She describes herself as a mother and blogger, with an interest in sheep that’s hard to explain. She could add to that researcher, businesswoman, author, apprentice and teacher of traditional techniques and even then the definition would be too short. The world first found out about her thanks to an unusual cloth doll, but Rosa Pomar has an entire universe of uniquely Portuguese things to share, from wool spun by hand in the Minho to wicker baskets from the Algarve.
She knows the migratory patterns of animals and man to the highlands of the Serra da Estrela, where the pastures remain fresh and abundant throughout the entire summer. Whenever she can, she follows this transhumant path. She knows they take pride in being a shepherd there; it means being a sheep owner and taking it seriously and “has its very own professional values, ethics and aesthetics”. She knows that in Guarda there’s a tiny village called Fernão Joanes, where the saying goes that “a real shepherd walks ahead of his flock, not behind it” and that he carries a woollen blanket on his shoulder so that the sheep follow both the man and the blanket. She knows that round about the summer solstice there’s “an ancient ritual called the blessing of the sheep”, when the flocks run around the village chapel, adorned with ribbons and tassels made laboriously by the shepherds. Last year they asked her to help out with these male chores and the region’s sheep wound up bedecked with pompoms made by people from Lisbon and other places in the world who had learnt the ancient craft by following instructions on the blog A ervilha cor de rosa, one of the town’s first and one of the ten thousand most influential on the planet (according to official ranking). Yes, Rosa Pomar knows about that, too. And Alentejo boots and Alcobaça chintz, Estremoz cement tiles and the Algarve wicker basket that Jane Birkin paraded around Paris. Things uniquely our own that she wants to share with the world, starting with the wool of native Portuguese sheep breeds.
“A sweater is a sheep and five sticks” she explains, “knowing how to get from the raw material to the finished product opens up a huge path of possibilities”. She says that she took the opposite route: she started with the knitwear to get to the sheep. Born in the post-revolutionary Lisbon of 1975, into a family with a public profile (her grandfather is the painter Júlio Pomar, her father the journalist and art critic Alexandre Pomar) and “emancipated women with degrees but where there was never the stigma of female chores related to the idea of domestic and domesticated women”, Rosa learnt to knit from an older cousin at the age of seven and, while she was becoming an historian at Nova University in Lisbon and taking her drawing even further at the art school Ar.Co, she would always be knitting and sewing, against the tide of fashion and people of her age and “despite everyone thinking it was all a bit weird”.
She remembers making a “wonderful discovery” when she was eighteen, at the archaeological site of Mértola (where she spent a few weeks as a volunteer): “some balls of hand-woven, super-soft wool the colour of milky coffee that they had at the Oficina da Tecelagem”. It was the 90s, and you didn’t see Portuguese wool on sale in Lisbon, so she bought as much as she could. It was the start of a study that led her to rescue the handmade cycle of wool in Portugal from obscurity, a tradition that goes from shearing to washing, carding, weaving and spinning the yarn and which, in a country with fourteen native breeds of sheep is still alive, “but undervalued and not part of the syllabuses of official education establishments, unlike countries such as Germany, and with no entities to safeguard it, such as the UK’s Crafts Council”. ‘Oh girl, what an idea!’ said the wool manufacturers when she arrived with wool from Portuguese sheep wanting 200 kilos of yarn and their answer counted everything in tonnes and “that doesn’t even pay for switching on the machine”. Rosa Pomar has come a long way and brought a love for what’s ours with her.
Going backwards is part of going forwards
She taught, she took a post-graduate course in Medieval History – “I love reading 13th-century texts just as much as drawing” – she lived for a year in the Alentejo, another in the Algarve, passed through the Minho and returned to Lisbon to set up a house the size of the world, where she shares balls of yarn made from the wool of Portuguese sheep – including three exclusive yarns she created – as well as the material’s practices and customs, from the traditional woollen blankets of Guarda to the open-knit socks of Bucos, in Alto Minho. And everything else she always dreamt of having for her sewing and knitting work but could rarely find. “Retrosaria started out with three rolls of fabric at my house and was always supposed to be something small.” First, it was a website, created in 2008, just a year after she’d found the house in an old mannequin factory between Bairro Alto and Chiado. It’s up on the second floor, past rainbow-coloured letter-boxes and on one side there’s the shop, where the balls of wool, including Rosa Pomar’s Beiroa and the Japanese Noro nestle in old wood and glass furniture. You can also find all the utensils you’ll ever need for knitting, crocheting, weaving and embroidery, in addition to American fabrics, Portuguese chintz, Dutch capulana fabric (yes, she explains it was the Dutch who took capulanas to the African continent and that the most extraordinary prints and best quality cloth still come from the Netherlands), taleigos (rag-bags often used for bread) and traditionally-inspired baby slings, as well as old aprons, lace socks, industrial boots, jacquard jackets, all irresistibly smooth to the touch, poles apart from mass production. On the other side of the corridor, overlooking a medlar tree and an orange tree, is where she designs the quilts and dolls, where the pieces are sewn, the sweaters are woven and the spinning is done on a wheel made according to an 18th-century design by a carpenter in the Azores – and all this is taught at weekend workshops that are almost always fully booked. “Exchange is a very powerful thing. What I love is contact with people, and that’s what makes these things beautiful.”
Rosa Pomar’s community began in 2001, when she went to New York to take a summer course. In order to share the experience with friends, she created a bilingual blog that started out being called @ny and ended up being A ervilha cor de rosa – creating a pun between the colour pink (cor de rosa) and the creator’s name, which she inherited from her grandmother. Eleven years ago, a rag doll she made for baby Elvira and put on show in the shop window changed her life. It was made using craft techniques and very old materials, but the design was totally new and so unique that visitors to aervilhacorderosa.com really wanted one, too. Rosa Pomar ended up being swamped with orders for her unique and numbered dolls, at the same time as continuing her search for and research into craft materials and styles, becoming a reference both in person and on the blogosphere.
She says she works long hours, but doesn’t know what to say when people ask what her profession is. “I’m a contradiction, I’m the most anti-consumerist person possible – I have three pairs of shoes and I make my own clothes – but I have a shop and I live off selling things. It’s true that I understand this as sharing. It’s as if I were an intermediary of ideas and experiences.” She researches fabrics as if she were a memory archaeologist, she collects offcuts as if she were putting together a family album, she chooses the raw material for a bread bag with the same care as someone designing a bridal trousseau, she shares experiences and knowledge on the blog, the website and social networks with the same generosity and clarity with which she wrote a book about Portuguese knitwear or told the story of a patchwork quilt made from the fabrics she put together, piece by piece, while she was pregnant with her youngest daughter, Amélia, who is now eight. Her field work continues to take her around the country (her research into the traditional wool cycle, for instance, is documented in the audio-visual project Wool in Real Time, with Tiago Pereira), at the same time as she researches all the ethnographic literature she can find on the subject – Rosa Pomar invariably spends her Mondays at the National Library among old texts about textiles: “A very important ritual in my mental hygiene”. She’s an active citizen in public life, committed to conscientious consumption, against the ravage of the traditional azulejos or means of production that favour quantity in detriment to quality, wholeheartedly in favour of hand-made production and the education “of training the movement and the body” that trades allowed. There’s an old knitting lesson that’s been passed down from generation to generation and which Rosa Pomar likes to repeat – “doing and undoing, it’s all work”. In knitting as in life, “going backwards is part of going forwards”.
text Maria João Guardão photo Paulo Barata
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