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Volume 44, Number 3May/June 1993

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A Wedding at Fez

Textiles in Transition

Written by Lotus Stack

My favorite way of traveling to Fez is to drive down through Spain and take the ferry from Algeciras, near Gibraltar, across the Strait to Ceuta, between Tetouan and Tangier. Fez is a few hours' drive south from Ceuta, and once across the Rif mountains, you can see the picture-book medieval city lying several kilometers off in a fertile valley.

When we arrive in Fez this time, we will be working within the walls of the city's oldest sector, Fez El Bali, sometimes called the medina - enticing and exotic with its narrow streets, closely built houses and beautiful inner courtyards. The purpose of our visit: to attend and videotape the preparations and ceremonies surrounding a traditional Moroccan wedding. Our focus will be the traditional textiles that are so much a part of life in old Fez.

I first visited Morocco in 1987, drawn by a report that two drawlooms were "still being used by weavers trained in production work. The drawloom, a traditional weaving apparatus used to make elaborately patterned cloth, was a vital part of the history of textiles for at least a thousand years. For all practical purposes, however, it was replaced by the jacquard loom, developed by the French at the beginning of the 19th century. Today, the drawloom is generally found only in museums or at special demonstration sites in historic weaving centers, such as Lyon, France, and Cheng-du, China.

To hear of a place where the drawloom was still a viable part of the economy was exciting, and I hoped that a visit would give me a better understanding of how the drawloom really worked. A weaver working on a demonstration loom is going to operate somewhat differently from a weaver who makes his living from what he produces, since what is possible and what is practical are quite often two different things.

I went to Morocco that first time with Frieda Sorber, curator of the Vrieselhof Textile Museum in Belgium. In Morocco we met up with Louise Mackie, an Islamic-textile scholar at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, who had first told us of the Fez drawlooms. My initial visit showed me how much there was to learn; subsequent fieldwork in 1989 and 1990 taught me much about the cultural complexities of a society that values fine textiles.

Mackie, Sorber and I realized that the textile traditions of Fez were in an important transitional phase. For this brief period in the city's long history, traditional master craftsmen continue to weave their fabrics according to centuries-old techniques, side-by-side with weavers employing modern machines and methods. This rare moment in time had to be documented. Mackie developed the idea of focusing on a wedding - a common cultural experience where textiles played an important role. She would examine embroidery, Sorber the passementerie, or decorative trim, and I the hand-woven fabrics.

Susan Schaefer Davis, a cultural anthropologist with considerable Moroccan expertise, and Mark Stanley, a video producer with whom I had collaborated on museum projects, joined our working group. We also received help from the Moroccan government, whose officials were extremely cooperative, introducing us to numerous local officials and craftspersons. It was through exposure to their working lives that we gained an understanding of contemporary, as well as historical, textile production in Fez and of the important role fabrics have played in cultural development.

Moroccan weddings are important social gatherings, and the preparations can become quite complicated. Often a neggafa, a highly trained wedding consultant who serves a seven- to 10-year apprenticeship, is hired to organize and manage the entire event. The wedding of Maryam and Hassan, which we have arrived to document, will be handled by neggafa Hajja Habiba and consist of four major celebrations in as many days - a swirl of activity involving many changes of clothing. Some of these outfits can be used again after the wedding, but the traditional wedding costume and other specialized items are for one-time use only, and are to be obtained from the neggafa.

Today the wedding caftan is sometimes made of machine-woven, traditionally-patterned fabric, but the wedding veil continues to be made by hand on a drawloom. Like most handwoven textiles, the veil is commissioned: Orders are quite specific and the neggafa will indicate color and motif preferences within the traditional design parameters of striped fabric and a pattern woven with metal threads.

It takes about 15 minutes to walk from the neggafa's house, in a residential neighborhood off a main shopping street, to the weaver's workshop, located in a crafts area. Abdelkader Ourregli's workshop is of average size, with four looms: three drawlooms and one flyshuttle loom for simple fabrics. Ourregli owns all the equipment and is the last of the drawloom weavers in the old city; in fact he is the only weaver in Morocco who depends on this specialized type of production for his livelihood. He sometimes hires other weavers when the workload gets too heavy, but it is becoming more difficult to find help, because only older weavers have had the special training needed to operate the complicated drawloom equipment. These days he often keeps one loom set up just for wedding veils. He will prepare the loom with enough white thread for several veils and will dye individual lengths of the warp on the loom as special orders come in - a very efficient way of expediting individual orders.

After the weaver has woven the fabric, the veil is taken to a finisher who will tie all the warp ends, creating elaborate knotted fringes. This job is usually done by women who work in their homes. The completed veil, an important part of the traditional wedding costume, is about 60 centimeters (two feet) wide and some four meters (over four yards) long.

For part of the wedding celebration, the groom will wear the traditional jellaba. Unlike the bride's outfit, this robe-like garment is still frequently used as everyday wear. The most eminent jellaba weaver in town is Haj Tahar Hajoui, who, by virtue of his reputation and seniority, is the head of the weavers cooperative and thus the prime adjudicator of disputes among the city's weavers. Haj Tahar owns his workshop and hires other weavers to work for him. Now in his late eighties and nearly blind, he no longer weaves him self, but still supervises the workshop's activities. The two weavers he employs regularly have worked for him for many years; like other craft workers in the city, they are paid by the piece.

The workshop specializes in weaving the finest jellaba fabric, made of silk and wool threads imported from Italy. The shop also makes a quality jellaba fabric from locally spun, textured wool thread called hubba -sometimes referred to as couscous, because its nubby texture resembles Morocco's national semolina dish of the same name. For handwoven jellaba fabrics of rayon and polyester, a flyshuttle loom is often used. This faster means of production can be used because the synthetic thread is stronger and requires less care during the weaving process.

Unlike the vanishing breed of drawloom weavers -"Think of pattern weavers as you think of the dead," laments Ourregli - the jellaba fabric weavers are flourishing. Apprentices are many, and young weavers are saving to buy new flyshuttle looms, which they can house in co-op buildings. They can thus work for themselves even if they can't afford their own shop.

Haj Tahar's son Dris owns a shop in the section of the medina where handwoven jellaba cloth is sold. When weavers are not busy with commissions, and if capital is available, they will sometimes weave yardage to be sold in these specialized stores. Most of the retail shops have connections with individual workshops; some own the looms and hire weavers.

A customer can commission cloth directly from a weaver or purchase fabric already made. A large percentage of men's jellaba fabric is handwoven, while most of the textiles used for women's clothing are industrially manufactured. Most people are particular about their traditional clothing and, regardless of the cloth, they have the garment made by a tailor.

Before visiting the tailor, we stop by Hajja Sa'dia Bennis's house to see an interesting type of machine embroidery becoming popular for one type of wedding outfit. Bennis has become quite famous since making a wedding dress for a daughter of Moroccan king Hassan II. She lives in a typical traditional house, built 30 or 40 years ago, consisting of a number of rooms off a covered central courtyard. In several of these rooms, she has installed sewing machines and hired young women to do various styles of machine embroidery. Bennis herself takes the orders, makes up the designs and supervises the work.

The streets of the medina are like a maze and, until one gets used to the lay of the land, it takes a bit of doing to find one's destination. However, the advantage of this is that one is constantly discovering new things and places. One day, on the way to the tailor's, I took a wrong turn and happened upon a reed-maker at work in a corner shop. (The reed of a loom acts both as a warp spacer and as a beater which aligns the weft threads.) The realization then hit me that there was a whole sub-economy operating here that supports the textile producers. Another time, I found a shuttle-maker in the woodworking area and makers of other weaving tools in the metalworking area of the medina.

Lahcen Barakat, the tailor, is well established and has several apprentices; his shop produces all types of traditional clothing for both men and women. A Moroccan tailor does a good deal more than cut cloth and sew seams. For a wedding caftan ordered by a neggafa, he will work with another specialist such as Azzedine Ziari, who owns a passementerie shop.

Moroccan clothing is ornamented with elaborate braids, woven bands, twisted cords and distinctive buttons. The common element in all of these trimmings is rayon thread, and Moroccans are very particular about color combinations. One area of the Kissaria - an enclosed shopping area in the "downtown" section of the medina - offers a number of passementerie shops that sell small units of thread, often in overwhelming selections. A few shops also sell ready-made trims, but these are often of lesser quality, and a good tailor will usually not waste his time working with them.

Frequently, Barakat will bring a customer's fabric to Ziari, who will offer suggestions of possible color combinations. If a customer has particular ideas, he or she will sometimes purchase the thread from the passementerie shop and give it to the tailor with the cloth, but it is the passementerie maker who usually arranges for making the special braids and trims. Traditionally, nine-strand looped braids are made by women working at home, who are paid by the meter and work on specific commissions in which individual patterns and particular color arrangements are specified. Today, however, a few small workshops have electric braiding machines, which are used to make up bands of a few meters' length to order. In either case, one or more of the colors in the braid will be used for the handmade buttons - and a woman's ensemble may often require more than a hundred buttons.

The best buttons are made in the nearby Berber town of Sefrou. Little girls learn button-making from their mothers, and as young women they often supplement the family's income by filling orders for the Fez marketplace. Sunlight provides the best working conditions and women frequently work on their roofs.

The button loops and other edge trimmings are made by the tailor as he sews the garment. Distinctive seam finishes are made with five warp threads, which are manipulated by a young boy, usually six to 10 years old, with the tailor's sewing thread functioning as the weft. This warp-faced edge finish is frequently mistaken for a table-woven structure. Due to the initial length of the warp threads for this trim, it is not unusual to see little boys standing in the middle of the street - automobiles are barred from the medina - manipulating these threads as the tailor works.

Maryam, the bride, has more to prepare than simply her wedding garments. The first of the wedding celebrations, referred to as the "furnishing party," focuses on preparation of her new home. Household belongings are delivered with much fanfare to the couple's new apartment. With the exception of a few male members of the family who help with the heavier items, this is primarily a women's party, with a swirl of activity as they prepare the new residence. One of the first things to come off the truck is a handmade carpet. Maryam's Rabat-style carpet was made in a small local workshop, but she could just as easily have chosen a carpet made in a government co-op or one made by a woman working at home. All carpets are inspected and graded to government standards

Another important household item is the frash, or Moroccan couch, which fits against the walls of the main room of the house. Its wooden base often features carved decoration; large mattress-like base cushions are covered with ornately patterned fabric, as are the side and back cushions. The frash, a dowry item, is a major expense for the bride's family: 80 to 100 yards of fabric are frequently required to make the cushions. The finest selection of these upholstery fabrics is that offered by the Ben Cherif weavers.

The Ben Cherif family has distinguished itself in Fez for at least two centuries. Ben Cherif craftsmen took awards for their weaving at the Paris exposition of 1876, and by the 1920's, the family was selling textiles in the United States through a Boston outlet. In the late 1930's, however, the business suffered at the hands of French imports and was reduced to two looms. The tide turned back in the family's favor during World War II due to wartime conditions, including restrictions on imports, and the rise of Moroccan nationalism, which stressed the importance of native traditions. By the late 1950's, the family owned four large workshops and kept 60 hand-looms in operation.

In the 1960's, the family knew that it must mechanize to keep up with consumer demand. The Ben Cherifs purchased a number of used jacquard looms from France and began the transition. Today they are fully mechanized, with top-of-the-line equipment. Many of the generation just entering the family business are university-trained, and several have specialized in textile engineering.

The managers of the largest Ben Cherif shop, located in the Ville Nouvelle, or "new town," are Othman Ben Cherif and his uncle Abdel Karim. They keep four drawlooms set up an area adjacent to the main showroom, operated by men who were originally employed when all production was by hand. One of the drawlooms is often used to fill special orders from the king, who frequently gives handwoven textiles as diplomatic gifts. Othman Ben Cherif realizes that hand production is seldom practical today, but he too believes that old traditions should not be forgotten.

While in the shop, we meet a young Moroccan woman and her mother. The daughter, a French-trained lab technician, now lives in Casablanca, but she wants the finest traditional fabric for her new frash, and so travels to Fez to shop at Ben Cherif's. The family's fabric is so well known that certain textile patterns are now simply called "Ben Cherif."

Another member of the extended family, Mohammed Ben Cherif, owns a separate, smaller fabric store with his sons. In an area off the showroom, he has an unusual three-man drawloom which requires two drawboys, rather than the usual one, to control the pattern. The fabric woven on this loom is a type of imitation embroidery used especially for the lower pillow in the corner areas of the frash.

The second event of Maryam's wedding celebration is a "henna party," when the bride's hands, and sometimes her feet, are painted with henna paste in elaborate lace-like designs, a time-consuming process that requires great skill on the part of the painter. The ritual involves use of elaborate gold-embroidered accoutrements, including two pillows upon which the bride's hands rest, and covers for various bowls and containers and for the tray on which they rest. Nowadays, henna-set covers include one for a Kleenex tissue box as well. Usually the embroidered covers are owned by the neggafa; she orders them from one of many shops that specialize in gold embroidery.

Mohammed Dabbagh who owns one of these shops, often works with neggafas to determine design, number of pieces in the set, color and so on. Dabbagh purchases the ground fabric if the neggafa has not already done so, arranges with a template maker to create the design and then hires a woman to embroider the fabrics. Often he will also supply the thread. If time is an issue, several embroiderers will work on the various pieces simultaneously. When Dabbagh is dealing with clothing, however, he will not allow more than one embroiderer to work on a single caftan, because the subtle differences in individual styles are more noticeable on a garment

Throughout the medina are a number of buildings that rent workshop space to craftsmen. One tenant is Lahcen Moussaid, template maker, who provides designs to several embroidery-shop owners. He is amazingly creative, has hundreds of design elements from which to choose, and is quite willing to make variations as needed. He usually cuts several design units at one time. The templates for gold-thread embroidery are often cut from yellow paper which covers the color of the ground fabric and enhances the embroidery work. The cloth, with all templates applied, is given to the embroiderer, who generally works at home; she then covers each template with a type of couched gold-work embroidery.

Long before this stage in the wedding preparations, Maryam's mother had to go to yet another embroidery shop to order sheets for the wedding bed, which are to be decorated with the famous Fez embroidery, a type of reversible cross-stitch. A bride has a number of different patterns from which to choose, but the monochromatic, elaborate Fez style is traditional. A bed-sheet can take up to two years to complete.

The Lazrak sisters live in a fading but beautiful 18th-century house. They do a little embroidery for shops, but thanks to a word-of-mouth network, they usually work directly with their customers, avoiding the middleman. This also means, however, that they must carry the cost of their materials themselves. Fatiha, the oldest sister, with whom we talked, specializes in Fez-stitch embroidery, often considered the most difficult of the embroidery styles, while her other sisters Asma' and Naima do gold work and machine embroidery. In the summer, when there is more daylight, she can use up two skeins of DMC floss in a day, if she works very diligently, but in winter just a little more than one skein is a day's work.

One of the city's top gold-embroidery artists is Ahmed Ben Yahya, head of the design school in Fez. As an artist, he is very concerned about the fate of the craft traditions that have always been so much a part of Fez life. He is trying to develop a meaningful 20th-century approach to gold embroidery, incorporating Morocco's Islamic heritage as well as traditional skills. At present, he is designing calligraphic images which are then embroidered with gold thread by the finest craftspersons of the city. He works in conjunction with his brother, who runs a gold-thread embroidery workshop catering to well-to-do residents of Fez.

The last two celebrations of a traditional Moroccan wedding are large evening parties, the first hosted by the bride's family and the second by the groom's. The women guests at both are elaborately attired in traditional Moroccan clothing, as are many of the men. These garments, along with the 10 beautiful outfits worn by the bride, call to mind the many specialized craft workers who have employed their skills so artistically in connection with this event. I realize what a special city Fez is: Here is a society where both producers and consumers value tradition highly enough to keep it alive and prospering in their daily lives.

Lotus Stack is a curator and head of the textile department at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and president of the Textile Society of America. She expects to complete her video on traditional Moroccan textile production in the coming months.

This article appeared on pages 28-33 of the May/June 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1993 images.