Now one of the country’s most well-known artisanal fashion labels, one that has graced the pages of Vogue the world around, Toino Abel was founded in 2010 by Nuno Henriques. A Portuguese artist and designer, Nuno decided to return home to Portugal and his ancestral rural village from buzzing Berlin when he noticed that the last basketry artisans were rapidly dwindling, many at the end of their weathered lives and at risk of taking their skill with them. Determined to keep the craft alive for future generations, his idea was born out of a vision for a new spirit in basketry, a trade that had graced his own family’s hardworking hands for five generations.
Making it his mission to try to save this craft, Nuno set about designing a contemporary collection of bags and ‘suitcases’ with a unique savoir-faire, working side by side with those who have woven reeds for decades.
In the family
For Nuno, the mission is close to home. His great grandfather, José Custódio Barreiro, was a farmer and a businessman, who in the late 1800s and early 1900s, earned his living in Portugal by producing olive oil and wine, and, of course, his famous baskets.
“José, my great-grandfather, sold many to places all over Portugal and delivered them with a cow and cart,” explains Nuno. “He employed lots of people, and after he died, his son – my great-uncle took over the business. It was after his death that my great-aunt, who still oversees the production of baskets at our studios today, took over.” Nuno’s great-aunt and her team of just six remaining weavers are the wise and kinetic hands behind Toino Abel’s production. Each has worked for the company since its inception, creating the brand’s unique baskets in the same traditional techniques that his great grandfather adopted all those years ago.
“Every step of the process is done by hand,” he says. “The women cut the reed sticks into bunches of equal size, clean and dry them and clear their colour in a process of burning sulphur. Afterwards, they colour the remaining darker pieces with colour pigments and weave them on a handloom in a variety of patterns. The handles of the baskets are made of willow branches that are bound and fastened onto the baskets. The finished parts are then stitched together in the form of a bag.”
It is a process that takes time and care, something that perhaps in our modern world, we take for granted. Do we tend to think that because modern life is less manual, less familial, less spiritual, and less rooted in the harshness of the wild, that traditions like basketry, are at risk? The answer is often yes. But, thankfully, and in particular in Portugal, there are people like Nuno, and our ‘New Traditionalists’ that we met in our last two issues, that feel a pull from the past. And yet, instead of lamenting and constantly looking back, they are striving towards a future with great possibilities and pride for their people and place.
“We, like many young people today in Portugal, feel an innate sense of responsibility for our history and heritage, and its balance with nature. For us, this is in the process of basketry. Our bags are based on timeless archetypes but for a modern woman,” Nuno says of his creations. Achieving a unique blend of ‘artisanal modernity’ Nuno manages to expertly merge contemporary design and folk culture; a niche created through listening, learning from, and collaborating with the remaining weavers in his village to save the traditional methods of basketry, whilst employing young and talented creatives to help design the final products.
Established artists and designers
“Among our employees are a collection of fine and applied arts graduates and fashion designers. We all live and work together within the same community where Portuguese reed basket making has a long history. We are a small but incredibly passionate team between their twenties and forties working with the very best crafters, and we feel a sense of responsibility for the craft’s history, process, and balance with nature”.
Nuno and his team are keen to defend the integrity of transparency throughout his design process and the importance of value when it comes to respecting crafts like weaving and basketry. At a glance, Toino Abel baskets are not so dissimilar to those you may find in a local market, but these are no ordinary keepsakes. “We have learned this unique technique from the remaining weavers of Portugal. Gradually, we have refined its process and elevated the quality of every single step. Nowadays, we are proud to realise that our bags have unparalleled craftsmanship.”
And as with any expertly crafted piece, it is what you see when you look closer; ethically sourced and natural materials, hard work, skill, knowledge and most importantly, fair working conditions and wages that all equate to their value as beautiful and luxurious pieces to be treated as reminders of the care taken in their creation. “We produce every single step in-house, with integrity and great care,” says Nuno. “Because we are working side by side with those who have honed their craft for decades, by investing in a basket bag by Toino Abel, you rest assured that you keep an ancient craft honest, alive and wholesome”.
Well, I think we have found our new summer staple, one that will last us for years to come and remind us always of Portugal’s curious creativity and passionate personality – a personality that pulled every one of us to calling this individual and the remarkable gem of a place, home.
Emma Campus is the founder of Design Escapes Portugal, a platform that offers a curated insight into the unique and hidden hideaways, spaces, places, and people in Portugal through a more mindful and design-oriented lens. Follow her collection on Instagram @designescapesportugal.
Words: Emma Campus