Sousa F. (2005) Silk industry in northeastern Portugal (15th-19th century)

De Sousa Fernando (2005) “The silk industry in Trás-os-Montes during the Ancient Regime”, e-Journal of Portuguese History, 3/2, 14 p.

This article is available on line.


Trás-os-Montes is located in the North East of Portugal, it is a land-locked region close to the Spanish border. The silk industry started there in the 15th century but silkworms had been reared in the region since the 1200s. Although a significant part of the activity was located in Bragança, lesser towns and the countryside also enjoyed a share of it (Vinhais, Freixo de Espadaà Cinta, Chacim) (1).

Cycles (1450-1770)

By the mid-15th century, the production in Bragança was monopolized by the Duke of Guimarães (the town’s donatário). The velvet of the region quickly gained national reputation. The local sericulture and industry took full advantage of the Portuguese industrial boom of 1670-1690. Bragança’s factory was resuscitated by experts from Toledo dispatched by the king.

“The discovery of gold in Brazil (1697), followed by a treaty with England (1703), which allowed the free entry of English woolen fabrics, brought an end to the industrialization process that had begun in the reign of Dom Pedro II. Nevertheless, records show that in 1721-1724, Bragança had 30 registered spinning-wheels and 350 looms, while Freixo de Espada à Cinta had more than 100 looms.” By 1750, the Brangança silk factory had once again fallen into decay. This crisis due to counterfeiting and poor quality lasted until 1770-3 (2).

Causes of the crises

Three factors can chiefly account for this cycle of prosperity and depression:

  • The lack of policies of industrial protection and development: before the Marquis of Pombal, the state did not support the Trás-os-Montes industries. The Crown’s backing of the Rato silk factory in Lisbon even proved harmful during the second industrial boom (1720-40) (3).
  • The wars and conflicts that directly affected Trás-os-Montes: the Spanish armies invaded the region several ties between 1640 and 1763. It contributed to the processes of depopulation and desertification of the North East. For instance, at the beginning of the Wars of Restauration (1640) Bragança had 1500 inhabitants, only 500 were left at the end of the conflict eight years later. Wars also reduced the size of market for silk by closing the Spanish border.
  • The Inquisition: from 1580 to 1755, the Holy Office brought to trial local Jews and New Christians (cristãos-novos) in their thousands. It brought chaos in the region and can explain some of the recurrent decadence of the region’s production (4). No other economic activity was as heavily repressed in these waves of trials as the silk industry. Moreover, many businessmen and artisans fled the Inquisition. Freixo, which suffered the least from the persecutions, was also the centre of production with the most regular production (5). The Holy Office’s action were certainly responsible for the depopulation of the Brangança disctrict which went from 20,000 in 1557-78 to 8,000 in 1636 (no war, famine or plague could explain that) (6).

The resurrection (1770-1834)

In the last two decades of the 18th century, the active modernisation of the trade by entrepreneurial businessmen (some of whom installed 200 silk looms in one go in Brangança) dragged the industry out of the crisis the last wave of persecutions by the Inquisition (1750-5) had created. They imported the best practice (Piemontese mills and the spinning-jenny) Some Italian experts were brought in and settled (7).

The new-comers did not moved to Bragança because they wanted a full control over the production. The Arnauds for instance installed their spinning school and their filature on Chacim. In Bragança alone 950 workers were employed in the silk industry (18% of the population).

Local weavers and producers resisted the introduction of the Piedmontese methods. But protectionist legislation guaranteed the industry’s success anyway by providing a privileged access to the national and Brazilian markets. In 1794, 1732 workers were operating the region’s looms. But the lack of competition meant that counterfeit fabric and foreign ones gradually offered better quality, diversity and prices (8). The usefulness of luxury factories in Portugal (which being poor had little use for it) was often questioned at the time.

Final crisis

The French invasion of 1807-10 struck a disastrous blow to the industry. At the same time, Brazil was forced to open to foreign imports. Portugal was overwhelmed by Britain’s newly found industrial might.

The lack of investment, the difficulties to implement technological advances and the little entrepreneurship displayed impeded Trás-os-Montes’ modern industrialisation (9). The region’s silk industry never recovered. The independence of Brazil deprived it from a large market in the 1820s. At the same period, English and Chinese cloth proved too strong a competition even on the regional market. At the same time, Porto’s own silk industry was on the rise (10).

The region’s production structure remained small-scale, rural and dispersed and kept using old machines. In the early 19th century, the quality of the local raw material also collapsed. Finally, social strife hindered any effort to better the situation (Bragança was even ransacked in 1826) (11).
As a result, the region went from producing 177936 meters of fabric in 1794 to 4554 in 1829 (12).


The otherwise backward Trás-os-Montes region had benefited from the presence of local sericulture installed since the late middle age. It benefited from the collapse of the Kingdom of Grenanda and the exile of the traditional Spanish silk weavers: the Moors. Many Spaniards actually sought refuge in the region (13).

Until the 19th century, the regional silk industry economic cycles matched the national ones. But after the French invasion, while the rest of the Portuguese silk industry thrived, the one of the Bragança district quickly disappeared.


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