Studio Visions: Meet Portuguese Basket Makers Toino Abel
Nuno Henriques is the founder of "Toino Abel" and he set up his company in 2010, with the aim to revive the production of hand-crafted reed baskets, an endangered heritage craft of his native Portugal. For this issue, I met Nuno Henriques in his workspace in Castanheira, a small Portuguese village, located 350 km north of Lisbon.
Nuno, when did you start your label "Toino Abel"?
For me it all started in 2010, on the night when my grandfather died. My family came together for dinner in the house of my great grandaunt who was running the basket business founded by my great great grandfather. At the end of the night my brother gave one of the traditional reed baskets to his new girlfriend. For me it was like a gesture. His girlfriend took the basket home as a memory, as something that was created here in the village. And this made me think that I could do the same, just on a larger scale.
You mean, you thought about taking something from your small village of Castanheira in Portugal and offering it to the world?
Yes. For me it was like taking something from the dead to see if it could gain a new life.
How was your grandfather connected to the baskets?
His father in-law was producing the baskets. I initially thought it was my great grandfather who had started the business. But when a local newspaper published my story, some of the old people in the village contacted me and told me that it had been my great great grandfather who had started the production of the baskets. This must have been about 150 years ago. I think I could trace it more precisely as we have a record of our family tree.
Why did you decide to call your business "Toino Abel"?
I decided to use the name of my grandfather as he was very dear to me. His name was Antonio and people called him Toino. Abel was the name of his father. To distinguish him from other Toinos (there are many Antonios in a catholic country and they all have the same nickname) people referred to him as Toino Abel. Which carries the meaning of “The son Toino of the father Abel".
Over time the reed baskets became such an integral part of Portuguese handcraft tradition. Is there any account of who invented them?
People in this region say that my great great grandfather was the one who invented the craft. But this is oral history, it is not written anywhere and I can't know how true it is. The village of Castanheira was once known as the centre of basket production in Portugal but then at some point it also spread to other places in Portugal.
How did the craft evolve over the years?
At the beginning the baskets were plain white. When more businesses started to produce baskets, it became a necessity to distinguish the producers. That’s why the weavers started using colours and the different colours became the signature style of each production house. In later years the weavers started entering into "competitions” with each other and that's how the different patterns were invented. They were a way for the artisans to express their creativity. At some point, between the 1960ies and the 1980ies, the production of baskets became very popular and my family’s business started to produce additional products such as tapestries, carpets and even sunshields for car windows.
Could you tell me more about how the production of the baskets was the set up in the past?
There were several different families who ran production businesses. They owned big workshops with looms and employed weavers and also cooperated with weavers who had looms in their own houses. Those independent weavers were mainly people who had a main job, like working in agriculture, and did some weaving on the side. The families who ran the production gave orders to the weavers and then looked after the completion of the baskets, the stitching and the making of the handles. And they were also the ones who distributed the finished products to shops and markets.
What was the state of the basket production when you moved back to Portugal in 2013?
The baskets weren't visible anymore. The production was stuck in time, it was all very much in decline. There were only two looms left in Castanheira and another three to four in another nearby village. That was all. Sales were only directed to the national Portuguese market and there was not much demand for it any longer.
What was your initial intention for starting Toino Abel?
I always loved these handcrafted baskets and I was afraid that the craft would just die. I understood that the baskets needed a new public and I wanted to see if I could find people who liked the baskets as much as I do. I very much appreciate diversity and I like things that are unique. Nowadays we see a standardization of culture, things are getting more and more the same everywhere. I think preserving the handcraft of basket making is a way to preserve a sense of uniqueness and a cultural identity. Initially though, my own interest in the baskets was for environmental reasons. I always used them to do my shopping and I enjoyed having a beautiful and strong carrier bag that I could reuse instead of constantly buying plastic bags that would create waste.
You studied art in Lisbon and lived in Berlin for five years after your graduation. What made you return to the small village of Castanheira?
I had started setting up Toino Abel in Berlin. At some point I had to decide whether I wanted to take the business to another level. I couldn't imagine doing it from Berlin, it was too far away.
How is life like in Castanheira?
Castanheira is a village with 300 inhabitants. That means you only see very few people during the day. It is a very typical Portuguese village. Some people work in the local ceramics factory and others work in agriculture. Some of the old people still make their own wine and sometimes I pass by and they offer me a glass. I avoid going to the village café at night, they play Big Brother on TV and it hurts me a little. The café is always empty and the waitress is asleep. It was not easy to change from living in Berlin to living in this tiny village and I sometimes feel a bit alone.
How did you set up your production?
There are still a few old female weavers based in Castanheira who I work with. There are also some craftsmen who stitch together the bags and two artisans who still know how to work with willow branches to create the handles for the bags. Recently I have built my own workshop and my own loom. My plan is to employ a weaver who can teach the craft to younger artisans.
Could you explain the production process of a basket in single steps?
Sure. The reed is harvested once a year in the south of Portugal. Once it's harvested, it needs to dry for several months. When it's dry, it gets delivered to Castanheira. Then we have to cut the reed, wash it and bleach it with burning sulphur. The darker reeds are dyed in different colours, the lighter ones remain white. The main part of our work is the weaving of the reed, the making of reed tapestry on the loom. We produce reed tapestry for about six to eight bags per day on each loom, depending on the size of the bag. The different woven pieces are stitched together to create the bag. When the bag is finished, the handles are created out of willow branches and we add some leather components.
So how long does it take to produce one basket?
The weaving of the three different components takes one to three hours, depending on the size of the bag. However, the entire production takes several days to be completed.
You use a variety of materials for your baskets: reed, thread, leather, willow. Where do you source them?
Everything except for the thread comes from Portugal. The company that used to produce the thread closed many years ago and now our thread comes from Afghanistan. I try to use everything else from as close by as possible. Even things like the packaging are produced locally. My neighbour makes the cardboard boxes that we use. They don't look very fancy, their design could be improved. But I like my neighbour and I know his employees. I know that he is a sweetheart who treats his people well. For me this is also a political choice. My neighbour can't really hide, I can always come to his factory for a surprise inspection. (laughs)
What are your tasks in running the business?
I create and test new designs in collaboration with the weavers. I deal with national and international sales, manage the orders, deal with the suppliers. And I take the photos for our website, catalogues and social media.
So you change and improve the traditional designs?
Yes, sometimes this happens. But I also re-discover traditional designs that I find very beautiful. For instance, we once received an old basket for repair and the basket had a pattern that I had never seen before. I find the past of the baskets very rich, there are lots of beautiful historical patterns. But I also try out new patterns. For example, I introduced mono-coloured bags which never existed before. And I have experimented with changing the shape of the bags. I re-introduced the "folder"-model, which is more narrow, that they used to produce in the past. I added a system to close the bags properly and I introduced shoulder straps to use the small baskets like handbags.
You decided to present your baskets to an international audience and you sell the baskets online. How do your clients from abroad like your baskets?
I have a lot of clients from abroad and the feedback that I have received has been very positive and supportive. People seem to appreciate that the bags are made by hand and that they are so well-made and sturdy. Sometimes I receive very touching feedback. Once I sold a basket to a woman in Japan and she sent me a photo of herself with the basket.
How do you see the future of Toino Abel?
I hope the business will become successful enough to become fully financially sustainable. In the future, I would love to introduce a new collection every year and I would like to collaborate with artists and designers. And I want to ensure that our process is as ethical and ecological as possible.
What are the problems that you are facing?
There are still a lot of things that need to be done. At the moment both our raw materials and the knowledge of the craft are endangered. These days only a few people still harvest reed. For example, this year we will receive less reed than in the previous year and not enough for our production. And I also need to start training new weavers. Currently most of our artisans are of old age. A new generation of weavers will need to learn the craft in order to continue with the production in the future.
Do you see yourself as part of a movement?
Yes, I do. Currently there are more and more people who work with crafts from the past. There is kind of a movement that believes in processes that are simple and that follow a natural rhythm. I think, for example, that the most beautiful light still comes from the candle. And nowadays we still use candles in addition to having lightbulbs. They both have a reason to exist. I think that there are certain objects that travel through generations and survive the test of time, because they possess a unique beauty and quality.
Thank you, Nuno, for showing us around Castanheira!
Lissome Loves Toino Abel:
OUR FAVOURITE STYLES
PORTUGUESE SLOW FASHION
"These two labels design and produce locally in Portugal - my favourites!"
Portuguese Tomato Soup
with Coriander and
2 tbl spoons olive oil
1 red onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 bay leaf
500 g ripe tomatoes, peeled and sliced
1 tbl spoons chopped coriander
Serves 3: Heat the oil, sauté the onion and garlic and add the bay leaf. When you smell the garlic, add the tomatoes and sauté until the water from the tomatoes reduces. Add 600ml hot water and bring back to the boil, then cover the pan and simmer for 10 minutes. Purée the soup and season. Break the eggs straight into the soup pan and poach them in there. Sprinkle over the coriander once you serve the soup.