If you take a stroll through the souk in any tourist town in Morocco, you are likely to be confronted by a half dozen men simultaneously asking if you would like to visit a carpet shop. Upon even tacit acceptance, you will be led into a ground-level showroom or up a narrow, winding staircase to a room with carpets piled from floor to ceiling. You may be shown a traditional wooden loom and offered mint tea before the shopkeeper starts laying out carpets in front of you.
For many tourists, haggling over traditional Moroccan carpets is a memorable experience.
There are two main types of carpets in Morocco: urban carpets and rural carpets. The capital of urban carpet making is Rabat, and you may hear these pile-weave carpets referred to as Rabat carpets. Carpet making in Rabat has been traced back to the 18th century, and the technique for making these carpets has been passed down through the generations. Urban carpets tend to be thicker and have larger borders than rural carpets. Designs consist of geometric patterns, as the majority of Moroccan art conforms to Islamic iconoclasm by avoiding artistic representations of living things.
Throughout Morocco’s rural areas, different Berber tribes continue to pass down tribal carpet weaving traditions. Carpet types differ by region; tribes in colder areas tend to produce thicker pile-weave carpets while tribes in milder areas produce thinner pile-weave carpets and flat-weave carpets.
The thickest carpets and blankets are found in the Middle Atlas Mountains. Carpets from this region can have up to 1.5 inches of pile, although designs on these thicker carpets tend to be simpler. Flat-weave carpets from the Middle Atlas have more intricate designs and a greater variety of colors. These are typically used as floor coverings and blankets. One good place to browse Middle Atlas carpets is in the town of Azrou.
While in the Middle Atlas carpet weaving is a women’s occupation, in eastern Morocco both men and women make carpets. The women make simpler, borderless carpets for home use, while men who become master weavers make complex carpets with thick borders and symmetrical designs. Two other areas where traditional carpet making still thrives is among the Arabized Berber tribes of the Haouz region (between the Middle Atlas and the Atlantic) and among the Ait Ouaouzguite tribal confederation in southern Morocco.
When it comes to buying a carpet, you will want to ask about knot density, the type of dye used and the type of fiber used. Higher quality carpets have a higher number of knots per square meter, are handmade and are constructed from 100 percent wool or 100 percent nylon. Cheaper carpets made of olefin are available, but these carpets are highly flammable (moving a chair across the carpet can create scorch marks), attract more dirt and can turn gray over time. Chemical dyes produce bolder colors but are more likely to fade, while natural dyes produce lighter colors and are less likely to fade over time.
If you are looking to buy a traditional Moroccan carpet, don’t feel pressured to buy right away. Take your time and get prices in several shops before deciding on your final purchase. Some shops will ship the carpet back to your home address for an extra fee. To get the best prices, buy your carpet as close to its source as possible. If you want to make sure less money goes to the middleman and more goes to the women carpet weavers, consider buying at a women’s cooperative.
Written by Heather Carreiro.
Photo by mwanasimba.