Princesses of Morocco in Morocco’s traditional dresses and belts
At the heart of Morocco 's vibrant handicraft culture is an essentially feminine art form of embroidery on silk, cotton, and linen-one of the most vibrant arts in North Africa for many centuries and in vogue through the 1930s. These exquisite embroidered objects bear witness to the sophisticated taste of a bygone society.
Moroccan Textile Embroidery explains how Moroccan women passed this cultural art on to the next generation and how embroidered patterns were used to decorate interior spaces-cushions, tablecloths, curtains and mats-as well as certain traditional accessories in the female wardrobe-shawls, belts, handkerchiefs, and headscarves.
Because of the rarity of older patterns and difficulty conserving textiles, Moroccan embroidery has remained largely undiscovered. Morocco lies at the crossroads of the African, Mediterranean, and European worlds and has been a melting pot of different civilizations. Its Islamic culture, which developed from the seventh century onward, absorbed Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Jewish, Spanish, and French elements. These diverse influences have nourished Morocco's decorative arts. The basic geometrical forms-crosses, triangles, zigzag lines, checkerboards, starbursts, rosettes-recall African, Berber, and Coptic motifs, while the arabesques, flowers and foliage, palm fronds, traceries, and inscriptions echo Byzantine and Oriental traditions.
This synthesis of styles is particularly evident in the refined, elegant, urban art of Muslim Spain. Introduced into Spain by the Arab conquest and strengthened by the assimilation of strongly Andalusian characteristics, it combined delicate foliage, calligraphy, and floral arabesques with dazzling patterns (diamonds, polygons, foliage) and simple, powerful forms. The styles were applied to mosques and madrasas, palaces, city gates, town*houses, fountains, and gardens, as well as to everyday items such as furniture, jewelry, weaponry, and embroidered ceremonial costumes, clothing, and household furnishings. The styles also became one of the most distinctive features of the brilliant medieval civilization of Al-Andalus, which flourished in Cordoba, Granada, and Seville from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries under the Berber dynasties known as the Almoravids (from the Sahara) and the Almohads (from the Atlas Mountains).
Born of the desire to create a refined backdrop to everyday life, embroidery is a universal art that has chiefly been practiced by women. In Babylon, Athens, Rome, Byzantium, Baghdad, Venice, Cordoba, and Budapest, women used embroidery to add a touch of luxury to their costumes and their homes. In Morocco, embroidery has flourished (and been well docu*mented) since the Middle Ages, particularly in the northern cities.
The materials of choice are natural silk thread*soft and downy with a fine sheen in shimmering colors obtained from natural vegetable or animal dyes-on muslin, lawn, linen, cotton, or, more rarely, silk. Despite evolving lifestyles, embroidery continues to play a prominent role in Moroccan society today. The sumptuous interiors and women's apparel that so dazzled nineteenth-century European painters are still a feature of modern-day Moroccan life, albeit adapted to changing times and needs.
Embroideries accompany every stage of the journey from cradle to grave: the katfiya adorns the traditional costume of the new-born baby; the sebniya handkerchief covers the bride's hand after the ceremonial application of henna, while the groom is resplendent in tunic, headdress, and gilet. A shan headscarf is worn over the hair after bathing, and the deceased are draped in an embroidered shroud for the journey to the afterlife. Cushions known as mesned or mhedda are scattered on beds and divans or placed on the floor for use as backrests, elbowrests, pillows, or seating. Tablecloths (mendil) and smaller squares known as rzma have a variety of uses. With their corners knotted together, they make elegant parcels for especially treasured items: the bride's trousseau, gifts from her fiancé, or freshly laundered clothes to take to the hammam.
Large curtains known as izar used to be hung in the doorways of rooms opening onto courtyards and enclosed gardens; swollen gently by the evening breeze, their translucent fabric allowed the women of the house to see out, without being seen themselves. In both Chechaouen and Azemmour, large hangings known as arid are placed around the bed niche of a newly married couple; in Tetouan, mirrors are adorned with sumptuously embroidered silk bands known as tenchifa to protect against the evil eye.
These embroideries-the product of patience, perseverance, and rigor-never fail to delight, with their subtle nuances, harmonious and rhythmic patterns, powerful compositions, and distinctive styles particular to each individual city. Fez is noted for its delicate monochromatic work, that uses fine geometric and floral motifs, while Rabat's multicolored pieces are clearly distinguishable from the monochromatic, geometric, almost architectural designs of its neighbor, Sale. Tetouan work affords striking similarities with Spanish Muslim embroideries of the fifteenth century but also features the tulips, hyacinths, and wild roses of the Ottoman herbary, themselves a common feature of Algerian embroideries. Azemmour designs draw on the fantastic Byzantine bestiary, and Chechaouen work mingles geometry and floral motifs in shimmering colors reminiscent of manuscript illuminations or mosaics. Meknes embroideries favor abstract, fantastic designs in a multitude of bright, cheerful colors.
Two clear strands of influence are discernible in the embroideries of Morocco. One is Spanish in origin, and the other can be traced to the Balkans. Successive waves of Jewish, Muslim, and Spanish emigrants from Andalusia brought the former to the cities of Fez, Chechaouen, Tétouan, Sale (where two distinctive styles have evolved), Rabat (the city's early work), Azemmour, and Meknes. The latter's influence is discernible in the Fez stitch and the city's so-called aleuj embroideries, as practiced by Turkish and Circassian women in the city's harems. These twin traditions are complemented today by the influence of European fabrics, evident in modern Rabat embroidery. But the often-young women who created these pieces were not slaves to tradition. Their works are often highly original, always unique, and feature freely adapted motifs, varied and imaginative compositions, and a fine sense of color. Highly pleasing to the eye, they are also above all a means of communication, an expression of cultural exchange and an eloquent testimony to the lifestyles, emotions, prayers, and dreams of vanished generations of women.
Members of Morocco Royal Family