When we started researching materials for our Winter collection, wool became a natural choice due to its heat retaining abilities and the quality of local Portuguese manufacturing.
We love Burel for Winter, both as a lining material, which we use for added comfort and coziness in our shoes, as well as uppers, which we debuted this year. Above all else, the best advantage of Burel is that it is a high quality product from the Portuguese Serra da Estrela mountains with a transparency oriented manufacturing process.
Fortunately, we live in a time when ancient techniques, like that of making Burel, are being rediscovered, giving new popularity to the type of mechanically felted wool, known for its heat and sound isolation properties, as well its strong natural ability to repel water and great endurance.
We made a visit to Ecolã, in Manteigas, where our Burel is manufactured by hand, and spoke to the owners, João Clara and Joana, a father and daughter duo who told us about the making of Burel and its long history, which you can now read.
Madlen: First of all can you tell us about the history of Ecolã?
João Clara: We are the firm’s fourth generation, and we developed Ecolã based on some experience and the concept of verticality, that means we follow the whole process, from the shearing, to threads and to the final product. We select the wools that get woven as well.
When we rehabilitated Ecolã, a profound change took place in order to preserve this product that had been forgotten, as it was only used by shepherds and clerics. After some time, we started experimenting with design and modern techniques, adding colors. And nowadays Burel is even used for soundproofing.
Madlen: That sounds great. Where does your wool come from?
Joana: It comes from local shepherds. For the sheep’s own health and well-being, their wool must be sheared in Spring. The shepherds gather for the event. They call their families over and they do everything as a large team. They all gather to shear and after they celebrate. Shearing days are days of celebration, it’s when they drink local wine and eat the local Serra cheese.
It happens in May, and afterwards the wool is collected, then sent to washing facilities. It is only washed with natural products, soap and water, nothing more. It is washed to remove the traces of grease and dirt. 1 kg of unwashed wool becomes only half of that after washing.
By not using chemicals, we also ensure that the raw materials are preserved instead of being burned through chemical processes. That is very important for the final product, the thread, and also to the processes of weaving, rewashing and finally the stomper.
Everything is done here in Ecolã, in Manteigas, in the Serra da Estrela region.
Marta: It is quite rare to find a process like this, that is all done in one place, nowadays, that is very special.
João: As a vertical business, it is unique. Usually people buy the materials and transform them. We acquire the wool, which is the base, then we make the fabrics, and then we make the products like blankets, etc.
Marta: What makes your Burel so different from other products on the market?
João: Sustainability. We manage to overcome some similar products as they do not have those features: sustainability, their handmade nature, which is a big part of it.
Madlen: We saw that it can take up to 8 hours just to set the threads on the loom!
Joana: Yes, that is what makes the biggest difference afterwards, on how the products behave, the quality guarantee and the durability of pieces.
It is very important that buyers are aware that there is a social side as well, that is, there is no human exploitation as it happens with cheap products made in places like China and Bangladesh.
Madlen: And it is very important to value Portuguese products, as this is where we live and work as well.
João: For sure! Not just the products but also the workers that make them.
Madlen: Is any specific kind of wool used to make Burel?
Joana: We have several kinds of wool; merina is used for shawls and blankets. For Burel we use the threads that come from Serra da Estrela’s Bordaleira sheep.
Only with the wool from the Bordaleira sheep can we achieve resistance and impermeability through the compression of fibers on the stomper.
The fibers of the bordaleira wool have a specific length that allows them to be pressed by the wooden pillars of the stomp between 4 to 5 hours to be compacted.
Marta: And how do you achieve Burel’s impermeability?
João: Its impermeability isn’t achieved with chemicals, but rather through mechanical processes. The fibers go through their maximum level of compaction, to a point that they are so close that water itself just slides off the surface, not getting through. It is not waterproof, it has its limits, as it is a natural material.
Do you want to know what my own father used to do to demonstrate Burel’s impermeability to shepherds who were unsure? Because shepherds certainly had an interest in purchasing fabrics that could protect them from the mountain’s heavy downpours for at least a year.
To prove the impermeability my father took a fully dry bowl and then put the burel in it, covering it with water until it formed a deposit in the middle. He left it for 24 hours and not a single drop got through. When the burel came off, the bowl remained dry.
Marta: Can you tell us about the Burel’s origins?
João: It is medieval. Usually Burel was made by female weavers, who had their own sheep and used their wool. They spun the wool much more roughly than we do nowadays and then they made Burel by beating it in the river until it thickened up.
Madlen: Thank you for giving us all the insides into you family business. We are looking forward to work with you in the future.
João and Joana: You are always welcome. Its a pleasure to see our Burel being used for such a nice purpose!