Last week, publisher Linda Ligon transported us to the highlands of Bolivia and Peru. This week, I’m taking us on a journey to Morocco. After my first visit there with author Susan Schaefer Davis, I described it as a place of “Layers and layers of flavor, color, and light, distilled into a single joy.”
I imagine you’ll discover some of that color and light in this excerpt from Susan’s award-winning book Women Artisans of Morocco: Their Stories, Their Lives and in a gorgeous video by Thrums Books photographer Joe Coca.
Susan’s strong relationships with women artisans in Morocco continue even through a pandemic, even though she’s not able to enjoy her usual springtime tours. Susan stays in touch with the artisans and reports that while they’ve struggled through their country’s lockdown measures, a dearth of tourists, and some personal losses, they are all healthy and getting by. You can support the weavers of the Timnay Association in N’kob through direct purchase of their rugs at Anou.
And, Eid al-Adha Mubarak to our friends celebrating in Morocco, and around the world.
—Karen Brock, associate publisher
The Solitary Weaver of Tiznit
Fadma Buhassi was born in Amassine, a Berber mountain village just beyond N’kob, but married into N’kob, where I first met her. Whenever I came to photograph rugs for my website, Fadma Buhassi would happily spread the word. Fadma was a chosen leader of the village women as well as a midwife, reason enough for the women’s confidence in her.
Five years ago, her husband got a job as a caretaker and guard at a rural school near Tiznit, and the family moved about 300 km south. The school was originally built as a jail by the ruler Moulay Ismail, but today its eighteenth-century adobe walls enclose gardens, olive trees, stables, and several buildings that provide the family with a beautiful place to live. Fadma’s husband raises bees and cows and sells the milk to benefit the seventy students who attend classes there. After years of being a central figure in her village, Fadma has few neighbors. But she keeps busy milking the cows, preparing lunches for the students, and cooking and caring for her large family. She is also an excellent weaver.
At forty, Fadma has nine children. Two of her sons work for a company that searches for sources of water; the other two are still in school. Four of her five daughters dropped out after third grade and took up weaving. Fadma wishes they would continue their education and become more successful than her. It’s rather poignant that a master weaver, mother of nine children, and leader of women doesn’t recognize her accomplishments, but today having a salaried job is valued more than achieving excellence at traditional work.
Weaver of Everything
Fadma began weaving when she was five years old. She learned the basics from her mother, Rahma. After some time, she started to weave on her own, and created designs on her own. The young girl had little choice: her father was out of work and she needed to help her mother support the family. By the time she was eighteen and blessed with her first daughter, she had become an expert weaver.
As we sipped tea in her large, sunny courtyard, Fadma’s children spread out her rugs for display. There were pile rugs, flatweave rugs whose designs are based on traditional men’s capes, and the flatweave rugs called “mountains” or “maps.” These rugs are difficult to make because the patterns keep changing and are the same on both sides. In addition, Fadma makes traditional cream-colored women’s capes, long men’s bags, and smaller bags.
“I weave everything,” Fadma says. “I make many kinds of things so I can sell more. But I like the pile rugs best. I can use them for furniture and also to keep my kids warm. When I have a guest or when someone special visits, I put out a red and blue rug that is my favorite.”
Fadma uses many colors in her rugs. “Before I settle down to weave a rug or blanket, I decide on the colors. Then I wash, spin, and dye the raw wool. If I buy commercial yarn, I just dye it. There’s a big difference between wool that I spin and yarn that I buy. With handspun wool, the carpet is very clean and very nice. I can sell it for a better price. A rug with handspun wool is prettier. After I do all that, I cut the yarn.” (Some weavers cut the wool into short lengths for knots instead of using a long piece of yarn and cutting as they go.)
Like other weavers, Fadma uses natural dyes only for small pieces. “If you need a little bit of dye, you can just gather a few flowers and plants and do it. But if you’re making a large carpet, you need a lot of plants and flowers, and it takes a long time to gather them from the fields and woods, and to get them ready for dyeing. And you need to be sure it will come out a great color. If it’s not the right color, you have to try again and again until you get the color you want. That’s why it’s very difficult to use natural dyes.”
Although many merchants in Morocco will tell you that the rugs they sell are made with natural dyes, it’s seldom true. A few old rugs used red from madder root, but on the whole, natural dye is rare. Considering the time and effort, it’s easy to understand why.
“Like the colors, you have to think about the whole design from the first. When you start, you should know how it’s going to end. Sometimes you might add some little symbols that come into your mind as you weave. You always keep thinking about the motif that’s coming next, and you put in the perfect color for the next thing that you want to do.
“I’ve known some designs since I was small, but when I got really good at weaving, I started to weave motifs that I thought up myself. I don’t look at any pictures; I just start weaving and thinking and make the motif.” She pointed to the green geometric motif on a blue bag. “I did all of these motifs from what I imagined in my head.”
Fadma also uses traditional designs. “Teereera is a popular style from long ago. It’s important to keep something old in our life and in our weaving.” Usually used in flatweaves and used by Fadma in knotted rugs as well, it’s striking how varied this diamond design can be.
Since moving to this isolated school, Fadma weaves by herself. “The women here don’t know how to weave. But in N’kob I wove with other women, and then with my daughters when they got old enough. Now I weave every month if I have an order, but if not, every other month. After I make bread and milk the cows, I can weave most of the day. When I have enough time, I can make six to eight rugs a year. When I have a lot of chores, I’m always thinking that I need to hurry up to have some free time for my carpet.”
Carpets play an important economic role in Fadma’s family, and she sets the prices on her own. “I look at the size, the design, the color, and if it’s beautiful or not. I think about how hard the work was. I figure out the cost of the wool, the dye, and the wood used to heat the dye. I set a price so that if it’s cut, I’ll still be happy. When you don’ get enough money for all your materials, it’s like you failed. If I really need the money, sometimes I still sell. But if I don’t get enough to cover my expenses and my time, I feel hurt. The work is very hard and you deserve to be paid for it. They shouldn’t cheat you. It’s beautiful to watch the rug as you weave, but if you start from preparing the wool, then dyeing, washing, spinning, and weaving, it’s very hard.”
Fadma’s husband takes her rugs to Tazenakht and looks for buyers there. If he cannot get her sale price, he brings the rugs home. Fadma said she earned about $830 last year, and that, plus contributions from a working son, supported the family; her husband’s company didn’t pay him. She uses the money to buy food and clothing for the family, and if she has extra, she might take the children on a picnic.
Our Craft, Our Calling
Weaving has a value beyond its economic contribution. “If a woman is a really good weaver, people value her; she is really respected in her community.” Fadma says, “Sometimes I worry about the future, but I don’t think we’ll ever give up weaving. Even when I have a lot of chores and housework, I still have time for weaving. We can’t give it up. It’s our craft, our calling.”
—Susan Schaefer Davis
Travel to Morocco with Thrums Books photographer Joe Coca in this gorgeous video.
Be inspired by Susan Schaefer Davis’s stories of more than 20 women artisans–weavers, embroiderers, and button makers–in Women Artisans of Morocco. On sale now!