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Practical Beauties

The majesty of weaving has been preserved by museums and galleries exclusively dedicated to textiles. There is no argument. They are beautiful and an art form. Carpets have played an important role in the lives of many from the Middle East to Africa. Carpets were not only beautiful, but practical. The woven wool, from sheep, goat and sometimes camel herds, provided tents to protect from the desert climate, comfortable floor coverings, room dividers for privacy, and blankets, bags and saddles.

Whilst serving a practical purpose for the weavers and their families, carpets have found their way onto the floors of homes far removed, geographically, from the weavers themselves. Eagerly bought by tourists as mementos, and retailers with an eye for quality; the rugs of Morocco’s Berbers can be found all over the world. It is the women who are responsible, not only for the production of the rugs, but also for the preservation of Berber culture and the art of weaving.

 

For the Berbers, weaving is a social event. It is literally the thread that holds families and communities together. Weaving with wool is labour intensive. The women wash, comb and spin the wool themselves; they rely on daughters, daughters-in-laws, friends and neighbours to complete the rugs. Becker (2006) explains that “…every aspect of weaving, from start to finish is a communal endeavour, demonstrating the Amazigh’s (Berber’s) concept of adwal or co-operation…” (20).

Morocco’s architecture is heavily influenced by the arrival of Islam, yet this influence stopped well short of the Berber’s handicraft. Perhaps this is why “tradition is nowhere stronger than in textile art and in the heading down of symbols” (Barbatti, 2008, 14) Berber weavings have a strong emphasis on female fertility. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the weaving of the wedding blanket or handira. These blankets are made by the bride and her female relatives to prepare her for married life, and serve a hugely symbolic purpose. The handira wards off evil spirits, brings luck and, perhaps most importantly, grants fertility.

The Berber carpet is unique in several ways. Whilst many believe carpets and rugs to be Islamic in origin, the type of knot the Berber women use is found nowhere else in the world. The women weave almost exclusively straight lines in simple geometric forms, incorporating fertility symbols. It is this simplicity that has seen the Berber rug become so easily exported and loved the world over.

The changes of Berber lifestyle can be tracked through the carpets of the women. As the Berbers became less nomadic and increasingly settled, they found it difficult to maintain large herds of livestock. Increasing desertification and years of drought saw most Berbers sell almost all their sheep and goats. The women were forced to buy their wool in the marketplace, where it was often expensive. Women began unravelling old jumpers and leggings; whatever they could find with synthetic thread to supplement their wool. The Berber carpets now reflect this adaptation, with their brightly coloured, synthetic embellishments. Many believe that these carpets are somewhat better than the traditionally dyed wool ones, as they are colourfast and somewhat quirky.

Whether Berber weavings are used practically or adorn the walls of galleries or homes, there is no arguing they are inherently beautiful. Women are responsible for these works of art and most importantly the preservation of their wonderful culture.

photos by Serge Anton - 2012