Hand Embroidery in Morocco

Some samples of incredible hand embroidery dates back to the early 18th century, but women started this time-consuming occupation long before. As a tradition many centuries ago, women used to decorate their hands and feet with henna for special occasions, such as a wedding ceremony. The Berber tribes still use permanent tattoo symbols. Later this very decoration had been transferred onto pottery and then as hand embroidery, which became a big part of tradition.

The newborn baby often gets beautiful embroidered pillowcase, cover & sheet. A girl's dowry, which consisted of embroideries, could easily take a generation to build up. The embroidery could contain many pieces, which on her wedding day was carried to the bride's house with musicians. Before the wedding the bride-to-be would be accompanied to the hamam wearing partly embroidered clothes, such as the sleeves, belt, veil, and even her under garment, as well as a shall to carry a change of clothes, all embroidered. There were specially embroidered pieces for the henna ceremony. The fine wedding sheet made of Crepes De Chine, which was brilliantly embroidered in the ends, would later be shown to everyone at the party, to prove the virginity of the bride. The dowry was displayed at the wedding such as curtains, bedcovers, tablecloths, etc...to show the wealth of the family, and for everyone to admire the wonderful and skillful work. Sometimes the family rented out especially magnificent pieces.

Influenced by the Andaluce, cities in the north of Morocco, like Tetouan, Chaoen, Meknes, Rabat, Salé, Zemmour, and Fez are all known for their unique way of embroidery style, technique, colors, and fabric. Women from Tafilal, in the south of Morocco, Berber Jews, mainly made fantastic embroidered clothes. The fabulous wedding curtains (2 meters by 3.5 meters) from Rabat, usually very fine, transparent fabric, with floral design, where upon it a pattern was first made. The stitches are the same on both sides. This curtain gives most incredible shadow effect on the wall as the light hits it.

Fez embroidery is likely to be the most celebrated of them all. Easy to identify because of its highly graphic and geometric design, the triangle represents the eye, but may also symbolize the female sex if there are other triangles in each corner. The hand of Fatima is also embroidered for protection against evil eye.

Using natural dye, most commonly deep red, indigo blue, and black silk, is embroidered monochrome onto white cotton. Other colors such as purple, shades of brown, yellow, and green are also used. Beforehand Fez embroidery has no pattern whatsoever transferred or drawn onto the actual fabric, contrary to other embroideries. Its measured stitches are very small, only a few millimeters. The women simply count each thread; one stitch spans two to four threads of the fabric. The fabric usually 80cm wide and 2 meters long are stretched on a special loom, then rolled up so the women actually only see the part which she works on. Embroidering horizontally, vertically or diagonally, leaving blanks to combine the desired design. This is an extremely time-consuming technique, which requires mathematical precision and a lot of concentration and patience. There is no reverse side. Usually the women first see the outcome when they are finished all the intricate work, sometimes after several years. Family, friends, and neighbors, are then invited to a big tea party to admire the embroidered piece.

Small girls were taught the art of embroidery at special small school workshops. The teacher, the maalma, would keep all the work as her commission for free training. Clients would come to order new embroideries, or have their old ones restored. In the early 20th century, when the tradition was still strong, more than 2 thousand women were teaching or having workshops in Fez alone. The bourgeoisie families would buy cotton fabric; silk from the Orient, and special looms, so their daughters could practice the skills and art they learned from the maalma at home. The pieces they produced were usually squared and rectangular, consisting of one or several parts, such as pillowcases and bedspreads.

During the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, they began using chemical colors for the silk thread, with very few exceptions. Not one embroidered piece is the alike. They are all unique; a piece of art. Each individual would show her own creative skills, sense, and choice of color. In the harems, women from other countries would certainly influence the women with their style and technique. Unfortunately today, very few women are practicing the art of hand embroidery. Many articles are now machine embroidered, so we must treasure what is left and what used to be a fabulous tradition.

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