Companhia de Fiação e Tecidos de Fafe ( Fafe , Portugal) has its origins back to 1887, evolved from its predecessor, Companhia Industrial de Fafe.
Originally operating in grain milling and also into the spinning and textile industry as minor activities, the company later become a major key player in the portuguese textile industry of the 19th century.
With a disperse field of activities, Companhia Industrial de Fafe was facing numerous difficulties (most of them financial) and by 15 December 1886 José Ribeiro Vieira de Castro ( ∗ March 4, 1843 – † July 4, 1905 ), was called in to assist.
As prestigious industrialist and capitalist, with a solid background and the necessary expertise to put the company back on track José Vieira de Castro, who also had the necessary funds to make such changes.
By January 17, 1887, the Companhia de Fiação e Tecidos de Fafe is born, leaving behind all other activities and focusing solely on the textile business sector.
Beginning and early management
In the decisive meeting that took place in December 1886, José Vieira de Castro, pointed the new path for the company business, this to be set solely on the textile industry, the grain milling and other activities were to be left behind.
About the founder
José Ribeiro Vieira de Castro ( ∗ March 4, 1843 – † July 4, 1905 ) was a remarkable man, and a true entrepreneur and business man. At early age starts working in an hardware store in Porto (Lóios), and later on , emigrating to Brasil as many other fellow countrymen. There, he dedicates himself to the same business as in Portugal, to where he returns as a well succeeded man with remarkable business passages as manager of Companhia Carris de Ferro and in Companhia de Gás do Porto
As the new society is founded in 17 January 1887, Companhia de Fiação e Tecidos de Fafe sets its headquarters in Porto (the final and actual building, still exists today in Av. dos Aliados, and it is the work of the architect Júlio José de Brito 1896-1965) the very same city that saw the early steps of the professional career of Vieira de Castro. A new focus, new goals and especially, new financial support, capable of transforming what would be mearly wishes, into reality.
The textile business in the 19th century was of ferocious competitivity and, with most of the major companies settled in the northern region of Portugal, the newly formed company would face a major task in differentiating from other existing factories.
A newly elected board was chosen and composed by three members :
António Joaquim Morais (substituted by Manuel Lemos in 1897)
José Ribeiro Vieira de Castro
João Evangelista da Silva Matos
From 1897 and until the death of Vieira de Castro, the company saw innumerable changes and improvements with expansion of facilities and retrofitting and modernizing some of the old workshops. This work was mainly due to the collaboration of Vieira de Castro and Manuel Lemos.
In 1905, Vieira de Castro is succeeded by Manuel Cardoso Martins (a former book-keeper, in the company since 1897).
Manuel de Lemos dies in 1916 and his place in the management board is occupied by Albano Vieira de Castro, nephew of José Ribeiro Vieira de Castro, and who had already held some positions in the company.
Remembering the work and legacy of the past members, Albano Vieira de Castro and Manuel Cardoso Martins, the new directors continue the work of improvement to the facility, with new buildings, expansion of existing ones and state-of-the-art facilities for bleaching, dyeing and finishing, converging the unit to a truly vertical textile company.
Resources and surroundings
Located in the Fafe municipality, and inserted in the privileged region of Vale do Ave in the northern Portuguese region, Braga district, the company counted with abundant natural resources but also manpower.
The existing infrastructure of the predecessor company was very well located near the Ferro river margins, providing an abundant water supply, but most importantly, inserted in a natural geostructure, very well adapted and suited for the use of one of the most important inventions put to use by industry, the production of electricity.
By a Decree (5787-IIII) in 1919 (Diário do Governo n.º 98/1919, 24º Suplemento, Série I, 1919-05-10) the production of electricity was considered a public interest activity.
The water resource available from the Ferro river would be explored by the company for the production of electricity, not only for the factory, but also for the community and in 1924 / 1927 a set of three hydroelectric turbines (J.M.Voight and also from Amme, Giesecke & Konegen AG) and complimentary Siemens-Schuckert electrical generators and control panels, that went gradually online in a newly built hydroelectric plant to meet this objective.
The three turbines were named after the daughters of the founders and with rated output powers distributed as :
Maria-Isabel : 35 kVa
Ilda : 280 kVa
Maria : 540 kVa
The turbine set and the hydroelectric plant at the Companhia de Fiação e Tecidos de Fafe is a remarkable piece of engineering, still operational, although with just one of its turbines normally in operation.
The industrial heritage value and importance of this hydro-electrical plant, and related structures (also the boilers set) is something that should always be present for preservation and exhibition not only for those interested in industrial heritage, but also for all those who want to see a fully functional piece of history that stood proudly the test of time.
Companhia de Fiação e Tecidos de Fafe – early years and socio-economic aspects
From the very beginning, the company had a strong social awareness and care for their workers, something somewhat unusual for the sector in those days, for which numerous accounts of harsh labor conditions, extreme work schedules and even physical punishments were all knew.
The textile industry, especially in Northern Portugal (accountable for the vast majority of the sector even today) settled mostly in deep rural regions, where cheap manpower would be possible to obtain.
Concerns about laboral conditions and social aspects of the workforce was something unusual, at least in the concepts of today.
Always keeping in mind the well being of their workers, the Companhia de Fiação e Tecidos de Fafe, soon adopted an Industrial Paternalistic approach to the subject, an approach used extensively in Portugal but also abroad, in the golden age of industrial development.
Structures capable of filling the gaps and needs of the workers and at the same time keeping the factory running without interruptions, were all created.
A canteen, supplying first necessity goods at low prices, serving as a price buffer during the first world war period where workers could by products at reduced prices or in a credit over wages model.
By 1917, the company was one of the biggest of the country in the manufacturing industry , with approximately 500 workers (although a modest workforce compared to the largest textile factory in the country in that period: Fábrica de Fiação e Tecidos do Rio Vizela)
A nursery, capable of taking care of 200 babies, was founded. Here all the the attention and care was given to the children of an entire working class of women, always busy at the looms or in other production tasks.
To complement the nursery, a nursery school is also founded in 1926, followed by a set of primary schools, completing thus the basic educational cycle, granting the younger generation the set of tools necessary to become proper workers at the company.
For the workers themselves, a whole set of infrastructures were also available, assuring a gravitational live around work and at the same time, proportionating means to a better live, like the houses built for the workers in the surroundings of the factory, and equipped for all basic functional needs.
Proper meals, hygienic and sanitary conditions, health services assured by in-house physicians, where all available.
The most remarkable aspect of the all set of social privileges, is the existence (since early days) of retirement benefits for workers reaching old age, incapacity or illness. This is something extremely rare in the portuguese industrial context at the beginning of the 20th century and in the textile sector.
From cotton to power
For a company so remarkably distinct in so many ways since its creation, production was also kept in mind to be differentiated, although, restricted by the same set of frontiers implicit to the business sector and/or limitations in technology itself. The textile sector was a robust business but at the same time with ferocious competition.
Care was therefore taken in some aspects of the product range, always keeping in mind to produce goods of exceptional quality.
A variety of fabrics was offered, from raw cloths, twill, bed sheets, special fabrics and weaving of Egyptian cotton, knitwear, raw warp and weft and a countless number of articles left the facilities to be sold around the country and abroad.
With a fully vertical production system, from raw cotton, to the finished fabrics or goods, Companhia de Fiação e Tecidos de Fafe counted with an impressive production infrastructure by the mid of the 20th century, equipped with more than 700 looms and a workforce of aproximatly 3000 workers distributed throughout numerous departments, powered by the strength of “the three sisters”.
By April 4, 1949, a concession period of 50 years is granted over the production of electricity to Companhia de Fiação e Tecidos de Fafe, by a governamental decree ( Diário do Governo, 2.ª série, n.º 77, de 4 de Abril de 1949 ), in sequence of the earlier law (2:002 – Electrificação do País) of 26 December 1944 that paved the way for the intervention of the state in the electrical sector (years later culminating in the creation of EDP – Electricidade de Portugal)
Those were days of prosperity, not only for the company but for the textile sector as a whole.
Decline, late 20th and early 21st centuries
Like for many other factories in the portuguese textile industry, crisis also arrived to Companhia de Fiação e Tecidos de Fafe.
Aside management practices (not intended to be approached here, with the exception of the modernization theme), the textile sector underwent an enormous crisis, set in motion by the mid of the 20th century with a variety of factors converging to a critical point.
Even since the 25th April 1974 revolution, the textile sector was an extremely important revenue source for the country and continued its growth until circa 1987 where it represented almost a quarter of the value of exports.
The Industry however, despite its robustness, was as fragile as the threads of the weft used in their own looms, and the looms were old.
Lack of modernization, innovation and quality, and a workforce left untrained all contributed as factors for a disgrace just about to happen.
Signs were unclear, however, as Portugal entered the Economic Union and special funds began to arrive to boost some sectors of the portuguese industry. Textiles was for obvious reasons no exception and as big money started to flow, the well-known problem of modernization of the sector was partially addressed in an attempt to make it more robust, with huge investments in both machinery and in something completely new: quality.
The textile industry started to shape itself, as a large amount of small businesses were loosing the race of a blazing fast modernization an the quality fever.
As the sector is tunneling and becoming more and more selective about those firms left in operation, exports by late 1990’s and at the beginning of the 21st century saw a sky-high rise in numbers. If numbers don’t lie they sure failed to show the truth lived in the Vale do Ave region, where numerous firms simply closed. Progress had stepped in too fast.
By early as 2005 , Europe opens its doors to receive a new comercial partner, willing to trade, resourceful, and unstoppable : China, with its presence already being felt earlier in the form of a sinister menace, the price war. Extremely low prices, high production capacity and, apparent “quality”, suddenly put an end to the sector.
For Companhia de Fiação e Tecidos de Fafe, this period was also lived intensively.
In 1994 its facilities suffered a huge fire, probably started by a mechanical spark in a machine in the spinning section and destroyed a vast part of the factory. A misfortune that made it even harder to overcome the difficult times lived by the sector.
By 1999, the company met a new administration board, and a new name was adopted : Companhia de Fiação e Tecidos do Ferro, Lda
The company saw its end at the same time as many others, by the same reasons that led also so many others to the same situation. It was declared bankrupted by October 12, 2007 (Anúncio n.º 7519/2007 – Diário da República n.º 214/2007, Série II de 2007-11-07 ).
An era had come to an end, but not completely.
Companhia de Fiação e Tecidos de Fafe – the legacy
In the vast facilites of the old factory of Companhia de Fiação e Tecidos de Fafe, time stood suddenly still after the end of the firm.
Looms and other machinery were silent, workers had left and the vastitude of the factory buildings became more and more apparent as progressively equipment was also being removed.
Indifferent to all the turbulence, the three turbines in the hydroelectric plant carried on with their task (except the smallest one, decommissioned in the 50’s ), generating electricity, as they always did, in fact, in our days, electricity production is the residual business of the company.
Behind, a centenary industrial complex, with a tremendous heritage, that brought prosperity to a whole region.
Today, the old Companhia de Fiação e Tecidos de Fafe factory is becoming transformed into an industrial park, as spaces are being rented to new companies and new firms seeking the right infrastructures to support their own businesses, preserving the space original design and at the same time retaining its identity.
The industrial installations are kept and maintained by a small and faithful number of former employees, assuring that some specific tasks are performed (mainly centered in the power production and transport to the grid), and also supervising all the activities that are taking place in some parts of the buildings.
As the facilities become more opened towards third-parties installation, the existing inventory of very important buildings and structures (Hydroelectric plant, steam generation, the oldest buildings, main entrance, boilers, and some surrounding terrains) should be preserved and kept, for the general public and all those who might be interested to learn more about a company that forever marked Fafe in our country’s industrial map.
Click on the thumbnail for full gallery.
The author would like to thank:
- Camara Municipal de Fafe
- Dr. Adelino – for the kindness in allowing my visit and photographic activities, to the installations
- Eng. Triguinho – for the visit, time, patience and all the efforts put in details, enriching this article and making it possible.
- AEP – Associação Empresarial de Portugal ( Ana Moutinho and Isabel Santos ) for historical records.