da Estrela Nature

Serra da Estrela Adventure Sports

Serra da Estrela Food & Wine

Serra da Estrela Restaurants

Serra da Estrela Heritage

Casa das Penhas Douradas Design Hotel

Disclaimer: 

This Serra da Estrela Wool post was written as part of my ongoing collaboration with the Centro de Portugal Tourism Board. All opinions are my own. Photo credits to my inspiring friend Emanuele Siracusa.