Moroccan Textiles History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Morocco has a long and complex history, one which is mirrored in its arts. In this lesson, we'll explore Moroccan textiles and talk about how their designs, techniques, and uses reflect Moroccan life.

Moroccan Textiles

The northwest African nation of Morocco has been called a tapestry of cultures. Due to its location, this region has been influenced by native Berbers, expanding Arabs, missionary Europeans, and travelling Jews. The colors, sounds, and tastes of Morocco are composites of many different influences, and nowhere is this more visible than in their arts. One of the most respected Moroccan art forms is textiles, fabrics and cloths that are ornately decorated and superbly designed. Moroccan culture may be a tapestry of cultures, and as it turns out, their tapestries are too.

Moroccan sash

History of Moroccan Textiles

Morocco's textile heritage is long-reaching, dating back hundreds of years. African Berbers had their own forms of textiles, which over time were heavily influenced by Islamic Arab culture and later by Jewish and European styles and techniques. Traditionally, textiles have been an art reserved for women, especially those of wealthy families. Young women would be taught this art form very early in life and would continually practice. Across history, control over this important industry actually gave women a degree of economic and social power, something they were often otherwise denied.

Throughout adolescence, they would be expected to produce several pieces for various occasions as a way to demonstrate their education and maturity. Once married, these women would produce textiles for their home and engage with other women to share techniques, styles, and ideas. To this day, textiles are primarily a women's art form in Morocco and still just as highly respected.

Style and Characteristics

So what distinguishes Moroccan textiles? While there is a whole process of sewing or weaving required to create the base, what really defines Moroccan textiles is the embroidery, the use of needle and thread to decorate textiles. When you look at Moroccan textiles and see the characteristically intricate patterns, the repetitive geometric shapes, and the overall elaborate ornamentation, keep in mind that those designs are individually sewn into the cloth.

Moroccan embroidery is very intricate and ornate

In terms of the designs themselves, Moroccan women tend to favor geometric and abstract patterns. These patterns are chosen for their aesthetic values of symmetry and harmony rather than direct representation of earthly objects and ideas. Still, there is a deep meaning within these patterns. Embroidered textiles are found across all aspects of Moroccan life, from walls to floors to bags to clothes. Babies are swaddled in embroidered cloths, families are clothed in embroidered fabrics, and the dead are covered in embroidered shrouds.

Everything in Moroccan society was embroidered, including men
Moroccan slippers

Within various segments of Moroccan society, different patterns emerge as well. For example, stars are much more common amongst Jewish embroiderers. Azemmour embroideries are largely created by Jewish women of European ancestry, particularly Spanish or Portuguese and embrace European stitching patterns. Communities with ancestral ties to Algeria employed a Turkish style used to create a cloth called a tensifa that covers mirrors, warding off the evil eye. Moroccan textiles draw from a variety of influences but are interpreted through a distinct taste for intricacy and virtuosic technique.

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