Isabel Martins, Coiled Basketry

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In 2014, at age 55, Isabel Martins left an administration job, certain that she needed a change and returned to her small hometown of Malcata, in the mountains. She enrolled in a bracejo workshop and became passionate about this craft. Isabel wild-harvests her own raw material and is very much in tune with the local nature. In 2019 she opened her own studio in her hometown, called Brace’Arte.

Name of Craft in the local language
Cestaria em espiral cosida (bracejo)
Type of Craft
Coiled basketry
Knowledge Holder
Isabel Martins
Location, Website
Praça do Rossio 13, 6320-181 Malcata Link to website
Contact
isagmartins58@gmail.com / +351 963 228 207
Type of Business
Newly founded workshop.
Year of Establishment
2019
Successors
No

Workshop and sales space
24m2 room located in a recently renewed old slate stone house, rented by a local association
Materials
Locally wild-harvested bracejo (Latin: Stipa Gigantea), raffia, cotton thread
Technology / Tools / Machines
Needle, scissors, tape measure
Techniques / Processes
Coiled and braided / Harvesting bracejo in the wild, drying the grass, and spiral coiling using a needle, raffia and cotton thread
Members / Employees
1
Apprentices
One intern for 6 months (until March 2024)
Education of the Craftsperson
With a degree in accounting, Isabel took a two-month theoretical and practical course with the project Entrelaços in Sortelha, and continued working for one year with master Arminda and 4 other people. Both projects were promoted by Associação «Aldeias Históricas de Portugal».

Isabel Martins was born in the interior of Portugal, and was away for many years. In 2014, she left an administration job when 55 years old without a plan, only certain that she needed a change and decided to return to her homeland, the small town in the mountains known as Malcata.

She enrolled in the bracejo coiled technique workshop, which she remembered from her childhood as one of the characteristic crafts in the area. She trained with Mrs.Arminda, the last living artisan of bracejo there, and fell in love with this craft. In addition to the traditional forms that were passed on to her, she quickly began to innovate and create new, more modern products. Isabel wild-harvests her own raw material locally and is very much in tune with the local nature. Her pieces can be found at craft fairs or online. In 2019 Isabel opened her own studio Brace’Arte, in her hometown.

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    Rented by the local association Malcata com Futuro (“Malcata with a Future”) - that serves to promote the local economic, social, environmental and cultural development - Isabel works on the ground floor of a two-story, fully renovated old slate stone house.

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    This long, 24 square-meter room, that once functioned as a tavern, consists of large, wide, glass windows, is easily lit by full, natural light and brightened by bold, orange painted walls. It includes a large working table, small kitchen facilities, wood covered ceilings and, in Winter, it is warmed by oil filled radiators, making it a cosy place to work alone or in a group. Besides the workshops promoted by Isabel, townspeople also show up to socialise in their free time.

In the months of May, June, July and, sometimes, early August, Isabel harvests the wild grown bracejo in the Malcata mountains. It is picked still green but at a relatively mature state, then put to dry in a well-ventilated place in the shade, and turned every day for around a week, until dry.

Usually using only needle, scissors and tape measure, the coiling technique is applied to weave the bracejo, employing either cotton thread or raffia, depending on aesthetics or demand. This involves wetting the bracejo, starting with a small bunch of fibres that are rolled and sewn with cotton thread or raffia in order to bind the fibres together. As the fibres are weaved, more fibres keep being added according to the final dimension intended for the product. The amount added depends on the material itself because there are longer, shorter, thinner and thicker fibres, and, thus, this amount results from the hand’s sensibility, as to achieve a more uniform result. 

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From what Isabel remembers when she first noticed bracejo, people in town would make small objects to sell at the market, as local souvenirs to promote the historic village.

These would be small brooms, boxes, baskets, but everything easy to transport and carry in hand. Isabel, however, has employed her know-how to create a variety of products such as different sized bowls, hats, baskets for house decoration or to wear on the street, being her most popular objects the cheese dairies and placemats. Since she is mostly working alone, the production is quite limited and she enjoys experimenting with different colour combinations and forms. For her, this practice is a never ending learning experience, and through these creations she discovers new ways of making and new products to offer.