At the heart of Morocco’s vibrant handicraft culture is the essentially feminine art form of embroidery on silk, cotton and linen earning a well-deserved reputation for decorative textiles since the time of the Roman conquest of North Africa. The more refined art of weaving appeared in Morocco in 14th century A.D., when, from that time on, textiles from an extensive range of materials of sheep or goat wool and imported silk could be said to become the flagship of Moroccan art and craft, from the elementary to the most sophisticated decorative objects, bearing witness to the sophisticated taste of a bygone society. By the 16th century, Fes became Morocco’s principal center for the weaving of fine wool and silk for both domestic and export markets. Since these times, the city’s professional craftswomen have embroidered silk velvet with gold and silver thread using a flat couched stitch to work elaborate flower and foliage designs for luxurious house furnishings, wedding garments and horse trappings. While some samples of incredible Moroccan hand embroidery date back to early in the 18th century, Moroccan women started this time-consuming occupation long before when Moroccan women decorated their hands and feet with henna for special occasions. These intricate, meaningful patterns were later to be transferred onto pottery and then into embroidery, using naturally dyed silk, most commonly deep red, indigo blue and black, sometimes purple, shades of brown, yellow, and green, to be embroidered monochrome onto white cotton. In the late 19th century, when the tradition was still strong, some two thousand women or more were teaching embroidery in Fes alone. Once married, they continued to embroider at home or, in some cases, in harems, where women from other countries would certainly influence the women with their style and technique whilst they exchanged ideas, love stories, dreams and technical expertise to be translated into silken fantasies on fine fabrics. During the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, they began using chemical colors for the silk thread.
One may also marvel at the woven and embroidered fabrics of the Berbers. Today, the hardy women of these tribes produce some of the most stunning and impressive articles on the African continent when their rhythmic variations of motifs, the shimmering of impressive colors and variety of texture make them unique as they continue with their hand-loomed weaving of wool blankets, rugs, cloaks, storage bags, pillow and cushion covers using natural black, brown and white yarn.
Embroidery played an important social and economic role in northern Morocco where each city, town and village developed its own distinct and varied style. Cities such as Tetouan, Chefchaouen, Meknes, Rabat, Salé, Azemmour and Fes are all known for their unique embroidery styles, techniques, colors and fabric with Fes embroidery being perhaps the most celebrated – easy to identify from its highly graphic and geometric design; a triangle representing the eye, but may also symbolize the female sex should there be other triangles in each corner and/or the hand of Fatima (the Khamsa) included in the embroidery for protection against evil eye.
Wealthy families exhibited their status through the use of exotic fabrics, elaborate decoration and abundant jewelry where the children were taught to embroider at a young age, sometimes in special workshops when those well-to-do families would buy cotton fabric from Egypt, silk from the Orient and special looms, so their daughters could practice at home the skills and art they learned from their teacher, or Maalma, who would keep all the original work as her commission for this free training. Over the years, the women would accumulate many personalized patterned pieces to be displayed or worn at special occasions – Gandouras, Djellabas, caftans, shawls, belts, handkerchiefs and headscarves, or to decorate interior spaces through squared and rectangular bed spreads, cushion covers, tablecloths, tray cloths, curtains and mats, each demonstrating their absolute originality through the freedom with which the motifs are arranged, the variety, visual intricacy and elegance of the time-consuming compositions and their exquisite color sense of a cultural art passed on to following generations. Clients would come to order new embroideries, or have their old ones restored.
A Moroccan girl’s dowry of embroidered curtains, bed covers, tablecloths and many other intricate pieces which had easily take a generation to make and to be displayed at the wedding were to reconfirm the visible wealth of the family, whilst other less well-to-do parents might rent out particularly magnificent pieces for this purpose. Before the wedding, a Moroccan bride would be accompanied by womenfolk to the steam bath, the Hammam, wearing clothes embroidered on the sleeves, the belt, the veil and even on the under garments. There were also pieces especially embroidered for the henna ceremony. Traditional dress is important in these marriage rituals, where the bride is robed in layers of garments and wraps of brocaded silk and gold-embroidered velvet, adorned with a gold crown strung with pearls, beads or amber necklaces. The bloodied wedding sheet, made of crepe de chine embroidered on the ends, would later be shown to everyone at the party, to prove the virginity of the bride. A Moroccan newborn baby often receives a beautiful embroidered pillowcase and sheets and the continuing importance of embroidery in Moroccan life can also be seen in the traditional ceremony held for infant girls at the age of four months, when the baby is placed in a chair and given a needle and thimble along with some silk thread to hold, in anticipation of a life blessed with the needle’s art.
Moroccan dress requires the crafts of textiles, jewelry and leather. While European dress is increasingly worn in the cities, it is quite normal to see contemporary versions of traditional clothing worn by men and women, purchased ready-made in the local souk or commissioned from a tailor. Two major trends emerge – the urban costume and the rural costume. Women may wear the Haik, a sort of ample cape made out of a light and white fabric covering the body from head to toe, seen mostly in rural areas. Under this is worn the Qmiss, something similar to a long light camisole or baggy trousers. The Caftan, of Persian origin, introduced into Morocco in the 16th century and the Mansouria are two long, wide, collarless dresses for women, usually of thin fabric or silk, closed in the front. The Mansouria is generally worn in the home as a kind of simple house coat or under the caftan, the latter often with many embroidered buttons whereby the caftan highlights femininity in shimmering colors, plain or with gold and silver embroideries, and decorated contours and extremities. A wide, plain belt, or one embroidered with silk thread and gold, gathers in and tightens the waist. Hardy mountain and desert womenfolk wear lengths of cloth as cloaks, woven with geometric motifs, fastened with silver pins and brooches (Fibula), topped by elaborately folded headdresses.
Men wear the Silham or Burnous, a large cloak, plain colored, brown, black or rarely white, usually a mixture of rough wool and camel hair, over a Djellaba with a hood. The Djellaba is an ample, ankle-length, loose robe with long straight sleeves and a pointed hood in fabrics ranging from fine wool, light-weight cotton, silk, and blends of synthetic fibers to rough, homespun yarn. The opening for the head is large and starts around the upper chest. The Gandoura, usually white, is a voluminous flowing garment resembling somewhat a short, sleeveless and collarless nightshirt, made of lightweight cotton or woolen cloth. In the Saharan regions, in cold weather, the menfolk would first put on a white Gandoura, followed by a blue one and then a woolen outer garment. The sleeves could be rolled up or gathered and put over the shoulder.
A Tarbouch or Fez is used as a rimless, red felt, tasseled head cover mainly worn by the male city dweller, named after the Imperial city of Fes which has become a national symbol of Morocco, whilst the Rozza is a turban worn mostly in the mountainous rural or desert areas, whilst the crimson felt brimless cap – the Taghia – decorated with silver embroidery may be seen worn by Gnaoua musicians. Both men and women wear silken embroidered Belghas or leather Babouches (Oriental slippers), though heavy sandals and boots will be worn in the mountainous regions.
Because of the rarity of older patterns and difficulty in conserving textiles in extensive hot, sometimes very humid temperatures, Moroccan embroidery remains largely undiscovered outside of the kingdom; furthermore, unfortunately, relatively few Moroccan women today practice the art of hand embroidery, with many items now machine embroidered. It is such a pity that this beautiful tradition is slowly being lost and we should treasure and encourage what remains.