“You know I’ve always liked all kinds of handwork. When I was a girl, I learned gold thread embroidery. Learning to use a thread and a needle changed my life. I didn’t go very far in school because my family was poor. But my craft gave me many things. It changed my future and my children’s. That’s why I tell women, any kind of work that you do, value and respect it, and it will give back to you.”Amina Yabis,as quoted by Susan Schaefer Davis in Women Artisans of Morocco.
On the edge of the Middle Atlas and only 30 km from the city of Fes, the Moroccan city of Sefrou is a picturesque town with a rich history and friendly people. Unlike Fes, Sefrou functions around its residents and not around tourism, making it a bustling yet peaceful place.
Sefrou’s small medina has received UNESCO World Heritage status in 2013 and has been restored and rebuilt. The city is sometimes referred to as the ‘little Jerusalem of Morocco’ as it used to be home to the country’s largest Jewish community. The Mellah, or Jewish Quarter, is now part of the restored old city. The yearly Sefrou Cherry Festival is one of the oldest cultural festivals in Morocco and has been recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Sefrou is home to Amina Yabis. Amina grew up in Fes where she worked as an embroiderer before she moved to Sefrou with her schoolteacher husband. As a young mother of four sons, she took up button making as an extra income for her growing family. Unlike the male button makers in Fes, who do apprenticeships and become accredited members of the craft guilds, Amina and the women of Sefrou have to teach themselves by copying the experienced women.
Moroccan buttons are used to decorate the djellaba, a traditional Moroccan robe, kaftans, and traditional wedding attire. The buttons are usually applied in a tight row down the front of a garment from top to bottom.
Sefrou’s Jewish population used to dominate the button making industry until the 1960’s when the majority of Jews immigrated to Israel, passing the burgeoning market and their skills on to their Muslim friends and neighbours.
The buttons come in different styles, each with their own name usually based on a well-known item it resembles. Bstilla refers to a traditional pastry, Semma refers to a traditional gold embroidered slipper, shems refers to the sun. Amina prefers the Semma buttons. “The old ones that the Jews taught us. They are the genuine article. They worked like a button and could last up to fifty or sixty years, even with paper centres and being washed many times.”
Buttons are produced by women, who can make between one and four bunches, consisting of forty buttons each, in a day. For all this work she used to earn as little as one dollar. Amina soon realised that the tailors who bought the buttons made a big profit on the women’s work, and so decided to stand up for the women to help empower them.
The Cherry Buttons Cooperative
Amina started her co-op in 2000. It was the first women’s co-op in Sefrou. Today there are about twenty co-ops. It was a long road to convince the women and their husbands, to trust her, and at first, only widows and single women participated. Amina offered to pay the women more for their buttons than the tailors were offering. Today, the co-op has forty-two members, both in Sefrou and in outlying villages.
Amina travels to Casablanca or Fes to buy supplies and to negotiate orders. The buttons are made of rayon thread, sometimes referred to as cactus silk, imported from China. The women don’t choose the colours but work with the threads provided by the tailors. They order buttons in a specific colour and style to match the garments they are working on.
All the women in the co-op are paid the same, and all members share in the year-end profits. An accountant from the Ministry of Handicraft oversees the bookkeeping and calculates every women’s share.
To build on their success, the women started to expand their options by creating their own products beyond just supplying the tailors. They started to use the buttons to embellish scarves, pillows, handbags and other items and to sell it at craft fairs and markets. They have also developed a range of jewellery using different colours and styles of buttons. This entrepreneurial spirit eventually led to them marketing their products outside Morocco in Europe and the Santa Fe Folk Art Market in the USA.
Acknowledgement of sources
- This article uses Susan Schaefer Davis’s book WOMEN ARTISANS OF MOROCCO – Their stories, their lives, published by Thrums Books, as the source.
- I visited Morocco in October 2019 on a textile tour based on Susan’s book, and organised by Noble Journeys, with Susan as the guide. We visited several of the women featured in the book including Amina Yabis.
- Images and videos were taken by me while on this tour.