São João da Madeira is the smallest of 308 municipalities of Portugal by area. However, it’s great in terms of industrial tourism and also quality of life, according to the latest studies conducted here. As for the industrial tourism, I checked that myself!
The town has a number of industrial facilities, and in 2011 the municipal authorities decided to share that with the world by creating the industrial tourism routes and creating an interpretation center in a former metal factory.
My visit included the Hat museum and three active factories: Fepsa (that produces hat felts), Viarco (the only pencil factory in Portugal) and Helsar (women shoe factory). Despite being a woman and loving shoes as all of us do, the strongest impressions I got from Helsar are linked to the working conditions: endlessly repeating operations, being exposed to noise, heat and smell of rubber and glue.
The Hat museum, Fepsa and Viarco brought about similar impressions, but also the spirit of (good) old times.
An incredibly complex set of operations is necessary to produce a hat, and the demand for hat felts decreased nowadays as much as just about 10 companies can fulfill it in the whole world. And Fepsa is exactly one of them. I could juxtapose the old ways of production seen in the Hat museum with the contemporary ones I got to know in the factory. Not too many employees produce around 2800 hat felts a day, if I remember correctly. Some other companies then mold them and give final touches, when the majority of the work is already done… Just for the matter of prestige, Fepsa still produces and finalizes hats for the English police.
Once upon a time (or more precisely, in 1931), Manuel Vieira Araújo, the hat factory owner in São João da Madeira, also bought a pencil factory that already existed since 1907. This is how hats and pencils are connected here 🙂
In 1936, Viarco brand was registered, and the production goes on until the present day. As I realized, Viarco pencils awaken childhood memories to many Portuguese. However, the factory is very small: just a few workers are in charge of entire production.
Besides pencils, I noticed another great product – their watercolour graphite. Miracles could be done with it!
Photo credits: 1 – photo of a museum photo, no further data available; 2 – Fepsa website; 3 – mine; 4 – Viarco online shop.