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Purchasing a beautiful carpet as part of your trip to Morocco is an experience not to be missed. You can spend an enjoyable hour or three in a carpet shop, glass of mint tea in hand, while gorgeous reams of colour unfurl before your eyes.
Or you can visit souks in the countryside, where the carpet makers bring their multi-hued creations from the surrounding small villages, or down from the Atlas mountains.
Moroccan carpet design varies greatly from region to region. Here is a quick guide on the Berber carpets of Morocco.
There are are around forty-five different tribal groups in Morocco, each of which has distinctive carpet designs. Their weaving and embroidery techniques also vary.
Two of the most recognisable tribal design styles are the Zemmour and the Zaiane.
The top carpet is a pure wool Zemmour and the bottom one is made of cotton and wool.
Both of the Zemmour carpets are modern. This is usually recognised because of the intricate design work in the embroidery. In an older Zemmour carpet, the work is far less complex. The second carpet is a Zemmour of around 80 years old.
When a Zemmour is placed next to a carpet from the Zaiane Tribe, the difference is immediately obvious. The Zaiane has very distinctive lozenge shapes in the design.
In this example the Zaiane has raised wool tufting that is also indicative of the style (but not exclusively so). The Zaiane come from further south in the Middle Atlas than the Zemmour. According to most reports they are no longer producing carpets, so if you come across a Zaiane carpet it is likely to be old. A “new one” may well be a fake!
Our first tip is in regard to the use of modern materials. How do you tell a synthetic carpet from one made from pure wool? Simple! With a cigarette lighter. Holding a flame under the tassels of a carpet will produce a very different result, depending on the material from which it is made.
In the top picture a cigarette lighter fails to ignite the pure wool. There is also a slight wool smell. In the photograph below the tassels on the carpet continues to burn and gives off an unpleasant odour, indicating the presence of synthetics.
The Beni Ouarain are an important Berber tribe and come from the Middle Atlas region.
This Berber tribe uses “live wool” – that is wool shorn from a sheep, rather than taken from a sheepskin after the sheep has been killed. The main characteristic of a Beni Ouarain carpet is the “shaggy” pile. This makes them very comfortable under foot and they are much sought after for use in winter.
A particularly fine example of a Beni Ouarain, with a close up of the “shaggy” pile below.
Our next carpet is a 100% pure wool example of a Marmoucha. This tribe is from the region close to the Sahara in the northern part of Morocco and is near the frontier with Algeria. Again this is a carpet with a high shaggy pile.
Where does the wool come from? The wool – mostly live wool from sheep – is cut while the sheep is alive. The cotton for embroidery comes from Morocco, Australia, New Zealand and Spain. Today most carpet wool comes from New Zealand, which makes the best colours. The Moroccan wool has a silky texture, however the colours are a little dirty in comparison as the nature of the land is drier and dustier.
And the colours? Poppy flower for the red. Saffron for orange and yellow. White – natural fibre (although some sheep have white wool, some have black).Blue – indigo: one of the poppy flowers. Morocco has one of the few natural indigo dyes in the world.
“Moroccan rugs have rich colours – rich with the red colour and the saffron especially.”
Some of the modern carpets use synthetic dyes but these here are only Berber traditional carpets, with natural dyes.
Now we now take a look at hendiras. We’re cheating a bit here, because hendiras are not carpets, but are often sold in the same outlets, and can be used as rugs.
A particularly fine Beni Ouarain hendira
A hendira is a rectangular cloth usually made of wool, sometimes with linen or silk added, and is traditionally used as a cloak. Women usually make these for their daughter’s trousseau. The hendira can be thick with a shaggy pile on the inside (sometimes with sequins), or fairly lightweight. Some are highly patterned, some plainer. The intricacy of the work and the quality of the wool will determine the price. They’re often natural shades of cream, but sometimes black. They make beautifully warm bedspreads, or throws for couches, or wallhangings.
The loose loops of wool on the inside of a heavy hendira would be worn on the outside during snowy weather. The snow would fall off the loops easily so that the cloth doesn’t become sodden.
The photograph below is another beautiful carpet from a smaller tribe – the Beni M’guila from the Atlas Mountains. This is a new carpet but a fine example. The reverse side is a warm golden colour and would be used during summer, with the shaggy side in winter.
In the last few years a brand new style of Moroccan carpet design has appeared in the souqs and markets. There are various stories about the origins of this “painterly” style, but the most intriguing and possible the most credible is that the design does indeed come from attempts to copy paintings.
The style is described as “Zanafi Tribe” and the story goes that a Finnish painter married a Berber woman who then began making carpets in the style of his paintings. Whatever the truth of the matter, the style is immediately recognisable and has now been copied by others. A good example can be exquisite although some of the copies are of poor quality.
Some rug merchants also have an older style of rug that is sometimes also called Zanafi although this is a very different High Atlas style with the design elements of the zigzag, triangle and diamond that appear frequently in High Atlas architecture and pottery. The rugs are called also “glaoua” by merchants in the souqs of Marrakech because they were first made under the rule of Thami El Glaoui, Pasha of Marrakech.