Toino Abel

Interview: Joana Jervell
Photos: Filipa Alves

Made by a dedicated group of artisans in the village of Castanheira, Alcobaça, Toino Abel’s reed bags are the result of love for the craft, tradition and nature. Authentic and timeless items that are a combination of ancestral artisan techniques with a modern and contemporary approach. Making its presence felt around the world, we spoke with the founder of the brand, Nuno Henriques.

What brought you to create Toino Abel? What ideas do you have for the brand?

Toino Abel is a project with the mission to disseminate, preserve and celebrate a material tradition. It was established at a crucial moment, just as this cultural heritage was almost lost.

We began with the recognition of this ancient artisanal technique that came down to us through many generations. The fact that this connection had probably never been broken in all these generations led us to decide to continue it. And this is the question we ask our generation and which Toino Abel has taken up — being the only one to do so for so many years.

We are not interested in copying that which has been bequeathed to us; rather, we take this tradition and make it current and relevant to today. This is the space of freedom that we give ourselves and a way of rooting this material culture. Its relevance has always seemed to me to be its acute anachronism. Our production method is from the pre-industrial era. Just remember that we require no energy to prepare, weave, interleave or sew our bags. To ensure their high quality, they are all made in-house: from the preparation of the reeds to the dyeing, weaving, sewing and finishing.

How important is it to you to keep alive a long family history, as well as the talent and know-how of the artisans, preventing them from falling into oblivion?

Above all it is about enjoying living in a plural and diverse world, with examples of cultures from the four corners of the world. It is about this global celebration that looks to preserve local cultures.

More than a family history, it is recognition of an activity with exceptional value to the world, and not just the local community.

The role of the various national institutes is essential here, since they can do what businesses cannot. To record an ancestral technique, for example: creating a DOC (Denomination of Controlled Origin) or DOP (Protected Designation of Origin); creating a seal of quality. Providing it, step by step, with theoretical and documentary knowledge, so that it can apply to UNESCO, for example. It is very important that no individual company is favoured; that the sector be treated equally.

We can look to what the UK Crafts Council has done for craftsmanship in the United Kingdom, where it has uplifted an entire sector. It has been doing this for 50 years. We don’t need to run to catch up — they’re too far ahead, in any event: we will only start on our journey when we can do it right.

It is clear that your entire output is made by hand, and with concern for the environment. Could you give us an example that demonstrates your commitment to sustainability?

All Toino Abel bags are made by us and us alone, or occasionally in collaboration with brands we admire and which reach out to us. This way we are able to control the quality and working conditions. And for a craft that is almost extinct, this is our first commitment to sustainability. We reject all modern slavery practices, pay good wages and provide good working conditions.

We rethought every step in the production process and looked at how we could improve them. For example, we use looms that, while entirely manual, allow us to work comfortably, seated and with enough light, and which can be adjusted for each individual. Previously the bags were made on a primitive structure that required a lot of physical space and was very uncomfortable for the operators. The actual work is now much more detailed because each thread of the warp is independent and falls regularly and perpendicularly, precisely spaced and with the tension easy to control. Given the fragility of this work, it is our duty to ensure there are no failures at any stage.

We are also developing an experimental plantation of gravity-irrigated reeds that enables us to renew the river water and bring the raw material back to our village, thereby eliminating our current transportation needs and guaranteeing the supply of raw materials for the next five years. None of these activities is easy.

We are not a brand that works with suppliers: we work with a team of young artisans who are committed to reviving an ancestral technique and working to ensure its survival, adding value to it and redefining it.

How do your collections work?

We do not have seasonal collections. We create a basic collection and then introduce slight variations, introducing new pieces throughout the year, or engaging in collaborations with brands we respect.

Where are you sold internationally?

Only 26% of Toino Abel’s sales are domestic — we sell to hotels like Six Senses (Douro) and the São Lourenço do Barrocal (Alentejo). Everything else we make is exported. Our output is very small, which means we can be very particular about who we allow to sell our bags. We are present in the main markets, from Japan to the United States.

Future plans and forthcoming collaborations?

I am very pleased with our current team and with the quality of our bags. I am also very enthusiastic about the new items we are preparing for 2021 and the brands with which we are working.

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