Flick through any high end interiors magazine on a news stand and there is a very good chance that one will stumble across photos of stylish houses whose rooms feature Moroccan rugs displayed lovingly on floors of both contemporary and traditional homes. So what is it that attracts me, along with thousands of other people, to Moroccan rugs? Is it the striking patterns they often bear? Is it the wonderful colours that often clash but seem to co-exist nicely on these beautiful items? Is it the extraordinary amount of creativity and work that has so obviously been lovingly put into each individual rug? A resounding ‘yes’ is the answer to all these questions … but permit me to add more to this fascinating topic.
The tradition of Rug-weaving in Morocco
Morocco has been producing rugs for many thousands of years, even dating back as far as the Paleolithic Era. Over the years it has garnered a long-standing reputation for the quality of rugs produced. The specific climatic conditions of the country – harsh winters in the Atlas Mountains and the searingly hot temperatures of the plains and desert regions – gave birth to this tradition through necessity. Thick-piled woollen rugs were made by tribal women in the mountains, using the wool shorn from their sheep, serving as not only floor coverings but also as thick blankets for warmth. In contrast, in desert regions, light flat-woven rugs and mats were made to create a barrier from the heat and to provide comfort underfoot. It was not long before this tradition branched out into producing other goods that made life easier for the tribespeople – saddle blankets and saddle bags for camels and donkeys, lighter rugs that could be worn wrapped around the shoulders as a cape or shawl (known as handira), tent dividers, burial shrouds and sleeping mats. Wool particularly was found to be a very versatile commodity, especially by tribal communities.
There are over 400 tribes throughout Morocco, many of which are renowned for weaving rugs. Each tribe is made up of several families who have a common ancestor from whom the tribe takes its name and it operates under the authority of a chief. In days gone by, the tribe had its own allocated piece of land, across which nobody was permitted to travel (although the receipt of money did of course help matters!) It is from amongst these tribes that such wonderful rugs emanated. With sheep and goat farming being the main livelihood for many tribespeople, making carpets was a natural progression for the women with all this wool available to them. And so tribal rugs were born.
In years gone by, Moroccan rugs were made for personal and family use as described above, not to be sold commercially. However, when times were hard women would take their rugs to the nearest souk in the hope of encountering traders there who might be interested in buying their creations. From here, rugs were dispersed around the country and eventually abroad where popularity resulted in demand. In time, women’s co-operatives were established in Morocco to meet this demand for handwoven rugs.
Today there are many co-operatives located throughout Morocco which continue to weave rugs but using more up-to-date methods. Many rugs are still made by hand, but now it has become a commercial business. There are often more women involved in weaving a single rug than just the woman of the household who would previously have seen rug-making as solely her domain. Also, better quality looms are used. This serves to speed up the process of carpet production and therefore brings money in more quickly. A viable alternative to the former methods of rug production has been found. One such co-operative is The Anou, "a community of artisans working together to establish equal access to the free market." You can read all about their work here and buy directly from the women who create these modern rugs: https://www.theanou.com/
Alternatively, many modern Moroccan rugs are to be found in the souks of Marrakech, Fez and other cities. Don’t forget to haggle!
Types of rugs
There are three main types of rugs woven in Morocco, as detailed below. If you are considering buying a Moroccan rug, it is important to know what type of rug best fits with your requirements.
These are flat-woven rugs with no pile, therefore very light in weight. They are often used on floors in hot countries as they are easy to just shake outside if dusty or sandy. In cooler climes, they are suited to wooden floors as a decorative item, as bedcovers, or even wall hangings. Often they feature strong designs and patterns.
Knotted pile rugs
These can vary in density of knots (how many woollen knots per inch) and can be low pile, medium pile or deep pile. These rugs are usually much heavier and more luxurious, therefore suited in European homes to main living areas or bedrooms where they will be walked on in slippers or bare feet.
Boucherouite rugs (rag rugs)
These are creative rugs made using recycled textiles, bits of cotton, scraps of wool, sometimes even gold or silver threads. They are made in areas where wool is hard to find. They can be very hardwearing and are easily washable, therefore suitable for any area of the home. They look particularly pretty in children’s rooms, kitchens or bathrooms.
Mixed technique rugs
Sometimes, you will find that these rug-weaving techniques have been mixed to create beautiful designs. Glaoui rugs from the Taznakht region, for example, are often flat-woven rugs with some areas of knotted pile and even embroidery.
Some of the older Glaoui rugs are now very collectible pieces. Other tribes too incorporate these various techniques into a single rug, especially those from the regions around Talsint and Boujad.
All Moroccan rugs have their own distinct beauty, whatever the techniques used and whether more modern or vintage. However, my personal preference is for vintage rugs – and I am not alone in this. More and more people are seeking genuine vintage tribal rugs - those rugs made by tribal women in their own homes and for their own purposes between 25-100 years ago. What qualities do vintage rugs possess that make us desire them for our homes? What methods did tribal women use to make these rugs all those years ago? What was their inspiration? What has become of all those vintage handmade tribal rugs and why are they so popular today all over Europe and around the world? Where can I buy one?
Read Part 2 for answers to these questions and more …
(This article is sponsored by The Rug Souk)