If you spend your days on an exposed mountainside watching over your flock in all weathers, you need something warm and waterproof to wear. Portuguese shepherds traditionally braved the elements in cloaks or coats made from burel, a tightly woven wool fabric that kept them dry and relatively cosy. Made at home using crude methods and in drab colours, these clothes were far from fashionable but certainly practical and hard-wearing.
In recent years, burel has been given a new lease of life. For a start, Portuguese fashion designer, Miguel Gigante, has been using it to create trendy coats, capes, hats and more, as modelled by the lovely Silvia from Visit Centro. You’ll find some of his clothing and home decorations on sale at Monsabores shop in Monsanto and other historical villages.
The durability of burel makes it ideal for home furnishings, wall coverings, accessories and jewellery. Add brightly coloured dyes and 3-D designs to the mix and the possibilities for this rough felt are enormous.
Isabel Soares and her husband João Tomás are responsible for this colourful and creative development in the material’s history. Their shared love of nature brought them to the Serra da Estrela mountains where they built Casas das Penhas Douradas, a design hotel in the Serra da Estrela mountains, and have developed close ties to the area, its local produce and materials.
Burel factory in Manteigas
For centuries, livelihoods in the Manteigas area centred around wool production but in recent decades, the competition from cheaper fabrics imported from other countries led to the closure of all but one of the local factories. Isabel and João bought an old wool factory, along with its antique machinery, and revived the dying local economy to a certain extent by creating employment for local machinists and seamstresses.
The ancient machinery has been lovingly restored and is fully functional. If you’re planning a trip to the Serra da Estrela, you can arrange to visit the Burel Factory which is now open to the public as a working museum. The guided visit follows the process of making burel from the huge sacks of washed wool through to the seamstresses cutting, gluing and stitching coloured patches of fabric to create the finished products.
I found it fascinating to watch the wool go through the various processes including teasing the clumps of wool until they form fluffy sheets which are then combed, spun, wound onto spindles and then woven into cloth. The cloth is then crushed and scalded to shrink the fibres and tighten the weave to make the fabric impermeable. The visit is accompanied by the clatter of many machines echoing around the factory, punctuated by shouts as the workers communicate with each other above the din.
If you can’t make it to the Serra da Estrela any time soon, this video explores the concept, reality and importance of the Burel Factory:
Free guided tours to the Burel Factory are in English, Portuguese and French and take place at 10.30 am and 3 pm daily. You can book through the Lisbon shop (Rua Serpa Pinto, 15 B), the Casa das Penhas Douradas hotel or directly at the factory in Manteigas.
I visited the Burel factory as part of a trip around central Portugal with Visit Centro.
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Burel is a great fabric: Sturdy and warm! 🙂
A wonderful story about two brave people who are giving the region and it’s inhabitants another chance. The Serra da Estrela area is certainly beautiful and worthwhile visiting.
Absolutely, Sami. I really ought to spend more time there – it’s practically on my doorstep!
My husband came back from Libya with a long-sleeved, hooded, floor-length robe made from a tightly woven wool-like material. It’s heavy but not itchy and extremely warm. This reminded me of it – for some reason I’m thinking of Berbers…
Great post on nuts and bolts Portuguese culture and customs.
Hi Aisha, sorry I almost missed your comment! I think there are several similar fabrics around the world. I find Burel a little rough so it would need to be lined for clothing.
Thank you Vivienne! I thought the video was very well done, and having met both Isabel and João, I think it does them credit and emphasises their creativity and hard-work. It’s also really nice to watch the interviews with the workers and see the work that goes into some of the pieces.
I used to cringe at the thought of visiting a factory on holiday – it reminds me of group tours and being herded through a sponge factory on a Greek island and being pressured into buying some to take home at the end of the tour. This, thankfully, is nothing of the sort. Of course, you’ll be more than welcome to buy something if you wish but the hard sell isn’t part of the deal.
The Penhas Douradas and Manteigas area of the Serra da Estrela is stunning and well worth a visit. Andrea won’t need much persuading to take you there, I’m sure 🙂
Julie, I absolutely loved this article – the accompanying film is fascinating and gives a real insight into life in Central Portugal, the wonderful scenery and the devastating effect that factory closures have on the inhabitants of towns like Manteigas. Isabel and Joao are doing a wonderful job in re-inventing burel and I sincerely hope that their new business will flourish in the way they so richly deserve. I would love to visit the factory on my next visit!