A Portuguese Retreat Part II - The Makers...

I'm back with the second part of the Portugal retreat I took part in back in May and which was so wonderfully organised by Natasha and Sarah. If you've missed the first part and like beautiful interiors then click HERE to read it. I know you're probably wondering why it's taken me so long to write a new post. Well, two reasons: one, the huge amount of images I took meant I had to go through all of them, decided which ones to edit and then whittle them down to "just a few" for a blog post. When I say "just a few", I mean just a few for each of the makers we visited - clearly therein lies part of the problem. Two, I'm struggling to put words to the images because the experiences were so beautiful and at times humbling that I feel words cannot do them justice. However, I will try... 

A lot of the workshop was focused on crafts and that did of course include some of the ancient crafts of the region. Spinning, weaving, basket making and pottery, I vividly remember some of these crafts from the time I spent in Portugal as a child and it was a beautiful experience to revisit those and a few of the people behind the work. Keeping old crafts alive and making a living of them is one of the many challenges faced by these people. In the age of cheap, fast and disposable fashion and interiors, trying to survive by making quality products by hand is certainly not an easy choice. Speaking to these people though (actually, having a few questions translated since my Portuguese is non-existent), it seems like it wasn't ever a question of 'choice'. They took over the business from the previous generation and this is just the way things have always been for them. That doesn't make it any easier though. Sure, looking in from the outside, it all looks quite romantic and "artisan", but it's not an easy life and the younger generation has mostly decided to up sticks and make a different life in the city. It looks like a lot of these crafts will die out when the current generation keeping them alive is no more...

One person who is actively changing this is Mizette Nielsen, a former model from The Netherlands who bought a weaving factory 30 years ago in order to keep this local craft alive. It is in this factory that the traditional Alentejo blankets and rugs are handwoven on giant looms operated by trained weavers. This does not only supply employment in one of Portugal's poorest regions, but helps to raise awareness about traditional crafts and the value of quality products. The blankets are now not only sold locally, but exported all over the world and you can even commission your own designs! 

Another "famous" Portuguese export is pottery. I still remember the masses of classic, terracotta-coloured plates and bowls we had in our little house on the Algarve. Some of them plain, some of them decorated with a white pattern. There were also some more elaborate and colourful patterns on a white glaze which would feature on everything from plates and jugs to wall tiles. Visiting this place where each item is made by hand and stacks upon stacks of finished plates, vases, cups, platters and bowls are on display was something of a treat. Stepping into the dark interior away from the hot midday sun, it felt like we were entering some sort of secret hideaway. The smell of clay in the air, the dust and patina visible on every surface was a testament to the work that has been carried out in this place for decades and through generations. And despite the obvious presence of people, it felt remarkably calm and the clicking of my camera shutter button seemed strangely intrusive. Still, I couldn't resist... 

Far from the cities, in the Alentejo countryside lies a village which is home to a wool spinner and a weaver. Rosa from Retrosaria, our guide for the day, owns a beautiful haberdashery in Lisbon that is supplied with wool from the spinner. This truly is a locally sourced and handmade product and it doesn't get more honest than that. The wool is cleaned, brushed, oiled, spun and dyed into a variety of earthy tones. It bears no resemblance to the scratchy wool I remember from my childhood, being wonderfully soft to the touch instead. The ladies working here have done so in the same way for many decades. Modern technology seems to have completely bypassed these small industries and knowledge as well as techniques have been passed down through the generations. It occurred to me that these women were probably in many ways fitter and healthier than myself despite being much older. The simple life, physical work and healthy mediterranean diet seem to keep them young in a way that is just so natural. Comparing that to my own life in a polluted city where I spend far too much time sitting on my backside staring at a computer screen, it seems pretty clear who is not only going to age better but healthier, too. Watching the weaver literally climb into her big loom to operate it at well over 70 years of age whilst joking around with us was more than enough proof that maybe we don't have it all figured out with all our gadgets and gyms... 

In the most remote location, away from towns and villages, and in the middle of the mountains getting close to the Algarve (the town of Monchique was only about 25 miles away) lives Antonio. Antonio is the basket weaver who lives and works from the farm he still shares with his parents. He immediately won all of us over with his friendliness, a flirty glint in his eyes and his cheeky smile. He showed us his collection of baskets that he sells on markets, proudly telling us that many people shun the more perfect-looking machine made ones in favour of his hand-made creations. Watching him make a basket from scratch whilst taking the time to chat to his parents as well as Rosa, who translated for us, felt like being allowed into a secret world. One that is completely removed from what we perceive as "the norm" (whatever that might be) and where time has stood still. Not only were we physically in a remote location, we had entered a completely different world. There was a natural calmness to him, his parents, and the surroundings that cannot be forced or artificially recreated: it is borne out of a simple way of life that hasn't changed over the decades and what seemed like complete contentment and acceptance. Antonio offered us freshly picked oranges from his tree (being the end of the season, they were some of the best and sweetest I've ever tasted) and patiently carried on with his work seemingly completely unfazed by our presence. Leaving there, even after such a short time, felt slightly emotional. I would have loved to stay, observe, talk, learn...

I know this post is very image heavy, but there was no other way to convey some of the beauty I encountered on this trip. I'm humbled by these people, their dedication to their craft, their simple life and the honesty which seems to be the basis for everything they do. It made me think a lot about how we live and how we consume. I hope that these crafts will live on and won't disappear in our misguided quest for ever more consumption, cheaper, mass-produced products and disposable fashions. If you'd like to join Natasha and Sarah on one of their retreats, click HERE for more information.