Loom and bloom with Sónia & Susana Mendez

This month, I went to meet some more talented artists that are part of Loulé Criativo, but instead of visiting their Design Lab, I followed a golden thread that led me to the nearby Susana Mendez Textile studio – where I not only met Susana, the young talented textile artist herself, but her wonderfully skilled mother Sónia, too. 

Susana’s lovely little light-kissed workplace is located in the Solar das Palmeiras, in the heart of Loulé, and has been open for a little over a year. Mother and daughter warmly welcomed me into the shop framed by two big window fronts that allow for the blueness of the sky to beam in. 

Indoors, my eyes were greeted with a whole palette of pleasant pastel colours and I found myself marvelling at all sorts of decorative woven textiles, fibre collages, pretty pouches, pillowcase canvases and fluffy figurative wall art. 

There were five big looms standing freely in the room. I have never seen these beautiful and complex wooden and woollen contraptions before. They looked like some curious musical instrument to me, but soon, Susana sat down to demonstrate her weaving art. 

Speaking of which, her mother, Sónia, is a master crafts lady in the art of palm weaving – empreita – and has always been a big inspiration and influence on Susana’s artistic identity. Indeed, their stories are so interwoven that I think it’s best if we unravel the tapestry of time a little – and thread their story together one stitch at a time. 

Sónia Mendez

Sónia was born in Venezuela to Portuguese parents and came to Portugal at just eight years old. Coming from a family of basket weavers, she told me that, back then, it wasn’t seen as, shall we say, a very glamorous profession and many tried to discourage her from pursuing it. In those days, nobody ever taught you how to palm weave. If you wanted to learn, you simply had to watch crafting hands carefully. 

And that’s exactly what Sónia did. She felt herself naturally drawn to handicrafts and started to palm weave professionally in 1978. 

School of Fish by Sónia Mendez

In the 1970s, Sónia explained, there were basket shops on every street, and Sónia would weave away at home and sell her creations to the various shops around town.

She works with dried palm leaves from the Palmeira Anã – little wild palm trees that are native to the area. In the past, she said, there used to be many suppliers for this plant, but now there’s only one vendor left in Loulé.

These days Sónia is part of a team of different palm-weaving craftspeople selling their wonderful wares at the Casa de Empreita. Located on the backstreets of Loulé, they take it in turns to watch the shop and you can find Sónia there on Mondays. 

Keyring brushes by Sónia Mendez
Bookmarks by Sónia Mendez

As I was holding a school of funky woven fish that Sónia brought with her, she smiled with a cheeky light in her eyes and told me how she would just get awfully bored with sticking to the old. She likes giving traditional techniques a good little twist of her own. Sónia also had a pretty collection of charming handbags of various shapes, sizes and decoration with her, as well as the most devotedly made nativity scene. She also weaves bookmarks, lampshades, traditional little Portuguese brush-keyrings and bracelets – all with a great love for detail and a good splash of colour. 

Susana Mendez

Like her mother, Susana was irresistibly drawn to the arts – and there was no talking her out of it. It was Sónia herself who taught Susana to sew around the age of 15 – and that’s how early her fascination for textiles stitches back. She loved painting and creating decorative pieces with threads, fabrics and embroidery, and started making accessories like little pouches and purses for herself. Showing great entrepreneurial flair even at this early age, she soon started to sell her unique handmade pieces at school. 

It doesn’t come as a surprise that Susana went off to study art and later graphic design, where she got to put together, practise and polish her passions for illustration and design. After ten years of sitting in front of screens, though, she was longing to get more hands-on.

Looming by Susana Mendez

Love at first weft

It was just about two years ago that Susana first tried a loom. And it was love at first weft! She bought one herself and took a 200-hour intensive course and there’s been no stopping her ever since. 

Susana saw how, with the help of these beautiful wooden frames, she could weave together everything she loved most and get to dream up colours and textures in a new way every time – referring to the warp threads vertically running down the loom, as the blank of her canvas. 

The loom gave her room to express and explore her creativity and do so in a more mindful approach to design. More than once, Susana emphasised the deeply meditative and calming aspect of weaving and how she regularly finds herself in the woven flow. 

To the benefit of us all, she started putting her inspired ideas into very pretty and practical pieces for the home and beyond. Living in a naturally highly decorated scenery, the Algarve, she loves to bring nature-inspired prettification into her projects. She even weaves in some of her mum’s raw materials, like the odd dried palm leaf or wildflowers plucked from around the local Loulé landscape. 

As a total rookie to the loom, I was mind-boggled by this magical apparatus that closeup looked like a multidimensional harp with a gazillion strings. How do you even begin to operate them? 

Susana, positively beaming from ear to ear, admitted to always having had a love for maths. She agreed that working out your design on a loom really does need some pretty precise number juggling. 

Bagloom by Susana Mendez

But do not despair! Susana has also unravelled her passion for passing on what she’s learned. You can either go ‘full loom’ at her studio or start with the simple portable frame loom that Susana uses to teach workshops in Albufeira and Lagos. 

I left feeling very inspired by both mother and daughter and how they both managed to stand tall against the well-intended advice from loved ones who wanted to protect them from the challenges of an artist’s life. Nonetheless, they pursued their passions, stitching together the old and the new – and the world is a more beautiful place for it.

To find out more about Sónia, please visit her Instagram @soniamendezartesa or visit her website soniamendez.pt

To find out more about Susana, please follow her on Instagram @susanamendez.studio or visit her website www.susanamendezstudio.com


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