“Over the last 25 years there was only one factory, only 4 weavers that have been doing every Manta Alentejana we know."
Mantas Alentejanas, traditional blankets from the Alentejo region of Portugal, carry layers of history, personal experiences, local materials, hand craft, and an ever-evolving story. The forms these blankets take — cloaks, rugs, bedding, furniture and accessories — and the patterns and colours they contain, illustrate their journey through time, at once embracing their heritage and the changing demands of the modern world. Pivotal in their story is the Fabricaal factory in Reguengos de Monsaraz that is the sole producer of Mantas Reguengnos, Alentejo blankets specific to the city, where the tradition remained untouched, using the same traditional weaving techniques and manual wooden looms used in the blankets’ earliest creation.
The story of the blankets begins over one hundred years ago, in the cold winters of Alentejo. Located in the centre of Portugal between the Algarve and Lisbon, Alentejo is known for its unparalleled beauty and rich agriculture. It is home to cattle, olive trees, and merino sheep who give their wool to the creation of Mantas Alentejanas. The earliest mantas, tightly woven and waterproofed with olive oil, were made as blankets and cloaks for the shoulders of shepherds to keep them warm during the harsh Alentejo winters. They featured simple patterns, such as stripes and a local espiga weed motif, and the natural colours of the wool: five different tones including white, greys, black and beige.
The Fabricaal factory, for over 90 years, has been evolving the story of these mantas. In the 1930s, it began as a workshop focused on wool craft under António Durão, then in the 1950s, the workshop became Fabrica Alentejana de Lanificios under José Rosa who turned the focus to the production of mantas and created the Mantas de Reguengos brand image. When interest in the blankets waned in the 1970s, Dutch artisan Mizette Nielsen took ownership of the business, and worked to maintain the tradition and quality of the Reguengos fabrics while introducing innovations that responded to modern times. In January 2020, the baton passed to three new owners, António Carreteiro, Luís Peixe and Margarida Adónis, and the factory was rebranded as Fabricaal. Under their ownership, the factory continues to innovate while holding firmly to its heritage. We sat down with Margarida Adónis to learn more about the story of the factory, this iconic Portuguese craft, and the way her own personal story intertwines with it.
Margarida Adónis hasn’t always been a producer of textiles. For 22 years she was an advertising producer, running her own production company in Lisbon. The fast pace and long hours of the job kept her away from her young family for long periods of time, so in 2019 she moved full time to what had been her holiday home in Alentejo, in search of a “more humble and more grounded and less hectic and not so much consumerist and not so much materialist life.” With her passion for textiles and friendly nature, she quickly befriended Mizette Nielsen and enjoyed weekly chats with her at the Fabricaal factory. When Mizette told her that she wanted to sell the factory, Margarida was excited by the possibilities: “I’ve always been a producer but my passion, and my secret passion, has always been interior decoration and fabrics. I have a room full of fabrics until the roof. I have always collected fabrics from wherever I go; I always regret when I cannot purchase a fabric. And I thought, 'Interesting! Me, having a fabric mill! That’s like a dream come true. Wow! This could be really interesting.’ ”
Mizette was careful to sell the business to people who would maintain the tradition and continue the evolution of the mantas, and Margarida, António and Luís were the perfect choice. The partners care deeply about the heritage and quality of the mantas they produce, and they all made a pact to live and work near the factory, to be more intimately connected with the business and to communicate directly with the weavers. They are also adamant about maintaining the more complex, labour-intensive weaves, even if they are less commercially viable on a large scale, to honour the tradition: "We want to show a work that is rich and that is difficult because that’s the DNA of those looms. And so we’ve been doing really beautiful stuff, and premium.”
Part of the passion for the craft comes from personal experience, both collective and individual: “I have those blankets here at home because having a house in Alentejo and not having a blanket or a rug at home is like being Italian and not liking pasta. But the funny thing, yes, my first Christmas present from my husband 16 years ago was a Manta Alentejana number 28 from our factory. So 16 years ago my husband knew I would love these blankets and so he bought me a 180 piece that we actually use and we’ve been using much before owning the factory. We have always used [it] in our bed here in Alentejo. And so it’s funny that 16 years afterwards, I am producing the pattern 28 in many different colours because I love it so much.”
The Fabricaal approach is more about offering a variety of products than trying to quickly sell blankets. It is an approach informed by history. Mantas Alentejanas, as they became more refined over time, became iconic bedding made for special gifts, such as for a wedding. But with Portugal’s entrance into the EU and the arrival of the open market, tastes changed, and people became more interested in polyester bedding. “We had to find a way to keep the manta alive, so the factory started doing Mantas Alentejanas to put on the floor, as rugs. And they were used as rugs, also to survive, in a way. But they [lost] popularity; it was very difficult to keep the big factories open. So more or less in the ‘70s, before the revolution, Mizette Nielsen, she gathered all the looms of Reguengos de Monsaraz under one single roof and bought the Fábrica Alentejana and put all the looms that were used at homes, not at really factories, and put all the people under the same roof and that became Fábrica Alentejana de Lantificios. So they gathered to survive. And that’s the heritage that we manage now. Over the last 25 years there was only one factory, only 4 weavers that have been doing every Manta Alentejana we know.”
The new Fabricaal owners are innovating while holding strong to the heritage of the blankets “And now we are bringing it out of the floor and we are doing other stuff: we are doing beds, we are doing ottomans, we are doing … mattress for outside or for inside, we are doing tapestry wall textile art...we are doing a lot of stuff because we thought that could be interesting that the Manta Alentejana gets other formats.”
“We’ve been creating new patterns using new colours but we are creating on a base that is already very rich and has a patrimony and heritage that the looms pass to us. We are taking out of the looms incredible work, new work, original work, and people really appreciate the work that we’ve been doing and they really buy the new patterns.”
The textile used on De La Espada furniture, Espinhada, is an early pattern from the Fabricaal factory from the days of Mizette Nielsen’s ownership, with colours chosen by Margarida — one of the first rugs she designed when she became owner. The colour choice is based on the architecture of Conceição Silva, “a beautiful, very talented architect from the '60s. And he built an impressive resort between '64 and '75, totally from the '60s — it’s like the purity of the '60s, in Portugal, in Tróia. And I own one apartment from Conceição Silva which is like a diamond. And I have decorated that apartment with all the original colours and furniture from the '60s from Conceição Silva. And he used a lot the wood, the oranges, and that’s why I made that Espinhada. I made that Espinhada thinking that if Conceição Silva was alive, he would choose that Espinhada to decorate one of his apartments or one of his resorts in Tróia.”
The Espinhada can be made with natural weaving or premium weaving. De La Espada furniture features the premium weave, as it is more intricate and durable. It takes approximately 30 hours to weave the Espinhada for one Capo Lounge Armchair. There is no finish on the textile, just the natural resilience of the merino wool fibres and the weave. The textile, like every textile made at the Fabricaal factory, is made completely by hand on manual wooden looms and the dyeing is done in accordance with the sustainability rules of the European Community.
There is something about the passage of time and the way meaning wraps around it, both personally and collectively. The traditions of our home country are often a part of us, even without our conscious participation, and the traditions of even far away countries carry with them a depth that resonates across cultures. Mantas Alentejanas carry the imprint of time, culture, memory and experience. Fabricaal continues this tradition, holding firmly to heritage while sensitively modernising, furthering the story of the mantas for all of us to enjoy, as we further our own personal stories.
“We are taking care of the factory to actually perpetuate this heritage but we are having a lot of fun because we are creating really new stuff.”