Burel Factory


Interview: Joana Jervell
Photos: Burel Factory

Founded in the Serra da Estrela, driven by a desire to revitalise an ancient craft and breathe new life into burel — a 100% wool fabric with unique characteristics — the Burel Factory’s reach now extends from fashion and decor to interior design and hospitality. Committed to preserving the material and intangible heritage of a region, we take a deep dive into this project through a conversation with its co-founder, Isabel Santos, who lets us know how this success story was woven.

Q: When, and for what reason, did the Burel Factory come about?

A: The Burel Factory started in 2010, but its story began in 2006 when João Tomás and I decided to renovate an old sanatorium 1,500 metres above sea level in Penhas Douradas that we acquired, and which now is the Casa das Penhas Douradas hotel. That marked the start of a lengthy process of heritage renovation that continues to this day.

We sought to incorporate elements that highlighted the craftsmanship of the Serra region in the construction of the Casa das Penhas Douradas, such as burel, wool and their ancient connection to local culture. It was during this time that we discovered the Lanifícios Império factory. Essentially, the factory discovered us, and we discovered burel, which we sought to develop and later used in the hotel’s decor. That was when we realised the factory was facing insolvency and could not adapt to changing times. So, we decided to go ahead and acquire it as a way for it to continue its narrative and showcase its art to the world. Today it is the Burel Factory in Manteigas. We retained the 19th-century machinery, recycled some patterns from old sketchbooks that we still use in some blankets today, and began adding colour to burel, which until then only existed in original wool colours. We had the old master weavers teach the younger generation to help pass the torch and prevent this craft from withering away. We made suggestions, wove ideas and explored designs on the old looms, combining innovation and design.

Q: How has Burel’s journey of growth and recognition been so far?

A: The growth has been gradual and in line with our production capabilities. We are a relatively small factory, and virtually everything we sell is produced in-house, so growth has always been considered with that in mind. Also, we only use wool from local shepherds. We are fully aware that these resources are becoming increasingly scarce, so we must use them consciously and responsibly.

What we do is authentic and has a real impact on the Serra da Estrela region, on the people who live there and on the culture that has been woven through generations. Fortunately, our work has been recognised because of our efforts to share the art of burel with the world and to contribute to the revitalisation of the region, which is the most important thing.

Q: The focus on innovation and design, as you said, is one of the main pillars of the brand…

A: Yes, our approach to burel began precisely with the innovation of introducing colour to a fabric that had until then only been available in the natural colours of wool. After that, and because our mission was always to enhance it, we challenged designers to develop ideas that would elevate it. Around this time, we were surprised to receive a request from Microsoft. After they discovered our fabric in our first Lisbon store, they decided they wanted to use the fabric in their head office in Lisbon. Thus, another segment was born — interior architecture and design, which continues to be one of the brand’s major segments to this day.

However, it wasn’t enough for us to know burel is a perfect fabric for coverings, we needed to get certification. To achieve this, we carried out scientific research in collaboration with ITCOMS and Coimbra University, which confirmed its enormous acoustic reverberation capacity and high thermal insulation efficiency. This resulted in it being certified as a sustainable solution for interior coverings.

Since the fabric’s original use was for the shepherd’s cape, we decided to also invest in the clothing segment. We already had some individual items — shawls, scarves, berets, hats, bags and other small accessories — but last year we invested in the development of the brand’s first fashion collection, and we are about to launch another one this year.

Innovation is at the heart of our connection to burel, so we are constantly challenging ourselves, not only with the support of our in-house design team, but also with the artists, creatives and architects with whom we have established partnerships, and who never fail to surprise us.

Q: As we see, the applications for burel are many… What is it that most fascinates you about working with such a versatile product?

A: Burel is a fabric that represents the heritage and resilience of the Serra da Estrela communities. It is a natural and sustainable fabric, but it is precisely its versatility that makes it fascinating, allowing it to fulfil a wide range of applications, including objects of decoration, office items, clothing and acoustic solutions like our (scientifically certified) wall panels and coverings. This versatility broadens our horizons… It inspires us to continue innovating the old history that this fabric carries with it, to maintain the tradition of the Serra da Estrela communities that are the inheritors of the knowledge that gave it life and that enhance themselves in their association with the fabric. That is our greatest achievement.

Q: What can you tell us about the visits to the factory in Manteigas?

A: A visit to the factory is like taking a journey into the past to a time when things were made by hand, with artistry, skill, and dedication. It is an opportunity to see the ancient looms in operation, the skill with which they are operated; to smell the wool, to hear the noise of the machinery and to see the smiles of the people as they warmly welcome visitors. It is a beautiful opportunity to learn the entire process from wool to burel and then from burel to a piece that is crafted in the factory workshop. Most importantly, however, it is seeing that the people who make these items are real people with their own names and stories.

Q: In addition to the shops, the experience with the Burel universe also extends to your hotels. What is it that you are seeking to convey to those who seek you out?

A: The hotels are spaces where appreciation for the mountains and the culture of the Serra da Estrela is amplified not only through burel — which is present in the interior design through coverings and pieces of art — but essentially by their integration into the landscape and their profound connection with the centuries-old traditions of the region.

In the hotels, at both the Casa de São Lourenço and the Casa das Penhas Douradas, there is a constant effort to showcase the best of the Serra da Estrela, through the available activities, such as hiking, cycling and off-road tours that lead to unique places, historic villages, mountain villages and the Burel Factory, which will always be at the heart of our brand.

Those who visit us have this idea of the region, this experience of immersing themselves in such a beautiful and special culture as wool and burel, and all in the utmost comfort.

Q: What legacy does Burel want to leave future generations?

A: The same as ever… It is important that the knowledge behind Burel is never lost. We are a brand that represents a mountain lifestyle, but with a global outlook to innovate through design, through the science behind wool, to ensure sustainability and preserve the simplicity that nature teaches us. We promote and advance the culture of this interior region, creating employment and attracting skilled labour to this region, encouraging its economic and social development; we promote Portugal. We have a strict zero-waste policy that we introduced before it became a concept, and we couple this with good environmental practices while respecting the mountains and the origins and knowledge of burel. In essence, we are the keepers of this material and intangible heritage. That is our mission. Without a past, we have no future. We want to enhance it through innovation, which is what truly matters. This is what we never want to lose.

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