Loulé revives the extinct art of spartina

Located in the village of Querença, just outside Loulé, QRER, the cooperative for the development of low-density territories, has developed a course to teach the technique of weaving spartina, “which was on the verge of extinction », explains João Ministro, a collaborator and entrepreneur of sustainable nature tourism.

Spartina (Stipa tenacissima and esparto in Portuguese) is a plant that grows naturally in the Barrocal of the Algarve. Alfa is also a basketry technique used to work this plant, also called “empreita do sparto” (esparto work), which was widely used to make mats, baskets and baskets due to its resistant nature.

“60 or 70 years ago, a large community of craftsmen around Alte, especially in Sarnadas, used this technique. There was a lot of commerce at the time. But spartina is a difficult plant to work with. It requires a hard, difficult and long preparation process. It must be soaked in water for several days, then it must be worked. Over time, it was abandoned, especially because the craftsmanship was greatly devalued,” explains João Ministro.


This does not mean, however, that the technique does not arouse the interest of a new generation of craftsmen. Its recovery began last year with the completion of a course on the transmission of master/apprentice knowledge, which successfully brought together a group of eight people for a month.

“Two or three had some previous knowledge, but for most of the trainees, it was really the first experience they had with this material”. This year, the second phase of the course took place from September 26 to October 7, during a creation residency to “give continuity to people’s desire to start a professional activity around spartina. It brought together creators [Alexandra Gonçalves and Ana Rita Contente]some of the trainees who had participated in the previous course and others who wanted to make a living from the craft,” he explains.


For the residency, “within the planned duration and with the objectives set, Commissioner Hugo da Silva also established a maximum of eight participants to make the work viable”, adds Susana Calado Martins, collaborator of the QRER.

“They didn’t participate as apprentices, although they were beginners. The residency was a work experience as everyone was hired to develop original products,” she adds.

“The experiments turned out to be very creative. We have mainly artistic pieces, other utilitarian ones and also a mix between the two. For example, there are several lamps, one of which is large, out of the ordinary. One of the participants, Milena Kalte, who is based at the QRIAR – Creative Incubator of the Algarve, decided, in this residency, to create pieces following a line she was developing: animal masks. This goes back to the roots of the traditional esparto activity. In the past, donkey and chicken heads were made, decorative pieces that have become rare these days.


However, these are not imitations of the past. “As Milena has a background in anthropology, she researches animals related to the territory of the Algarve, whether they are true from a biological point of view, such as the lynx, or fantastic creatures, from the popular imagination”. In this case, she was inspired by the legend of Zorra Berradeira. A monster resembling a goat, whose howls of fury at night were said to announce death and terrify the inhabitants of the Algarve.

“This anthropological component helps to enrich the products and make them more interesting. We also have pieces made using various techniques. Spartina is not always worked in the same way. It can be worked raw and sewn, and there are several knot techniques. Some participants applied several techniques that they had learned in the same room,” says Susana Calado Martins.

Although it is “utilitarian and decorative”, according to her, the future of cordgrass lies in innovation “because it is a really unique material. In terms of execution, artistic production can become more competitive” from a perspective of contemporary creation.


At the moment, “we have craftsmen who master the technique. Now they have to develop their ideas. This residence was used for that. The prototypes will be improved until the end of the year to be part of a public exhibition in January”, organized by the municipality of Loulé. “The works will be presented and, we hope, marketed,” says João Ministro.

For now, the pieces from the residency “are being evaluated. There are technical details to finish. They still need to improve, work out the details and understand the processes. For example, the execution time of each part. Some of the participants do not know how to estimate. Because it was a time of creating, testing, taking apart and redoing, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. With the added pressure of having to be ready on the last day, it was not a normal pace of work. But it is important to remember that this art takes a lot of time. Every piece, even the ones that seem smaller, takes a long time to make,” adds Susana Calado Martins.

Source: Barlavento / Bruno Filipe Pires

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