Portuguese American Journal

Textile Art: Vanessa Barragão reclaims ancestral craft – Interview

By Millicent Borges Accardi

Portuguese textile artist Vanessa Barragão’s latest artwork “The Botanical Tapestry” is installed at London Heathrow. The tapestry was developed to celebrate a partnership between Heathrow and Kew Gardens.  

The artwork is 100% handmade, using ancestral techniques. Barragão says the three-dimensional world map uses “8kg of jute and cotton and 42kg of recycled wool, and measures 600x200cm.” 

To create the textile artpiece, Barragão employed the techniques of her ancestors using jute, cotton and wool materials. To increase environmental awareness, Barragão also inserted into the tapestry map areas where threatened species reside. This project took Barragão over three weeks in total to complete.

In her own words, “All the colors present in our continents and oceans and some threatened species like the coral reefs and some plants around the world are represented in the tapestry, an absolutely magnificent handwoven world map.”

Her art focuses on utilizing artisanal techniques by re-using discarded yarn from textile factories, in order to fashion the material into fine art and interior design products, turning recycled material into unique and luxurious sculptural carpets, rugs and tapestries for floors and walls.

Born in the town of Albufeira, southern Portugal, at an early age Barragão developed her love and interest for the arts and the ocean. She receive a master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Art at Lisbon University where she exhibited her first wool yarn collection (from recycled materials) and created the ecological artisanal process for her tapestries. 

Settled in Porto city, where the textile industry core is based, her time is divided between collaborating as a textile designer for a local artisanal rug factory and running her own art studio.

Millicent Borges Accardi, the interviewer, is a pro bono contributor for the Portuguese American Journal.  Because you value her work please donate to paypal.me/Millicent500

Q:  Your work utilizes recycled materials to create sculptural carpets and tapestry—how important is conservation/preservation?

A: I believe this is a matter that should be important not only for me, but actually for all the society in the world.  It is very important that we conserve and preserve the resources and materials that we use every day.

We are used to having everything so easily (for example, water) that sometimes we don’t give the deserved importance to it. But, unfortunately, “nothing lives forever,” and we must try to reuse, preserve, conserve, recycle, and even recreate new things or adapt, in order to spare our world. And that is what I try not only to do, but also show people with my artwork. As Lavoisier (Antoine Lavoisier, noted for his discovery of the role oxygen plays in combustion) said: “Dans la nature rien ne se crée, rien ne se perd, tout change” – “In nature nothing is created, nothing is lost, everything changes.”

Q: What influence does the sea have on your art?

A I’m from Albufeira, (Algarve). There, the ocean is one of the most important elements for the city’s sustenance. The entire city and life there revolves around the sea and, of course, my inspiration comes from it. And all of this influenced me as a citizen there, to protect it. For me, the ocean is a place full of inspiration and my work is completely inspired by all the huge environment around.

The importance of ocean preservation is the main goal of my artwork.  All of my work has been inspired by the ocean and nature.

During my childhood, I used to travel with my parents to the Caribbean area and it was where, for the first time, that I saw the coral reefs, in Jamaica, and I got really excited. This experience is still in my mind, like a photograph. All the colors and life present.  Coral was the most impressive and beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was a completely different undersea landscape. Completely different from my reality. 

Q: What first drew you to using textile as a medium?

A:  When I was a child, I always watched my grandmother sewing, and it motivated me to start making clothes for  my dolls.  I used to pick and choose the fabric waste from my grandmother to create clothing for my dolls. And I loved doing it.

It influenced me to study fashion design. During my graduate work in this area, I totally understood that this was not just my passion, but was a pathway to discover what I really loved to do.

I love textiles and creating with my hands. The fashion industry is something that doesn’t fit well with the way I think about conservation, and I only discovered this through my studies.

All the production methods and the creation methodologies were the opposite of what I really liked to do in my life. So I decided to discover more about textiles and to start creating my own work, doing exactly what makes me happy. So, it was during my master’s degree in fashion design, that I decided to explore more about the processes before the design. I started collecting yarns made with artisanal and ecologic processes. Then, I created my own textiles with these materials. The tapestries and rugs naturally came after.

Q: How did you learn ancient weaving techniques?

A:  The art of handmade was always present in my life. Since childhood, this presence was growing as my family are artisans. So, I think this was an important for my development as a textile artist today. The wood work, basketry, crocheting and knitting, and the couture were all very familiar techniques. When I was in school, drawing was always my favorite subject. Making things with my own hands was very important. Crocheting and drawing were the first processes of expression, kind of meditative and also a way for me to relax.

When I started my university degree in fashion design, I began developing more techniques in order to create handmade pieces, always being a meditative process as well. During my six years living in Lisbon as a undergraduate and master’s degree studies in fashion and textiles design, I improved new techniques like natural dyeing, the entire handmade wool process (from sheep to yarn), knitting, weaving, macramé, felting, latch hook and many others. This was a very important period in my life. I feel that I really grew not only as a person and a professional but as an artist.

After finishing my master’s degree, I felt that I would like to learn more about textiles and ancestral processes, so I moved to Porto where the textile industry core is located. I started working as a textile designer at Tapetes Beiriz, the oldest rug factory in Portugal.

At the same time, I was running my art studio. The work in the factory was not only important, but an essential step. I learnt a lot about fibers and two more techniques: hand tuft and hand knotting. There,  I had the opportunity to understand more about the carpet business and to discover how much waste the rug and textile factories produce.

Q: You’ve said you use “wasted yarns from the industry to produce textiles” where do you find the yarn?  Is your yarn primarily from mills? What made you decide to use jute and cotton and recycled wool?

A: When I started working at Beiriz Factory, I used their “waste”  to create my pieces, and I still do, Nowadays, there are more factories collaborating with me in the goal for zero waste and it makes me feel really proud.

I want to inspire other people to create and be creative in order to help our planet because I realized that the textile mass production industry is one of the most polluting in the world. All the machinery used requires tons of energy while producing a lot of waste.

It is extremely harmful for our planet and it adversely affects many different natural environments, particularly the ocean which absorbs 90% of the earth’s atmospheric pollution.

Global warming is erasing one of the most vital environments, the coral reefs. These living and complex natural organisms are the heart of an immense habitat of marine species which depend on one another to survive.

Without that pillar, a major part of sea-life will be in danger of becoming extinct, which will ultimately will affect us and also many other living species.

My work focuses on this area and on how aggressive textile manufacturing is deeply affecting our coral reefs. I believe in more conscientious production methods intended to fighting negative mindsets and improve our Earth’s health.

All the materials I use for my artwork come from the deadstock of a specific artisanal rug’s factory in Beiriz, the material is first cleaned and then selected to recycle and reuse. My production tries to be as eco-friendly as possible, using ancestral handmade techniques and salvaging textile material and yarn recycled into beautiful art pieces.

My main material source is wool. This natural fiber is eco-friendly, doesn’t cause any harm to the animals to obtain it, and allows so many different types of applications through several techniques. Those are the characteristics that attract me the most about wool. I also work with other recycled fibers such as cotton and lyocell.


The textile industry is one of the most polluting in the world. In almost everything, processing chemicals are used especially when it comes to the fibers treatment and dyeing. All the machinery used require tons of energy while producing a lot of waste and disposable trash. The process is extremely harmful for our world and it affects all of its different natural environments, particularly the ocean which absorbs 90% of the atmosphere pollution, warming up itself to the point where many species get threatened. The corals, which sustain so many other creatures, are one of the most endangered species.


Barragão believes in the effort towards the right way to try to fight against the negative mindset of wasteful textile production and pollution. All the materials she uses in her artwork come from the deadstock of several local factories, The yarn is first cleaned and then selected to be recycled and reused in her projects. Her craft is completely artisanal and handmade, using ancestral techniques, like latch hook, felt, knitting, macrame and crocheting.

Visit Vanessa Barragão website here


Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of three poetry books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, and Only More So.  She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, California Arts Council, Barbara Deming, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and  SOPAS, Special Congressional Recognition for poetry in the Portuguese community of California.  Her new  work appears in The Journal, Quiddity, Mantis and Laurel Review. Find her on Twitter @TopangaHippie. 

Millicent Borges Accardi is a pro bono contributor for the Portuguese American Journal.  Because you value her work please donate to paypal.me/Millicent500

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