A visit to the Tapestry Weaver's Workshops in Essaouira.
Spend any time in Morocco, from a day to a year, and you'll inevitably be drawn into the winding streets of a medina, or old city, to have your eyes popped wide open by the extraordinary array of colourful handcrafted wares for sale.
Long streets filled with endless stalls and souks packed full of leather shoes and bags, embroidered cushions, ceramic dishes, clothes, carved wooden doors and statuettes, lamps, lanterns, musical instruments, rugs, and about a thousand and one other things all vying for your attention.
It's a weird, sensual rush, to see an entire street devoted to fresh baked bread all heaped up in mounds on carts, or a row of copper smiths each patiently hammering ornate dishes into shape and carving geometrical patterns into their forms.
I've seen a few foreigners lose their minds and pockets entirely, in one fell swoop, rushing down a particularly well endowed street to one purchase after another until they collapsed at the end, suffocated by a pile of finely wrought goods they'd now have to port back home.
But this isn't about that. Not really. This is about how human hands and a tradition of fine craft perform a practical alchemy to turn sheepwool into multi-coloured beauty. We're off to Essaouira, to visit the loomweavers.
Or rather, I entered his shop/atelier and we began speaking about how much I enjoyed craftwork, having a background in bookbinding myself, and that I wished to know more about what he and the rest of the cooperative were up to exactly.
Their cramped weaving quarters were strewn with empty spools, multi-coloured threads, a table and chairs, a low bed resting in one corner, a propane stove with a clay tagine dish used for cooking in another, and these enormous, hand built wooden looms filled most of the room and crawled with lines of perfectly arranged threads that somehow pumped out finished blankets under the guiding hands and eyes of their operators.
They welcomed me in for a glass of tea, per habitude in Morocco, and once I made it clear I only wanted to document and had no intention of setting up a weaving shop in the States or Europe from what I learned from them, we tracked down a translator, seeing as my Arabic isn't quite good enough to get into the nitty gritty of cloth production.
Abdelatif began studying this craft when he was twelve years old, looking to earn his keep, learn a set of skills and thus survive in a country where unemployment is a continual countrywide epidemic. He's now in his fifties, and after fifteen years of working under others, moving from one process to the next, he opened his own shop, built his own looms, and began weaving himself, eventually hiring and teaching others and operating in his shop Tissage Mogodor, in the old medina of Essaouira. You'll find him there today, and inshallah, if Allah wills, he'll be there in another ten years still perfecting his craft and blanket designs.
One of the first questions I had was if the layered patterns of colour and line had any symbolic significance. I'd spoken with some AmaZight carpet makers briefly in the Grand Atlas mountains, who design quite different carpets with a complex and rich history of symbol and story woven into their rugs for various purposes, and I was curious to know if there was any relation. He assured me that the patterns he wove provided only beauty and aesthetic value.
With that out of the way, amidst the clacking and bustle of several tapestries in the process of creation, we began to discuss the multi-step affair that churning one of these beauties out consists of.
They routinely make trips to Casablanca to buy a quality grade of cotton thread from a manufacturer in various colours. For high quality wool thread they go to the nearby town of Safi, where a collective of women shear the sheep that shepards bring in from their grazing pastures out in the countryside.
The raw wool is then picked through by hand to clean, boiled, and cleaned again. From there it is dyed using natural colours in various vats, in a process that takes as long as a week. Then they women begin painstakingly teasing the wool out and hand rolling it into a dense thin rope, where it will later be prepared by the weavers into a more usable form of thread.
At this point, it's bought by Abdelatif & Co, and ported back to Essaouira where their work begins. Depending on the size of the blanket, the complexity of colour patterns, and general mood it takes anywhere between half a day to a full ten or twelve hours to bring one from start to finish.
First order of the day, if a loom has exhausted its base thread bar, which happens once every month if somebody works nonstop, is to prepare a new bundle of cotton threads which serve as the base colour of tapestries for the week. Eight individual lines of thread are ran through this homemade whirling frame, which clusters the eight threads effectively into one larger, softer, and looser thread that is layered together again and again and will be used to prepare the base thread bar of the loom.
Loading the base thread bar is a four person affair. Everyone invokes the same blessing, Bi-smi Illah, in the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful, before starting, a common word on the lips of traditionally Moslem Moroccans before beginning any action. Two sit on the floor to provide tension for the two massive balls of prepared thread, which is strung in clusters of twenty individual lines through each groove separated by nails.
I'm continually blown away by the simplicity of the tools used, the improvised nature of the machines which produce such beauty.
Another winds the crank, while a fourth keeps a hand on the nail filled guide to keep it steady until a thick, soft bolt of about a thousand individual threads is wrapped around the base bar.
I was actually asked politely, but firmly not to document this next part, the final loading of the threads through the loom so that weaving may begin. Abdul told me that if I were actually on the path of becoming a tapestry weaver, he would gladly allow this, but as it were he asked that some things remain among those who practice the craft.
A request I have a deep respect for.
So, depending on what other layers of colours will be cross woven into the pattern, various threads are selected and run through this device, transferring them from the storage spools to these smaller, wooden spools used to slot into the shuttles which are passed back and forth through the loom by a hand pulley system.
From here, the actual weaving begins!
One person climbs in behind the loom, resting against a cushioned back harness. One hand operates a pulley, pulling with sharp, controlled bursts from to the right and left, guiding a shuttle filled with a single spool of thread back and forth between the thinner multi-layered cotton threads strung from the loom's base thread bar.
The other hand pulls the wooden guide toward their body between each and every thread woven into the tapestry. This anchors in each thread with the rest, creating a tightly woven blanket.
The tapestry slowly fills in, one thread at a time...
...with various breaks to reload a shuttle and change thread colour, for the calls to prayer ringing through the city five times a day, for meals, tea, and passing conversations. It's a steady flow of work amidst loose threads and laughter filled with music grainily playing from a nearby radio.
Once a tapestry has finished its journey on the loom, it has trails of loose threads scattered along the top and bottom edges. These are then passed into Fatima's hands, who gathers them up into five separate bundles, tying it all off securely into tasseled bundles that dangle at either end.
Et voila! There you have it, a finished tapestry in classic Moroccan style.
The going rate for these handcrafted gems is anywhere between 50 dirham (5 euro), to a few thousand dirham (a few hundred euro) depending on your ability to haggle, the size and quality of the tapestry, if you showed up to the shop wearing expensive jewelry, if you're there alone or with a spouse, if you speak Arabic, and so on.
Many prices in Morocco are fluid, one of my favorite parts of the country is the haggling. Either way and any which way you look at it, these tapestries are a steal for anybody coming from the Occident.
In a world where the tradition and care of handcrafted goods is disappearing rapidly in many places, it makes it at all the more worthwhile to support these endeavors, and the men and women who've trained their hands to run them.