In 2006, a couple of Lisboetas (from Lisbon) hiking through Portugal’s highest Serra da Estrela (“starry mountain”) range came across an abandoned sanatorium that they repurposed into a boutique hotel.
Wonders of the Serra da Estrela Mountain Range
Looking for authentic materials to upholster their cosy and elegant rooms, they discovered the country’s oldest wool factory in the quaint town of Manteigas, nestled in the Zézere Glacier Valley which feeds Portugal’s northern river network.
It didn’t take long for their designer’s sixth sense to acknowledge that Burel wool, a uniquely Portuguese product and artefact of local patrimony, and the skilled and passionate local community that had been making it for centuries, were special. In 2010 they devoted their careers to saving the 1940s factory from bankruptcy and reviving the local economy that depends on it.
The Town of Manteigas
Today, owners Isabela Costa’s and João Tomás’s Burel Factory and mountain hotels (they opened a second boutique hotel in 2016) are internationally-acclaimed, contemporary design and hospitality icons - they’re drawing new attention to Burel wool and the Serra da Estrela mountains and are forging Portugal’s path forward as a leader in sustainable innovation and development.
The Burel Factory
Indigenous mountain sheep
The Serra da Estrella mountain community and economy rely on everything sheep-related, from Burel wool capes that protect them from the rain and cold to delicious mountain sheep cheese cured with thistle to the beautiful mountain dog breed that guides the sheeps’ seasonal migration from the valley floor in winter, to the mountain peaks in summer.
Serra da Estrellas’ indigenous Bordaleira and Churra sheep species roam freely, grazing the softer grass of the higher mountain plateaus, contributing to their softer wool. They are white and brown (as was the Burel wool made in the past) and can weigh 50-100kg.
The shepherds manually sheer 4kg of wool from each sheep at the end of each winter (manual shearing minimizes stress to the animals) and gently wash the wool without any chemicals (in fact, you may even find a piece of Portuguese mountain grass woven into your blanket, jacket or carpet!) Burel purchases the majority of their wool directly from local mountain shepherds and some from Altentejo’s Merino shepherds in the South.
Traditionally sustainable wool production
“Burel” refers to a specific treatment that turns the 100% wool tighter-grained and fire-resistant, with high impermeability (water-resistance), and thermal and acoustic insulation. This tough, flexible and 100% natural agro-product is not “itchy” and doesn’t pile.
Purchased pre-washed and chemical-free from the shepherd, the wool is hand-brushed (aka carded), spun and wound onto spindles at the factory to then weave into a dense fabric that is pounded and scalded, making it compact and resistant.
Isabel and João are determined to preserve and reinterpret the past. Since its conception, Burel has abided by a zero-waste policy. Moreover, wool is long-lasting, non-polluting, recyclable and renewable.
As owner Isabel Costa says, this is “economy for the people, not people for the economy”.
The factory still employs its original 19th-century looms and their “handlers” who can hand down their savoir-faire to the next generation of weavers. Burel’s trendy and high-quality products incorporate the factory’s old patterns with new textures, colours and even 3-D designs from over 20 Portuguese designers like fashion designer Miguel Gigante, and some impressive international aficionados (think tech company headquarters, 5-star hotels and Dolce & Gabbana).
Wool fashion, design and architecture
Today, Burel Factory produces clothing, slippers, placemats, flower vases, handbags, scarves, blankets, pillows, and other fashion, design and architecture innovations - Burel wool is more than a product, it’s a lifestyle! Check out Farah's Burel collection here.
The Burel Factory São Lorenço Mountain Hotel
Farah highly recommends a visit to their living museum in the Serra da Estrela mountains and showrooms in Lisbon and Porto and the Burel architecture store in Lisbon. Learn more about Visiting the Burel Factory, the Burel showrooms and the Burel hotels here
- Odile Bouchard