The national centre of wool cloth production has always been the city of Covilhã.
From the 12th century (the city’s first charter dates from 1186), textiles were made there by hand and at home. The raw material came from the Serra da Estrela mountains, where the flocks of sheep would graze. This system of production lasted until the 18th/19th centuries.
From the 17th century onwards, the first manufacturing houses started appearing in the city. Later, with the advent of the European Industrial Revolution, this tendency continued and a large number of factories were built.
Two rivers, the Degoldra and the Carpinteira, come down from the Serra da Estrela mountains and run through the city at altitudes of between 800m and 500m. It is beside these rivers that the major landmarks in the history of this most traditional Portuguese industry can be found.
THE FIRST MANUFACTURING HOUSE
At the beginning of the 18th century the policy of encouraging industry, begun 30 years prior by the 3rd Count of Ericeira, demanded a considerable amount of investment. The largest example of this was the huge Manufacturing House of Covilhã (1679). In a city with a long history of the presence of Jewish communities (who later became the new-Christians), it was they who would provide the necessary finance. This fact aroused the suspicion of the Inquisition, who went so far as to imprison many investors and businessmen. Between 1700 and 1705, 18 were arrested on accusation of Judiasm.
THE ROYAL CLOTH FACTORY
Covilhã initiated a radical process of modernization during the time of the Marquis of Pombal. The Royal Cloth Factory was founded in 1764, and, a few years later, the Veiga Royal Factory was created.
Further examples include the factory founded by Simão Pereira da Silva (1795-1805), and then the activities of António Pessoa de Amorim and António Almeida Navarro. These men were all new-Christians. In 1820 they took over the management of the Royal Factories of Covilhã and Veigas (which by now had joined together), through a merger with the factory of Simão Pereira da Silva.
By around 1850 Covilhã had become one of the largest industrial centres in Portugal. There was an annual output of over 1,150 tonnes of wool, 29 factories had more than 10 workers and there were a total of 1,340 workers in the city.
Four large factories employed 40of these workers.
THE FAMOUS ‘PORTUGUESE MANCHESTER’
The steam engine was late to arrive here because the city was able to develop a means of using hydraulic energy. This tecnique was unique in Europe and ran against the general rule of the Industrial Revolution, that there was no industrialization without steam power. For over 50 years the industry in Covilhã was to be supported solely using hydraulic energy.
By 1863 the number of factories had increased to 35, employing 3,800 workers. Only one of these factories, that belonging to the Marquis of Paiva, used steam energy (the first and only to do so).
By 1875 the wool industry was the most important in the country in terms of both technology and turnover. In 1881, Covilhã was only surpassed in importance by Lisbon and Oporto, which by now were home to a wide variety of industries. The industries with the largest turnovers were cotton and linen weaving, followed by wool and then food processing.
The Covilhã School of Industry was opened in 1887.
THE IMPACT OF TECHNOLOGY
Throughout the whole of the first half of the 20th century there was an increase in production, especially so in the years following the Second World War. At the end of the century, however, important developments occured which were to transform the city both socially and economically. At the present time, there are far less factories and far fewer workers than there used to be.
Production levels are, however, at an all-time high.
This is a consequence of a technological revolution that has affected the industry at every level.
Today around 30 million metres of cloth are produced in Covilhã every year.
Gouveia – A Woven History
Due to the abundance of water in the area, a wool manufacturing house was founded in Melo in around 1680. However, it was not to last long.
At the end of the 17th century, Gouveia produced skirts and other traditional items of clothing through a mainly cottage industry.
The municipality’s wool tradition was older than this, however, and the activity had already spread to Melo, Freixo, Figueiró, Arcozelo and Aldeias. By 1774 Paços da Serra had become an important centre where “the travelling salesmen of Castille and the region of Trás-os-Montes would go to for all their woollens.” By around 1873, 23 factories (with 192 looms) had been set up in the municipality, and by the end of the 19th century (1899) the town of Gouveia was ranked sixth in Portugal in terms of industrial turnover. At this time, 114 factories linked to wool products, and more than a thousand workers, were concentrated mainly in the seat of the municipality and in Moimenta da Serra. In only fifty years, the number of factories had increased by a factor of 10.
Penamacor – Grazing
The town of Penamacor is situated next to one of the major grazing routes of the Peninsula, known as the ‘Malpartida de Cáceres’. The Penamacor municipal council is currently reviving an ancient species of sheep, the ‘Churra do Campo’, which had been thought extinct. This sheep produces a characteristic type of wool that was sent to spinners in Covilhã. It was used to make thick shawls and other poorer types of cloth. A complex is being planned which will rehabilitate the areas where flocks are handled, and will include a Centre for the Study of the ‘Churra’ wool process.
Pinhel – Woolen socks
This ancient city in the Beira Alta region possesses a centuries-old technique developed for the manufacture of woolen socks. Its craftsmen easily discovered the techniques used by the English in the large manufacturing houses of Covilhã.
Seia – The Mountains as a Resource
The municipality of Seia is part of the Serra da Estrela Wool Route by virtue of a more recent involvement in the wool industry.
The industry helped the municipality grow throughout the 20th century.
Alvoco da Serra and Loriga are the most traditional centres and were very active at the beginning of last century. The construction of the first electric power station in Portugal in S. Romão helped further expansion, which continued until the 1980s. By 1975, Vodra had around 1,700 workers and today the Beiralã brand is a symbol of continuity and quality.
Manteigas – In the Heart of the Estrela Range
This town, located in the heart of the Serra da Estrela mountains, is one of the country's oldest centres of wool treatment and manufacture.
In 1524 King João III recognized the town as a vertical producer that worked wool from the sheep to the finishing of cloth. At that time there were 3 cloth presses (for making felt) in Manteigas.
It was this experience that led to the founding of a large manufacturing house in the town in 1679, the second in the Serra da Estrela. The Count of Ericeira had stated the year before that “the business of the residents of Manteigas is all cloth and all wool... the river Zêzere runs through this same town with a great abundance of water.”
The manufacturing house was set up in Matufa, next to the confluence of a small river with the river Zêzere. This factory would be geared towards the production of serges and baizes.
In a similar manner to the Covilhã manufacturing house, there was resistance to the large, new factory from the traditional craftsmen who worked at home. For a variety of reasons the Manteigas manufacturing house closed a few years later, and its work was distributed to smaller units.
Manteigas is of interest today due to the hand-made woollens it produces, such as travel shawls and items of clothing. There is also a large factory (Sotave) which manufactures a diverse range of wool products.
The Matufa manufacturing house
The Manteigas manufacturing house, one of the first to be built in Portugal, was located in Matufa, where a small river meets the river Zêzere. Having close links with the Covilhã trade, it was known simply as ‘the device’.
Guarda – the Famous Fleecy Blankets
The municipality of Guarda is linked to the history of wool production mainly through the parishes of Trinta, Maçainhas and Meios. The woollen blankets and shawls still produced and sold there today are unique, and of a very high quality.
The famous fleecy blankets use 'churra' sheep wool as a raw material. Small factories appeared in the parish of Trinta in 1837.
In the 1940s nearly every family had a loom, but there are far fewer today. Instead, modern industrial units continue to bring this type of wool product to the market.
The city of Guarda is now active in wool manufacturing due to the presence of a modern factory (Manuel Tavares).
Covilhã – A City built on Wool
“If the sons of Adam sinned, then those of Covilhã have always carded”
18th century saying
The national centre of wool cloth production has always been the city of Covilhã.
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