Decoration is a servant, not a master. The decorative motifs do not hinder an object’s function, on the contrary, they usually enhance it. Massed together at the bottom of a curtain, they do not prevent the light from shining through, and ensure the curtains hang better. Added to the edges of napkins, they have no adverse effect on their usefulness and reinforce the corners. Sofas and the edges of mattresses can be decorated as the own desires, without their comfort being affected.Isabelle Denamur – A Story of Islamic Embroidery, p182
In Morocco, embroidery is an urban craft usually done by townspeople as opposed to weaving which is a rural craft. It is done mostly in the northern part of the country which has a long history of exposure and influence from other cultures. Moroccan embroidery has seven recognised styles named after the towns where they evolved, each with their own distinct design principles. These are Chefchaouen, Fes, Meknes, Tétouan, Rabat, Sale and Azemmour.
Although each regional style has its own lexicon of designs and motifs with their own distinct colours, stitches and techniques, there are similarities. Many designs resemble stylised animals and plants and are referred to as such, yet it is believed that Moroccan embroidery does not attempt to copy nature and that the patterns are merely abstract elements and geometric designs such as crosses, stars, lattice patterns and chevrons.
This small city is known for the blue-washed buildings in the old town – today a popular place for tourists and photographers – but since the 15th century home to the Akhmes tribe. It also became home to Jewish and Muslim exiles fleeing the Spanish Reconquista. They brought their artistic skills and refined culture with them resulting in flourishing silk and linen industries. Chefchaouen embroideries still have a strong Andalusian influence.
Bouclé and braid stitches were applied to thick linen cloth in natural colour or tinted white. The thick silk thread used for embroidery allowed the stitches to remain quite loose, creating a raised velvety appearance. The unfussy decoration allows for extremely compact embroidery, it also accentuates the geometric element giving it an almost architectural look.
Chefshaouen embroidery is typically done on large pieces of cloth called arid or hangings. These could be used for wall hangings, to cover wedding chests or to embellish beds and mattresses. The design on an arid is composed of three vertical strips – two large rectangles at the ends containing geometrical and stylised vegetable-like motifs. Intermediate smaller motifs lead to a large six- or eight-pointed central star pattern.
Fes embroidery was introduced throughout Morocco by the French to revive local arts and crafts during WWI. The scheme introduced embroidery training schools, raising the standard of girls’ schools and attempted to save embroidery skills from extinction by providing commercial outlets for it. Ironically, this attempt had the opposite effect as it killed off various local styles of embroidery that could not adapt to mass production techniques. Today, many people wrongly believe Fes embroidery to be typically Moroccan with a history dating back hundreds of years.
Fes embroidery uses a double running stitch which creates a unique double-sided design, where the embroidery looks the same on both sides of the fabric. There is no distinguishable front and back, which makes this ideal for table linen such as napkins.
This double-sided technique requires the embroiderer to plan the stitch sequence in advance to avoid unnecessary stitches or backtracking. Watching them work is intriguing, as those women who are adept at this craft does not mark the pattern on the fabric – they instinctively know where to place the needle for a perfect pattern.
Fes embroidery is mostly done in dark blue, green or red on white cotton or linen fabric. The denser designs are used for luxurious cushions and wedding linens, while the simpler, more open and lighter weight motifs are used for table linen.
Named after the Meknassi Berber tribe that settled in this area in the 10th century, Meknes became popular with Andalusian migrants who settled there during the 14th century. They had a profound influence on the local craft industry.
Meknes embroidery is similar to Fes and Sale embroidery and is a good compromise of these two styles as well as the local Berber influence. This style, also known as Terz Maknassi uses a wide variety of colours including red, yellow, orange, green, brown, black, and sometimes blue, on a fine cream-coloured muslin base fabric. This fabric is too fine to count threads and the embroiderers have to trust their eyes and sense of balance to keep the designs straight and aligned.
Meknes embroidery is stitched with thicker silk ensuring greater durability even though the patterns are less than straight and a bit courser than their Fes or Sale counterparts. The outline of the motifs and the couching allows the colours to stand out from each other. Straight stitch, open chain stitch and diagonal stitch are typically used for motifs and reinforced serpentine stitch are used for filling in big areas. Sometimes silk tassels are added at the edges and corners.
The only Moroccan port along the Mediterranean Sea, Tetouan lies just south of the Strait of Gibraltar. Tetouan embroidery is known for its stylised flowers and geometric shapes worked in silk and often in bright yellow, gold or red colours on fine undyed linen. Designs are drawn onto the fabric by hand and stitched using brick, darning, running and satin stitches, and sometimes couching. The bigger motifs are depicted in bright colours with the secondary, smaller motifs in softer shades. Each pattern block is outlined using running, stem or backstitch in black or green.
This style of embroidery is used for soft furnishings and mirror covers or tenchifa. These were used to cover the mirror in the wedding bedroom during the honeymoon period. Some items of clothing like tikka, the drawstring on a woman’s trousers, and kettafiya, a small rectangular piece of cloth used by a bride to cover her shoulders while her hair is being done, and afterwards to protect her hair.
The capital of Morocco had a turbulent history and an ongoing relationship with Andalusia and Muslim Spain creating a melting pot of Berber-Arab-Moorish culture. The theory is that what is now known as Rabat embroidery was introduced by Moorish exiles who settled in the Andalusian quarter of the town. It shows many similarities with Tetouan embroidery which also has a big Andalusian influence.
The oldest Rabat embroideries date back to the late 17th century and were stitched on natural even-weave cotton, sometimes checked, striped or damasked. Designs were freehand stitched onto the base fabric and then embroidered with locally produced floss in blue, gold and red using blanket, chain, chevron, darning, and satin stitch.
The Spanish technique of stretching the fabric over a stuffed cushion laid on the knees was used instead of a frame. Popular motifs resembled stylised figures with round heads and full skirts, squares, crosses, ovals and decorative curls and swirls.
From the mid-19th century, a new style characterised by dense, multi-coloured designs in strongly contrasting colours became popular. It was stitched on more open weave cotton or linen which was covered with stitching. Stitches such as back, feather, running and satin stitch were popular. This style was more suitable for big pieces of fabric such as the famous Rabat door curtains.
The El Kholti family in Rabat has an impressive collection of these fabrics. See link below for an image gallery.
Sale, founded in the 12th century, is the twin city of Rabat, sitting on opposing sides of the river Bou Regreg. It used to have commercial links to countries like Italy, Spain, England and the Netherlands throughout its history and has been producing embroideries in three styles.
Old Sale embroidery, dating back to the late 18th and early 19th century, is worked in bouclé stitch, giving it a looped, velvety appearance, on an even-weave linen or cotton base fabric. Cushion covers were popular, embroidered in either a monochrome geometrical design using dark red or navy blue, or multi-coloured stylised tree motifs depicted in bright blue, red, yellow and green.
Sale embroidered door curtains, made in three vertical strips were embroidered separately using dark blue or deep red floss silk and then sewn together. The embroidery covered most of the bottom part of the curtain with minaret-like vertical decorations on the side and at the seams.
A 19th-century form of Sale embroidery worked in bands of connecting geometric designs included diamonds, wave patterns and triangles, stitched in plaid stitch on linen or cotton, using red, cream, yellow, blue, purple or black floss silk.
A style now known as New Sale embroidery were done from the late 18th century and was often used for cushion ends. It was worked in plait stitch with details in back, cross and running stitch. Most designs used more than one usually dark, colours like black, dark blue or deep red. Designs include geometric friezes, bands of figures, and geometric shapes like diamonds, hexagons, squares and stars, as well as sprays of leaves and flowers worked diagonally within a square.
Still known as a typical Maghreb town, Azemmour lies on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and has a strong Portuguese influence that dates back to late 15th century when Portuguese merchants started using the town as a trading post.
Azemmour embroidery has a distinctly different look from the other Moroccan styles as it is exclusively applied to strips of undyed linen cloth, 10-40 cm wide and around two meters long. These embroidered strips were used as hangings, curtains, and mattress fronts. It was worked with dark red and blue threads and used braid stitch for filling and cross-stitch for isolated details and black couching for outlines.
Azemmour embroidery is unique in the sense that it depicts living things such as birds, trees and human figures. Each strip of embroidery is made up of a broad central band containing the figurative motifs bordered by two simple decorative strips on either side.
Collections and Books and other resources
- Textile Research Centre Website – has a comprehensive library of embroidery styles and stitches. An excellent source of reference.
- A Story of Islamic Embroidery in nomadic and urban traditions, Isabelle Denamur, TDIC, Abu Dhabi, 2010 – This book was published as an exhibition catalogue but contains a wealth of information and excellent images. It is hard to find but a real gem and well worth the effort and money.
- Textiles of the Islamic World, John Gillow, Thames & Hudson, London, 2010 – Like all of John Gillow’s books, this one provides an excellent general overview of the topic with good images and a comprehensive bibliography and reference guide.
- Embroidered Textiles, Sheila Paine, Thames & Hudson, London, 2008 – see my review of this excellent book.
- Hali Magazine, Issue 200, Summer 2019 – An exceptional issue of a high-quality magazine. This particular issue contains three different articles on Moroccan textiles including one on the Al Kholti collection.
- El Kholti Collection, Rabat – images from Hali Magazine’s visit to the collection.
- Moroccan Textile Embroidery, Isabelle Denamur, Flammarion, Paris, 2003 – The benchmark of Moroccan embroidery books. Available in English and French.
- Women Artisans of Morocco – their stories, their lives, Susan Schaefer Davis, Thrums Books, Colorado, 2018 – personal stories of Moroccan craftswomen including embroiderers.