From infancy the little girl sits by her mother’s side at the loom and, just as she learns new words and expressions, she learns the patterns, colors and combinations unique to her tribe, observing the mother weaving. As she gets older, her mother may even construct a small loom for her to practice on, working side by side. Once ready to weave on her own, it is up to her to use that “language of the weave” to fashion a piece that conforms to her tribe’s identity but that she arranges to express herself, entirely up to her individual creativity.
Unlike Oriental carpets, Morocco’s tribal carpets are not woven by following pre-set patterns. The weaver is free to design her own unique creation. Each motif has its own name and meaning — be it “safety pin” for marriage, “lion’s claw” for strength or “owl’s ears” for death —and the weaver arranges those as she desires, sometimes based on events in her life at the time (a carpet can take months to finish!). It is this spontaneity and individuality that collectors of tribal carpets seek. While many weavings are amazingly tight, it is neither tightness of weave nor exact symmetry that gives Morocco’s carpets value; rather the purposeful imperfection that is the weaver’s signature.
Morocco’s tribal carpets are normally grouped into 3 main categories:
THE MIDDLE ATLAS
The region extends well beyond the Middle Atlas mountains, from the hills to the West near capital Rabat and South to the slopes of the High Atlas, yet its carpets are marked by similar weaving characteristics: all are woven by the Amazigh (Berbers), all have design attributed to nomadic heritage and all are believed to have originated in the Middle Atlas. There are 4 main styles, each attributed to one of the main 4 tribal confederations, each varying primarily in nuances of color (with primarily various hues of red as a background) and size of motifs: the Beni Mguild, Zaer, Zayane and Zemmour. Yet within each there are additional distinctions attributable to the individual tribes within the confederation, such as the Mrirt, Beni Sadden, Azilal, et al. (there are ‘only’ some 300 distinct tribes in the country). The composition of motifs is normally in parallel lines stretching the length of the carpet, theorized to be indicative of former nomadic existence, i.e., there was never a central point of residence nor any boundaries, so a central motif and a border around it would not have come to the weavers’minds. The carpets are 100% wool, with rare exceptions all silk. Natural cotton is solely used for embroidery on flat-weave pieces, as you cannot get that bright white effect with wool. Silk, silver thread and gold thread may also be used for embroidery.
THE HIGH ATLAS
The area primarily refers to the southern slopes of the range and 3 main Amazigh culture strongholds — the Glaoua, Taznakht and Siroua. Their weavings distinguish themselves primarily by a much wider palette of colors than in the Middle Atlas. Again all are 100% wool, while embroidery is seldom used. The Taznakhts, from tribes who were among the first in the land to settle into an agricultural lifestyle, do often carry a central motif, representing their fortified hamlet, surrounded by either abstract or realistic images of the surroundings (flowers, chickens, lions, even cars!), all bounded by a border: their territory. The Sirouas, also from among the oldest peoples to settle down, were recognized as the tightest weavings done in Morocco, some decorated with henna dye prints for added color and variety. Regrettably, very few traditional pieces still exist. Glaouas, which generally follow more the “nomadic” tradition of parallel lines, stand out with a dramatic look of abundant black obtained from natural black wool or goat hair and a unique combination of both pile and flat weave within the same piece.
Unlike the Amazigh (Berber) weavings of the Middle and High Atlas mountains, these carpets are woven by Arab tribesmen who inhabit the vast plains to the North and West of Marrakech: the Chiadma, Oulad Bou Sbaa and Rehamna. Also unlike the Amazigh, who create both pile and flat-weave pieces, nearly all the production of the Haouz is pile rugs. The Haouz works are often erroneously lumped into the “Berber carpet” category by merchants, as their designs, in the whole, are impossible to pigeonhole. Most offer a dark red background, albeit seldom uniform, due to the unevenness of the natural dyeing process. The Oulad Bou Sbaa are generally the most “orderly,” with some sort of border and an effort at symmetrical composition, yet incorporate lozenges and other geometrical motifs similar to Middle Atlas designs, realistic figures (including humans!) like the Taznakhts, and elements identical to the Bergama rugs of Turkey. In the Chiadma and Rehamna, however, the sky is the limit: there is often no apparent scheme nor attempt at a coherent composition, with various elements that often defy definition scattered at random around the rug. Call it a tribal Paul Klee or Miró. If you want a“signature” rug, this is it.
—by Piotr Kostrzewski