Walking down the souks (markets) of Morocco, you are bound to discover the intricate embroidery work displayed all around. Unfortunately, Moroccan embroidery is a dying art form today and can still only be found in some ancient cities of Morocco.
A Brief History
Embroidery work has historically been considered women’s work. Before the twentieth century, many women were trained as young girls by a teacher in their home. Most of the time, embroidery was only sold during times of economic need. However, during the twentieth century embroidery vocational schools became more popular. After the 1980s, Moroccan embroidery began to flourish as it was recognised as a cultural art that could keep Moroccan tradition alive and help the country economically.
Today, embroidered linens are found in nearly every Moroccan home, no matter the location of the village nor the social status of its inhabitants. The history of Moroccan hand embroidery is supposed to have come from the Berber tattoo patterns or henna designs. This form of art is shown in items that they use every day: tablecloths, napkins, pillowcases and clothing such as the djellaba. There are other embroideries that are only for decoration or special occasions.
In general, Moroccan embroidery can consequently be divided into two main types, namely, the urban embroidery from cities such as Azemmour, Chefchaouen, Essaouira, Fes, Meknes, Rabat, Salé and Tetouan, and the embroidery of the Berber population.
In this blog post we will be exploring 7 distinct types of Moroccan embroidery -
Fez stitching (Terz Fesi):
Fes embroidery, takes the name of the city of Fes, where it originated. The city of Fes is often considered the cultural capital of Morocco. This embroidery is both beautiful and unique. The special aspect of Fesi embroidery is that the back of the fabric has the same design as the front. There are no knots or tangles hidden underneath the tablecloth, but the reversible pattern is perfectly displayed when you flip the fabric over. In fact, it might be hard to tell which side is the front and which is the back!
The stitch is a mix between a cross stitch and straight stitches. It is amazing that many women do not even mark the cloth before they stitch. The pattern of Fesi embroidery is usually floral or geometric. There can be symbolism in the patterns chosen, but this is not a must. For example, some women might embroider the hand of Fatima or a symbol of the evil eye for protection.
Rabati Style Gold Thread Embroidery
Another type of embroidery that is popular in Morocco and particularly well-known in Rabat is gold thread embroidery. This decorative, fancy embroidery is often used for celebration such as a wedding or on festive clothes. This embroidery is often done on heavier materials such as leather, velvet or silk clothing. This style is found on cushions, kaftans, wall hangings and even slippers.
The technique used for the gold thread embroidery is couching, where traditionally a strong thread held the gold threads in their positions. Often, it was the male artisans who drew and cut out the patterns before the women embroidered them. There are many different designs in gold thread embroidery, but some of more common ones are the teardrops, the circles and floral patterns.
The Gnawa are an ethnic minority in Morocco, whose ancestors can be traced back to slaves that were transported from sub-Saharan Africa, notably Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal. The outfits worn by many Gnawa musicians in Morocco include belts and bandoleers decorated with applied work with cowrie shells. In addition, some wear a cap decorated with a long tassel, some embroidery combined with cowry shells.
Hiti (hiti, hayti, from the Arabic hayt, ‘a wall’) is a form of wall hanging found in Morocco and sometimes in other parts of North Africa. Essentially, a hiti is a long strip of material, about 15m long and roughly 1.5m wide, which is used to decorate the walls behind the divans that line meeting halls (majlis) on ceremonial occasions, especially weddings.
A hiti is normally composed of a series of panels, each with a design in the shape of an arch (qus). Above the arches there is a band with one or two rows of geometric patterns reminiscent of a balustrade. The gold thread embroidery on the hitis was worked using underside couching and leather templates. Hence the production of these costly hitis was allegedly supervised by the local guild of leather workers.
The kiswa al-kabira is an elaborate outfit worn until the mid-twentieth century by wealthier (Sephardic) Jewish women in Maghreb (Northwest Africa). The term kiswa al-kabira means ‘great dress.’ The outfit was decorated with gold braids and gold thread embroidery. The outfit appears to have originated in Andalusia, where it was called the traje de berberisca.
During the Reconquista and ensuing exodus of Jews and Muslims to North Africa, the use of this outfit started to appear in what is now Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Traditionally the father of the bride gave the kiswa al-kabira outfit and after her wedding it was worn at important festive and ceremonial events. The use of the kiswa al-kabira generally stopped in the mid-twentieth century with the general migration of Jewish families to Israel and further afield.
Many embroidery designs in North Africa and the Middle East are passed down from one generation to another by copying older pieces of embroidery. However, it was not uncommon for girls and women in Morocco to decorate cloth with various forms of designs and stitches, and at first glance these pieces of decorated cloth seem comparable to European samplers.
Examples of chelliga or Moroccan samplers include a wide range of colours, designs and stitches. The designs are normally set out in a formal, linear arrangement, as they were generally produced by embroidery apprentices to show the range and quality of their work to their teachers, parents and family, as well as potential customers. Unlike European samplers, chelliga do not normally include the name of the worker or a date.
Moroccan Leather Embroidery
For centuries, Morocco has been known for the production of leather goods, which were sometimes embroidered in various techniques. The range of embroidered leather objects includes animal trappings (such as saddles), bags and satchels, belts, pillows, poufs, purses and wallets, stools, sword and dagger sheaths, as well as a range of slippers (babuch) for men, women and children.
Traditionally, it was men who carried out the embroidery on leather, but since the end of the twentieth century more and more women’s groups in Morocco started to produce this form of work. In 2013, for example, there was the Tifaouine Ameln Argan Oil and Leather Embroidery Group (based in Tifaouine Ameln near Agadir in southern Morocco). This is a cooperative run by a group of women and girls who make argan oil and a range of products, including embroidered belts, pillows, purses and shoes, all in leather.
Another women’s group in Tifaouine Ameln producing leather embroidery is the Association Tifaouine Ameln Broderie en Cuir, who decorate leather items with, among others, Berber motifs.
We are able to offer made-to-order embroidered pieces. Our artisans need a minimum of 6-8 weeks to customise these for you, but these are truly one-of-a-kind and are a unique gift to a loved one. Order yours today at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- DENAMUR, Isabelle (2003). Moroccan Textile Embroidery, Paris: Flammarion.
- STONE, Caroline (1985). The Embroideries of North Africa, London and New York: Longman.
- VIVIER, Marie-France (1991). Broderies Marocaines, Paris: Bibliotheque Nationale de France
- VOGELSANG-EASTWOOD, Gillian and Caroline STONE (2016). 'Embroidery from Morocco,' in: Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood (ed.), Encyclopedia of Embroidery from the Arab World, Bloomsbury Academic. pp. 188-209, esp. pp. 191-193.