Between the Sea and the Desert: The Many Cultures of North Africa

By Natalia Nekrassova

Every thread has a soul - this Arab proverb is particularly true for the textile culture of Maghreb, the most northwestern part of the African continent. For the nomadic tribesmen of the Atlas Mountains and sedentary countrymen of the plains, for the multicultural city-dwellers of the Mediterranean seashore, textiles always have been more than simple necessities of life. They were a means of creative expression, and a way of recording man's life experience and relationship with nature and other cultures.

The rich Northwest African collection of the Textile Museum of Canada demonstrates the variety of textiles shaped by the natural diversity and cultural history of the region. Luxurious silks and embroideries from the coastal cities present a cosmopolitan Mediterranean tradition based on Hispano-Moresque, Arab, and Ottoman sources. The robes and shawls of extraordinary beauty produced by the indigenous Berber population reveal traditions that flourished and remained unchanged deep in the Atlas Mountains. Rugs made by sedentary Arabs of the plains between the sea and the desert, with their bright colours and dramatic patterns demonstrate the weavers' exposure to the different cultures of Maghreb.

The Textile Museum of Canada is exhibiting its Northwest African collection for the first time. Rich and diverse, the collection is one of only a handful of its kind in North America.

In 2003, funded by the Getty Foundation, Brooke Pickering conducted research on the Textile Museum of Canada's North African collection. Her comments appear in the labels for this exhibition. The museum is assembling a publication based on her research and that of other Africa scholars.

About the region:

Northwest Africa is called Maghreb, an Arabic word meaning "place of sunset." Since ancient times the region has served as a crossroads for peoples and influences moving between sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean. Carthage, Phoenicia, the Roman Empire, and Byzantium succeeded one another in this area before the Arabs and Islam established their rule in the 8th to 11th centuries AD.

The Arabs and Berbers from Maghreb accepted the influence of European culture for centuries; in their turn they shaped the cultural history of southern Spain and Portugal, where the brilliant Moorish civilization flourished for 800 years under Muslim rule. As Moorish and Jewish refugees fled Europe for Maghreb in the 13th to 17th centuries, their arts, crafts, and architecture were re-rooted in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. In the 18th century the Ottoman Empire exerted significant influence on the social and cultural life of Maghreb, as did France in the 19th and 20th centuries.

A majority of the current population in Northwest Africa considers itself Arab in identity, regardless of ethnic or linguistic heritage. The Berbers, the largest cultural minority, represent the indigenous, pre-Islamic population and are neither politically nor racially homogeneous. Though significantly influenced by Arabs, they have retained their own language and culture. They live in the Atlas Mountains in Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria.


Silk weaving

Mediterranean urban centres

The green-fringed coastlines of the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean have been home for centuries to cosmopolitan urban centres with extensive cultural lives and relationships with trans-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean. The art of weaving silk in this area dates back to antiquity, when caravans from China delivered this precious material to cities and towns along the Silk Road as far as Africa. By the 8th century, the Muslims controlled the silk routes around the Mediterranean Sea and had extended the breeding of silkworms into Syria and Spain.

Between the 13th and 17th centuries, groups of Muslim and Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal settled in North African cities along the coast, bringing the production of silk textiles to Tunisia and Morocco, where they also established the breeding of silkworms. They contributed new ideas and practices to the existing matrix of Arab, Berber, and Ottoman cultures and played an important role in the development of commerce, crafts, and the creation of new industries.

Silk weaving in Maghreb, particularly in the famous workshops of Fez (Morocco), was a distinctive urban production organized on a large scale; silk fabrics, furnishing materials, and shawls were exported to Europe, Asia, and trans-Saharan Africa. The silks were woven in workshops, on large drawlooms operated by male weavers and assistants who were organized and controlled by guilds. The drawloom's mechanism stored several designs at once, so the operator could easily shift from one design to another on the same object. Intricate geometric and abstract designs were inherited from the flourishing art traditions of Andalusia, and reflected artistic canons of international Islamic culture.

Silk production is still alive in Fez; see the documentary video at the other end of the gallery.


Silk embroidery

Mediterranean coastline

Embroidery played an important role in the social and economic lives of women in the coastal cities of Maghreb. Each city developed its own distinctive style of embroidery, noted for its designs, colours, and stitches.

In the 13th to 17th centuries, as Andalusian refugees settled in Maghreb, trade with the eastern Mediterranean began to flourish, giving rise to treasured embroidery traditions. Rooted in faraway cultures, these traditions evolved into distinct artistic styles known as "old" and "modern," the former emerging from Spanish and the latter from Ottoman-Balkan textile culture. The Spanish style demonstrates intricate abstract and geometric patterns; the Ottoman tradition is characterized by leafy scrolls and floral arabesques.

Embroidery was primarily an urban woman's occupation. Unlike other artisans, these women were not organized into corporations, although they enjoyed working together. For upper-class women, embroidery was the only leisure occupation and they began to learn this art at an early age. Young girls patiently embroidered their trousseaus; once married they continued to embroider at home or in harems, where they exchanged ideas and technical expertise. Women of more modest position worked on commission, their clients providing silk and supporting fabric.

Urban embroidery was executed on a linen or cotton foundation, with glossy silk floss in shimmering colours. Monochrome or polychrome, one-sided or reversible, embroideries were executed in a variety of stitches: double-running, stem, herringbone, diagonal, buttonhole, and chain stitch were among the favourites. Those working in the Spanish tradition embroidered on stuffed cushions held on the knees; the Ottoman practice involved expandable wooden frames mounted on four legs.


Wool weaving: hooded men's robes

Cities, mountains, and plains

In both town and country of Northwest Africa, hooded robes are commonly-used, traditional men's outer garments. This is a distinctive mark of the area, a symbiotic product of the climate, economy, and rich cultural history of the region. Long and generous in girth, the robe allows all kinds of activity while covering the body in accordance with Islamic tradition.

The hooded robes come in different types: some are made of coarse wool, others of the finest wool and silk. The fine robes are worn in good weather and for special occasions, while the coarser robes provide protection from the cold air of the mountains and plains.

Selham (on your right) is a semicircular cloak, woven to shape, of fine wool or silk. Usually white, it is believed to be carried over from Roman times.

Akhnif (on the wall and on the figure behind you) is worn by the Berber and Jewish populations of the High Atlas Mountains. It is woven to shape on the loom, similarly to the cloaks of Coptic Egypt. The large eye design, executed in red or yellow on a dark background of local, shiny wool, is the distinguishing feature of akhnif. It is believed to lend spiritual protection against the evil eye.

Jellaba (in the next gallery), unlike akhnif and selham, must be woven, then cut and sewn by a tailor. It is worn by boys and men all around Maghreb. Wide enough to allow unrestricted movement of the hands, it has openings that allow the arms to be freed for ablutions without removing the entire garment.


Wool weaving: women's shawls

Atlas Mountains

The High Atlas Mountains, the highest in North Africa, form a natural belt between the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines and the Sahara Desert. They are the homeland of the Berber people, who have lived there by herding and subsistence farming for millennia.

While the coastlines can be considered a domain of silk, the Atlas Mountains are the realm of wool. With its climate and vegetation the area is extremely well suited to sheep raising, and sheep have been kept there by nomads and countrymen since antiquity. The fleece of the mountain breeds is plentiful, long, and rich in natural grease which makes the wool fibers soft, elastic, and lustrous. The sheep are sheared in the spring when the fleece is at the peak of its development, and sheep-shearing is celebrated with songs, dances, and feasting.

The wool from different breeds of sheep is used for various types of weaving, such as shawls and blankets, headdresses, belts, rugs, and bags. Flat-woven shawls are among the most esteemed Berber woollen weavings. Berber women take great care in weaving them for lifelong use at all important occasions, from wedding celebrations to funeral processions. Their designs are woven with supplementary, continuous, and discontinuous weft and twining, and show a surprisingly rich variety, juxtaposing and combining triangles, diamonds, zigzags, squares, eight-pointed stars, crosses, and arrows.

The harmonious colours of dyed and natural wool, the fineness and intricacy of the weave, the great variety of designs and patterns, and their rich materials set these shawls apart as masterpieces of traditional weaving in Maghreb.


Wool weaving: rugs

Cities, mountains, and plains

There are two distinguishing traditions in rug weaving in Maghreb. The older tradition comprises rural rugs and weavings of the Berber people of the Atlas Mountains. Woven on horizontal looms by women, they were used by the family to form and decorate the tent and the house. Local white and brown sheep wool was the only material used to create intricate and varied geometric designs in supplementary weft and weft-float weave, with two-strand twining exclusively characteristic of Berber weaving in the High Atlas Mountains. A wonderful example of this type of rug is shown at the entrance of the exhibition.

The second and better-known group is the city rugs. Pile-woven rugs from Rabat and Marrakesh in Morocco and tapestry-woven rugs from the plains of Tunisia are the most famous of these. In their design and colours they exhibit strong Middle Eastern artistic and technical influence. The pile rugs are woven with the Turkish knot and their bright, polychrome palette is achieved with the betweenthesea, reds, yellows, greens, white, and black typical of Oriental rugs in general. They are woven on vertical looms by men and women organized in workshops, and are sold at the urban bazaars of Maghreb. Acquired by settled Berber populations of the plains, they introduce new aesthetics and weaving techniques to the rural areas. The rug on the wall to your left, woven in mixed pile and flat weaving, is a good example of this relationship between the urban and rural cultures of Maghreb.


Contemporary silk weaving in Morocco

The art of silk weaving has been developing in Maghreb since ancient times. Many of the cultures that succeeded one another on the Mediterranean coast of Northwest Africa expressed their artistry through the elaborate silk textiles famous in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Woven silks have been used as declarations of status, donated as honorary gifts, and displayed prominently at significant life-cycle ceremonies.

During Arab domination, beginning in the 11th century, royal and city workshops were established in order to manufacture silk textiles for the royal household and the wealthy public. The large drawlooms used to weave the silks were the crowning technical achievement of Maghreb textile production.

Today, Fez - the Moroccan city most famed for its silks - still has a workshop operating drawlooms for commercial production of woven silks for traditional wedding ceremonies.

The documentary, "Threads of Time: Handmade Textiles for Weddings in Morocco," produced by the Royal Ontario Museum, demonstrates the contemporary production of handmade textiles based on the centuries-old practices of silk weaving and embroidery in this region.

The documentary runs 30 minutes.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada