Rugs and rags, Portugal

A stop for coffee and curiosity lead us down a café-com-leite hued dirt road, plowing over rocks at far from warp speed.

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The handwritten signs for “Alentejo Weaving” pointed over a last hump giving way to the view of a white washed country cottage with blue accents. An installation of shiny kitchen utensils hanged of the vegetation on the left as we came to a halt next to another rental compact.

Around the corner we were met by a cheery English voice and invited into the gallery. Not large in size but tastefully adorned with a terracotta brick floor and any space available covered by rugs, tapestries and yarn. As the other visitors left she introduced herself as the “Chief Marketing Officer” and was indeed British. She vividly explained the techniques and quality craftsmanship Carlos use in weaving the wool rugs and tapestries all around us.

Carlos is no newbie to weaving and learned the craft from his mother since the age of six when he tore up worn out cotton sheets soon turned by his mother into a “trapo” rug.
As an adult some 30 years ago he headed South from his home in Serra de Estrella in Northern Portugal to settle in Cercal. Years later he moved out of the village to this charming country cottage with views down sloping fields and up pine and cork covered hills. Here with no neighbors around the corner he felt free, inspired and could even walk around in his birthday suite if so inclined.

The two came together when Monica the “CMO” bought her first rug, a pink and white creation from him in 2006. She returned a year later and thereafter more frequently until they decided that she should stay on. She was not one for sitting still and gradually took on her role as CMO as, as she put it “Carlos was not his own best sales person”. Monica have produced the marketing material filled with her own photography bartering her services for a few hours of modelling work by locals. Facebook is the first stage of reaching a wider audience and a website is in the works. In-between she have also turned the barren land around the cottage into a vivid garden filled with colors, cacti and vegetables as well as made herself a mini yoga shala.

Carlos is soft spoken and leaves the outreach to Monica. Being a morning person he gets up early however is adamant that nothing happens before he have downed a first cup of coffee. Thereafter he toils away behind the loom in the early cool hours of the day. The wool he uses still comes from the North as it meet his quality demands in the spinning. As a true artisan he gets his inspiration from his surroundings and often uses a calm and muted color palette with earthy browns, shady greens and sky like blues. However as every piece is unique and none two the same he also makes very vivid and contrasty pieces sometimes inspired by a car ride “looking for colors”.

As the temperature rises on a hot summers day he moves outdoors and spend the afternoons under a parasol finishing off the pieces he have woven with meticulously knotted fringes and hand stitching. He quietly discloses mano-a-mano that he is more effective when Monica is away in London but quickly adds as she is approaching that he loves her to be around.

Perhaps one reason is that she nudged him to eventually give up his day job and give his passion a go full-time. With a flair for fashion she has not only taken on the CMO role but also widened his perspective as to what his weaves can be used for. So nowadays it is not only rugs and tapestries but the offerings also include pillows (with innards from London) and beautifully sturdy tote bags, finished by hand with leather handles.

To rekindle his mother’s craft of making “trapo” rugs Carlos keep a large basket of torn up cotton in the gallery and “upcycle” old bedlinen, table cloths or shirt material into “trapo” rugs, placemats or whatever comes to mind. Monica sometimes helps out tearing bedsheets into fine strips as it is “an excellent way to get rid of frustrations”. Carlos has just returned from a fair in nearby Santiago where the theme of their exhibit was “Homen agem ao trapo” or “homage to trapos” and Monica insists that Carlos shows the sign for the exhibit a jumble of rags and hand painted letters. In the back of his car he also shows a light finely woven trapo rug a dear heirloom from his mother.

The partnership of Carlos and Monica really proves that if there is a will there is a way as the word have gotten around from the country cottage in Portugal. It may have started with a skill generations ago and grown with the help of a few hand painted signs along rural roads in the Alentejo region to now being spread around the globe. Rugs are in Munich and England and Carlos now take commissions from as far as San Francisco. As we bid farewell it is not without a beautiful large handcrafted olive colored tote bag with leather handles. It will be seen on Dutch streets, on travels around the world and always know its Portuguese pedigree.


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Oh Yeah! If you want to find Carlos and Monica they are here:
Should you stop by say Hi from the WonderingViking and the Girl with the Green Tote.

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