Proud of Portuguese palms

Traditional, local, authentic, handmade, genuine, 100% Portuguese. Words that sounds great on a label. But is all that’s described as ‘made in Portugal’, really produced in this country? Having spotted some nice inexpensive bags made out of palm leaves, Enjoy the Algarve asks palm weaving expert Maria João Gomes for advice. “If it doesn’t smell of the Algarve, it’s not Portuguese.”

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine June 2017

Intro picture by Kyle Rodriguez, other photos courtesy of Maria João Gomes


“Those ‘genuinely Portuguese handcrafted palm-leaves bags’ they sell on the markets in the Algarve for a few tenners? Fake! They’re imported from Morocco, all of them. Even those that have a sweet old Portuguese lady sitting next to it, braiding some palm leaves – it’s just for show so you think that’s how she made those bags.” Maria João Gomes (49, pictured below) is not one to keep quiet when she disagrees with something. “Here in the Algarve, I’m the only one selling handcrafted palm bags and hats that are made from Portuguese dwarf palms,” she states. “There are other Algarvians who work with these local palm leaves as well, mainly old people in the serra, but they don’t sell; they only produce for their own use.”

Ask her about the handicrafts you see displayed on fairs, expositions and tourist shops all over the Algarve and she gets aggrieved again. “So much stuff is sold as coming from Portugal, but it isn’t. There’s hardly anybody who does real artisanal anymore, especially not when it comes to palm weaving. If we don’t do anything, this tradition dies out and part of our culture gets lost. Portugal isn’t only about golf and sea!”

In order to keep the empreita craft alive, Maria has set up Palmas Douradas. She collects wild dwarf palm leaves and lets them dry in the sun for 15 days. Then she tears the leaves, puts them in water so they’re flexible and dries them off with tissues before starting to braid them. When she’s got all the leaves ready, making a hat takes the entire day. A bag, even longer. “It takes a lot of time, but it isn’t my goal to make a lot of things. I’d rather make quality products. However, I can’t compete with the low Moroccan wages or factory made plastic stuff.”

Using copper needles which aren’t produced anymore, Maria has learned the palm weaving from her mother and grandmother. (It was mainly women who wove palm leaves, the men worked predominantly with wicker and cane). In the old days, people from the countryside would create heavy-duty baskets, called alcofas or balaios to store dried fruits or nuts; Maria’s grandmother used to fill them with alfarrobas and load them onto her donkeys. Not all palm weaving is the same, as can be seen when looking closely at Maria’s creations.

Maria is probably the only one who knows all the eight different palm weaving techniques. She learned them from elderly people living in the serra and barrocal area. Although the techniques aren’t particularly difficult, being allowed to learn them wasn’t easy.

“If I’d come across a different technique and wanted to have a closer look, the weavers would initially hide their work. About 60 years ago that was how it was done; you had to keep your technique secret so others couldn’t copy your work. There are still people who don’t agree with me teaching these skills.” Despite that, she teaches, from workshops to lessons at the Algarve university, not wanting this traditional craft to get lost.

But although she does everything by hand the way her grandmother used to do, from collecting the palms from the countryside to using saffron as a pigment, Maria also adds her own modern design ideas. “I once asked an old man for advice when I wanted to make a hat. He said ‘no you can’t do that’. The older generations are very set in their ways and used only to making what they’ve always made. Which is mainly brooms and big baskets.” Maria is more into hats and handbags, some decorated with very un-Portuguese bling.

In October 2016, her pieces made it onto Lisbon Fashion Week, used in designer Filipe Faisca’s ‘retrospective’ collection. This summer, three of her bags will be displayed during the Feira Internacional de Artesanato (FIA) in Lisbon. She only sells online and has a waiting list: “Nowadays, everyone is into bio and vegan, it’s fashionable.” Her creations are as eco-friendly as they get. Made of untreated palm fibres, you could throw them on the ground after use – not that you’d want to – or even feed them to a horse, donkey or goat.

“My grandmother’s donkeys would occasionally take a bite out of the nice palm ornaments she had hanging on a tree on her land,” says Maria. “It’s completely natural.” And that’s where we get to her main concern about Moroccan palm products. Because in order to get that light beige colour, the palm leaves are bleached with sulfur which isn’t very good for your health, according to Maria. “I always tell people: smell first! If it doesn’t smell of the Algarve, it’s not Portuguese. The fashion models in Lisbon told me the odour of my hats reminded them of their Algarvian holidays. I can’t get enough of the smell!”

The other difference lies in the colour. Where Moroccan palm leaves are whiter because of their treatment with sulphur, the unbleached Portuguese ones are greenish and then turn golden-brown as time passes instead of pale. Hence the name Palmas Douradas. “Don’t get me wrong; apart from the sulphur there’s nothing wrong with Moroccan palms,” explains Maria.

She continues: “Moroccans are great artisans and their weaving is impressive. I really like their work and would love to eventually have my own shop with woven goods from everywhere around the world, from Morocco to Mexico. I just don’t like that people are told in lies some places, where they’re told they’re buying something that’s made in Portugal where in fact it isn’t. I’m proud of our Portuguese products.”


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine June 2017

Posted in People.