Andaluz weaving technique still alive in Fez.

27 08 2013

The art of weaving this highly textured and ornamental fabric was one of the arts of Fez, but has long since been lost. The fabric, called lampas, was developed in the Middle East in the 11th century and was much more ornate than previous textiles had been. The art spread from Andalusia across to Fez somewhere in the 13th century.

Datatextil, a trade magazine that features Dar al Tiraz in a 2010 edition, explains that the lampas technique in Fez was enhanced by immigration to the city after the fall of Granadain 1492. The lampas was used by wealthy women as belts and was made of silk, often embellished with gold or silver thread. The belts were worn folded lengthwise and rolled several times around the waist. They became longer, wider and more colourful over time as fashions changed.

Lampas production is time-consuming and expensive as it is woven on hand-operated drawlooms. The art was kept alive in Fez until about a hundred years ago when it disappeared. Sy Hassane and Isabelle have now reinvented the techniques and are producing exquisite examples of the fabrics.

Sy Hassan is an artist as well as being a trained Jacquard engineer. His father was a prominent master-weaver who specialised in silk brocade; this, and the fact that he loves old fabrics, led Si Hassan to restore the art of lampas weaving. This was no easy task as he had to start from scratch by designing and building the drawlooms. There were no loom craftsmen left who knew how to make them.

Sy Hassan

Datatextil reports that the date and place of birth of the hand-operated drawloom is not precisely known. But it is clear that this complex handloom was long in use in many countries, from Japan and China in the far East, to Spain andMorocco in the far West. Although all hand-operated drawlooms follow the same fundamental scheme, adjustments were made in the various countries where they were adopted. The Arabo-Andalusian type in use at Dar al Tiraz is typical of Fez and was used in the brocade workshops for which the city is famous.

The contemporary textile industry, of course, is now computerised, so hand-operated looms – and even more so, drawlooms – might appear to some to be completely outdated. In most countries, the hand-operated drawloom was supplanted as early as the 19th century by the Jacquard loom, its direct offshoot. In order to master this old-time weaving technique, one needs not only a comprehensive knowledge of textile engineering, but also a great deal of passion and patience. The result, however, is well worth the effort: the fabrics produced by such looms is almost without equal.

Sy Hassan has been studying the textile arts for more than 25 years. In the course of his extended research and work with the craftsmen of Fez, he gained a large number of skills and became an expert in the textile field. His passion is drawing new patterns, and he enjoys learning about the history of handweaving on a worldwide scale.

Isabelle Riaboff is a doctor of ethnology and specialist of the Tibetan-speaking populations of theWestern Himalayas, where she carried out research for more than 15 years. Since 2005, following a valuation which she conducted in Fez for UNESCO, in collaboration with the Ministère de l’Artisanat du Maroc, she has reorientated her research to focus on the Moroccan handweaving of figured fabrics.

What the couple are hoping to do now is prevent this outstanding knowledge from vanishing once again. Sy Hassan and Isabelle are happy to share their experience and knowledge with weavers, be they professional or amateurs, as well as with onlookers and travellers who want to know more about the amazing artisan heritage of the city of Fez. They have three dreams: to open an educational workshop for both visitors and students; to found a school dedicated to training young weavers so that the art will not be lost again; and to write a book about the history of the handweaving of figured fabric in Morocco and the weaving techniques related to drawlooms.

For more information, see

Written by Helen Ranger

To book at a tour of Fez to visit traditional crafts people and thier workshops contact Culture Vultures on

For more information on artisanal tours see artisanal affairs page.


Morocco: Anonymous Mosaic Masterpieces

20 08 2013

Geometric patterns made by Moroccan zillij, mosaic masterpieces, capture attention and mesmerize. For me, the fascination with zillij is so overwhelming that it makes me love Moroccan artistic traditions.

Zillij is an incredibly impractical art form. It requires the understanding and execution of complex geometric patterns. The production process involves multiple artisans and various skill-sets; such as planning and drafting and producing (mining, firing, pigments, glazing, and cutting) clay tiles. For all the training, discipline, and practice required, it results in a piece of art that is nameless and unattributable. Many zillij masterpieces are public water fountains in the medina of Fes. They are city assets, public utilities, and works of art. Tiles are broken, come lose, or otherwise need repair.

The artisans who maintain or restore traditional zillij installations are inspired by the work of the “masters” who came before them. It is a form of inspiration that requires self-discipline because it requires restoring someone else’s unattributable work. They will be another nameless artist in a long line of artists that contributed public art, an expression of the collective. I think this aspect of art for public use and consumption is most beautifully expressed by the many wonderful water fountains used in Morocco’s old cities. The Art is not only anonymous, but useful, lending beauty, wonder and awe to the mundane yet privileged act of collecting water.
For zillij artists, there is no one “master” to worship or admire. There is only the art and the ideas it contains, which, I believe, cannot be accurate expressed in any other form, written, auditory, or visual.
Zillij has been actively practiced in Morocco for over 10 centuries. Despite the current poor economic conditions of the country, Moroccan families continue to commission zillij installations for living rooms. Zillij installations are expensive. Artisans are respected for their craft, but don’t necessarily make much of a living doing their life’s work. Zillij is a truly Moroccan art form and a source of cultural pride.
I had a chance to visit architectural masterpieces in Istanbul: the Blue Mosque, Haigia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace. I was disappointed that I didn’t see anything the mimicked the feeling or style of Moroccan zillij. I realized how unique Moroccan mosaics are; they can’t be mistaken or replaced by mosaics of other cultures or styles. Most cultures create tile patterns by painting tessellating patterns on square tiles. The individual pieces of zillij used in Moroccan geometric designs are unique. The result is a mash-up of Phoenician and Roman mosaics, which were forms of representational art, and the abstract geometric patterns of Islam. Yet, they contain none of the arabesque forms of middle-eastern ornamentation and none of the representational depictions used in Roman mosaics.
 Author: Sarah Tricha  Writes about Moroccan Design and Culture.

Morocco’s Ensemble Artisanales

16 08 2013

Morocco’s Ministery of Artisan provides every town and city in Morocco with an Ensemble artisanal ( craft center).  A facility beneficial to both artisans and visitos alike. The building provides workshop spaces for craft cooperatives for each local area as well as an exhibition and shop aminity. Visitors are invited to look around the workshops and this showroom is a great point for anyonr interested in the local and regional crafts to discover what skills and what materials are locally sourced. A big advantage to all parties is that the prices are fair, fixed and go straight to the artisan.

Marakechi Felt Maker

Ensemble artisanals across Morocco vary in their quality and diversity of portfolio. Marakesh hosts a large and assorted range of artisanal workshops that are available to visit as well as purchase crafts. A valuable insight into the skills and input into artisanal items. Check out the felt maker when there and discover how much time and effort goes into the production of a pair of felt slippers.

Marakechi Felt Slippers

A  fine example of how an Ensemble artisanal should be is the new Center in Azrou in the Middle Atlas mountains. Azrou is a town of approximately 50,000 people, located at the crossroads of the Fes-Marrakesh and the Meknes-Errachidia routes.  The name Azrou means “Big Rock,” after the town’s principal feature, a rock where Berber tribes used to gather for trade.

Their new crafts centre has recently been inuagurated  hosts a tourism office, a cafe, a multimedia room to encourage e marketing for artisans as well as a training room and the obligatory workshop spaces. The newly renovated building reflects the skills of architectural handicrafts of Morocco such as intricate zeliig( tile work), plaster carving and wood painting.

Craft skills that are typical of Azrou are rug weaving, pottery,´copper work and ceder wood carving. Azrous Ensemble artisanal also hosts tailors, iron work and much more.

For further information on Azrous Ensemble artisanal see

To book a tour of the traditional artisans in Fez contact Jess on

For more information see

Alternatively we can arrange a visit to Azrou and visit the new Ensemble Artisanal and its craft people.

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend

14 08 2013

Something you cannot and do not want to miss in Morocco are Berber carpets and rugs. They are everywhere; they come from everywhere, and each one of them tells a story. It may well be one of the oldest and finest crafts in the country.


The word Berber also Imazighen or Amazigh is said to mean “free people”. Berbers are farmers, shepherds or goatherds who live in the mountains. Traditionally, the men take care of livestock and their farming. Animal husbandry provides them wool, while cotton and plants are used for dyeing. Women have a prominent role in the household; they look after the family and make handicraft for their personal use, and to sell sale in the local souqs.

The nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Berbers in earlier times was very suitable for weaving kilims. The tapestry maintains the traditional appearance and distinctiveness of the region of origin of their tribe, which has in effect its own repertoire of design for ages. The plain weave is represented by a wide variety of stripes, and by geometrical patterns such as triangles and diamonds. Additional decorations such as sequins or fringes, are typical of Berber weave in Morocco. The customs and traditions differ from one region to another. The social structure of the Berbers is tribal and it is not unusual for women to be leading the tribe.


The carpets and rugs the women weave, knot and embroider are traditionally made from ‘eco’ wool meaning “live wool” (that is wool shorn from a sheep, rather than taken from a sheepskin after the sheep has been killed), organic cotton, linen and sometimes even silk, leather and reed, and old textiles that have been ripped to pieces.

Getting acquainted with the different type of rugs turns into a major research project where you come across exotic names like Beni OuarainBoujadHendira,ZemmourZaiane AzilalBoucherouiteMrirtTaznakht,Beni MguildAit OuauzguitMarmushaGlaua and Ulad Busba. These names derive from the name of the tribe or the place or region where they are produced. There are approximately 45 different tribal groups, each of which has distinctive designs and sometimes varying weaving, knotting and embroidery styles and their own color palette.


Within all these differences there is one factor that popped up while examining the carpets collection at Le Cadeau Berbere. There was playfulness, imperfection and an abundance of diamonds used as patterns. The idiosyncratic shapes were created according to the whim of the weaver. These design inspired dreams about the free spirit of the women weavers. How they loved their crafts, the joyfulness showed through their work. How they use colors and patterns. I imagined them sitting there doing their job and getting into a trancelike state or meditation making archetypical patterns and choosing colors that suited their mood of the day. Each weaving project is a personal story–a unique piece with a dream of its own.

Most Berber women today don’t remember why they make certain patterns. It has always been like this. The patterns have symbolic and talismanic meanings that the women themselves are not always aware of anymore. The diamond is said to protect you as a watchful guardian, warding of the evil eye. It can, however, depending on its positioning and color represent a vagina a well as fertility, virginity and sexuality.

There are vintage carpets and newly made ones. Architects like Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright of the mid-twentieth century, embraced the graphic beauty of the White and Black Beni Ouarain carpets. Each carpet is different and more appealing then the previous. 

Original Article

‘Take and give back’ Photography ethos.

13 08 2013

Keith Bailey, photographer and teacher reports on his latest project.

It’s been a great pleasure and privilege spending the last few years working in India and The Philippines and traveling with my camera to a number of Asian countries. I’ve taken my fair share of portraits of local people and proudly shown these off as framed prints in my home or on flickr. Recently I’ve decided to embark on a project of ‘taking and giving back’. Whenever I take a portrait and am able to, I give back a printed copy to the subject of the photo. After all, the image belongs as much to them as it does to me.

So here are a few examples and an invitation to anyone to use this blog to share their own experiences of ‘taking and giving back’.

Mr Singh – seller of peacock feathers in Jaisalmer, India

Mr. Singh


Mr Singh sells peacock feathers for a living and is one of the few licensed sellers in India. I took this photo of him outside Jaisalmer Fort and then had to find a way to get the photo printed and back to him the next day as we were moving on. Enquiries about photo printing led me to a very dusty upstairs office in the town which had a small desk top printer and a few sheets of glossy printing paper. Duly armed with a print out I tracked Mr Singh down and he was very grateful to receive the print. He had on him a slightly worn travel magazine with his image on the front cover. He was very proud to share it with me.

Artisans in Fez, Morocco.

I’m grateful to Jessica Stephens at Culture Vultures for helping me out with these.  She runs an ‘artisan tour’ in Fez which enables tourists to meet and talk with some of the artisans in the Fez souks and the tannery. As a photographer I really like the tour as it means you have  direct contact with the people in the portraits. The artisans were kind enough to let me take photographs and Jessica delivered my prints back to their owners.

Mohammed. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Stephens)




Abbas is the last carpenter left working in the Carpenters’ souk. He uses his basic tools and considerable skills to service other artisans in Fez. For example, he supplies the shoe makers with foot-shaped wooden blocks and the knife maker with wooden handles. He also takes one-off commissions for items such as wooden legs.

More images of the Fez artisans

Slum near Manila Domestic Airport

Girl in Manila slums


I regret not getting to know this little girl’s name. I took this photo and returned a few weeks later, but I was unable to find the girl. However I was really lucky to come across her mother who was so delighted to receive the photo because the girl had been sent away to school and the photo served as a precious reminder of her daughter.

Saturday service at ISM

Andrea & Aira


Two Filipino girls from the Young Focus (Love2Learn) project in Manila supported by the International School Manila as part of the service learning programme. After a Saturday morning of fun and games, we presented each of the children with a portrait to take home to their parents.

Original post

North African Jewelry

10 08 2013

For millennia North Africa, including the nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Egypt, has served as a crossroads for the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe.  Starting well before the Christian era,  Phoenicians,  Egyptians,  Romans and Greeks mingled with the Amazigh peoples.  Also known as Berbers, they are thought to be the original inhabitants of the region, along with Africans from south of the Sahara Desert.

Coral Neck Piece

In the elaborate jewelry worn by North African women, a profusion of pendants, colored enamels and precious or semi-precious stones transform the pieces into flamboyant and conspicuous works of art.  Women receive jewelry from their husbands when they marry, and they wear them as symbolic expressions of social codes and identity.  In certain shapes and materials, jewelry is seen as a way to protect the wearer.  The hand, or khamsa, is considered a potent shield against the evil eye.

In rural areas jewelry is generally made of silver and favors geometric form and decorations. Pieces crafted in urban settings and sometimes made of gold display floral, arabesque and rounded designs. Many jewelers in urban centers were descendants of Jews who fled Spanish persecution beginning in the 13th century. Itinerant jewelers worked in rural areas, where their techniques included casting, piercing, filigree work and enameling. Niello decoration lends a distinct black outline to patterns on silver jewelry. These techniques were inherited from Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine traditions.

The rich mixture of materials in North African jewelry reflects the varied cultures of the region’s inhabitants and their long history of extensive trade and contact. Imported materials from the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe were lavishly combined with local materials of diverse color and form. It is not uncommon to find jewelry with elements, some more than two thousand years old, from Europe, India, ancient Egypt and Central Asia.

Necklace from the Draa Valley, Morocco

Used widely throughout Africa, beads have been imported and made locally for thousands of years. Beads of all shapes and sizes made of stone, coral, amber, glass, shell, old coins and later Bakelite and plastic buttons are combined in elaborate designs. These are often based on older jewelry forms handed down over generations. Amber, a fossilized resin imported into North Africa from the Baltic and beyond, was often strung with beads made of copal, a semi-fossilized resin found in West Africa. Gold and silver are metals of choice in North African jewelry. Because pure gold and silver were rare and restricted to the wealthy, most jewelers worked with alloys, sometimes made from melted coins, salvaged metal objects and discarded jewelry.

North African Niello Work

Many materials are thought to have protective and healing qualities as well as symbolic meaning. Silver is linked with honesty and purity, and when combined with certain stones it can heal select ailments. Red Mediterranean coral, associated with life-sustaining blood, is prized for its healing properties. It is worn to promote fertility and to prevent harm to children. Yellow amber attracts sunlight and deflects darkness.

The range of techniques also reflects the cosmopolitan history of the region. Jewish silversmiths living among the Kabyle of northern Algeria specialize in cloisonné enameling and also introduced niello. This technique, with Turkish and Central Asian origins, involves fusing silver, copper and lead to make a black powder that is then applied to a base layer of metal. Other techniques, such as filigree, granulation and engraving, suggest ties to areas as distant as Yemen, Syria and Somalia.

Source :

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For more information see our Artisanal Affairs page here.

Moroccan Mosaic – Zeliig

3 08 2013

Putting the Pieces Together in Fez


For centuries, in the Imperial Moroccan city of Fes, mosaic craftsmen have chipped away at ceramic tiles, shaping the tiny pieces that comprise zellij, the art of glazed-and-cut tile pieces arranged in complex geometric patterns.  The fruits of their labors can be found everywhere within the 1,200 year old Fes medina: gracing the walled city’s countless water fountains, adorning the tomb of Moulay Idriss II (the founder of Fes) and decorating the Karaouiyine Mosque and University, which vies with Al-Azhar in Cairo for the title of world’s oldest university.  About a mile outside the stone walls of the medina is the Poterie De Fes factory, where pottery and mosaic craftsmen continue their work, one small piece at a time.

karaouine mosque fez

Karaouine mosque fez

Late in the 8th century, Fes was founded by Moulay Idriss II, who carried out the wishes of his dying father by moving from the small ancient Roman capital of Volubilis.  The new city started as a modest Berber town and grew with the influx of thousands of exiled families from Al-Andalus (southern Spain) and later from Arab families fleeing Kairouan in modern-day Tunisia.  The town rose to prominence with the construction of the Karaouiyine University and it emerged as the pre-eminent city in the Maghreb, the North African region comprised by the present day countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania.  Within Fes is the walled medina, known as the “the city of ten thousand alleys.”  It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is believed to be the world’s largest contiguous car-free urban area.

Just outside those ancient city walls is the Poterie De Fes cooperative.  The factory is easy to find; look for the kilns producing black smoke fueled by olive pomace.  This recycled fuel — pulpy residue from the olive oil process–is what allows the furnaces to get hot enough to fire the clay.  Our tour is led by Abdellah Idrissi, who points out that his name is derivative of Fes founder Moulay Idriss II.  Abdellah is one of many craftsmen in the cooperative and he starts his tour by showing us large mounds of clay, all with fresh footprints from workers using their feet to work the clay to the desired consistency.  We then move to the pottery wheel and watch a craftsman spin out about 7 or 8 pieces in 15 minutes.  While the pottery is interesting, it is the mosaic process that is really unique.  We walked over to the furmah tiles, the raw materials for the mosaic pieces and Abdellah explains that these tiles are molded from a hardy clay from nearby Jebel Ben Jelliq.


Once the tiles are fired they can be scored and chiseled to break cleanly along straight lines.  From here we move over to the furnaces, two large bi-level clay kilns.  “The first floor is hotter–about 1,200 degrees–because that’s what terra cotta tiles need,” says Abdellah.  “The second floor is about 980 degrees because that’s what the coloring and glazing require.”  The tiles are fired twice; the first time in the hotter, lower furnace after being glazed and a second time in the upper level furnace after one side has been colored.  The principal colors are blue from cobalt, green from copper, yellow from cadmium and red from iron oxide.  The temperature is increased by feeding the kiln with more olive pomace.


From the furnace we move over to the craftsmen cutting the furmah pieces.  Islamic mosaic work is characterized by geometric multiple-point star, medallion and polygonal figures.  Start in the center of a multiple-point star pattern and follow one of the lines radiating outward until your eyes land upon a satellite star figure.  From there follow any of its lines and you’ll find yourself in the center of yet another multiple-point star pattern and on and on.  This subliminal sensation of movement is what gives the geometric designs their sense of life.  Islamic art forbids figures or likenesses, so its artisans have focused on creating stunning graphic and geometric shapes and patterns.  We watch craftsmen carefully chip away with hammers at tiles pieces, against an iron anvil and occasionally a terra cotta surface for the more delicate and detailed work.  The men working are paid by the shape and in a good day they can churn out over a hundred mosaic pieces.  Once the tiny pieces are cut and arranged into beautiful geometric patterns, they are placed face down on the ground.  The flat surface keeps the faces of fountains and the tops of tables flat as the patterns are held together with a sand-lime or cement mixture and allowed to dry upside down.

zeliig reversedZeliig pieces placed upside-down ready to be set.

The cycles of creation and destruction and re-creation of zellij are time consuming and therefore make it a relatively expensive art form.  From the elements of earth, water, and fire furmah tiles are created, only for craftsmen to slowly and skillfully destroy each one.  From here it is the zellij designers who re-create, putting the pieces together upside down in brilliant geometric patterns.  It is only when the entire process is finished –creating, destroying, re-creating –and the surface has been dried and turned over, can one appreciate the stunning work.

zeliig tiles

Original article on HandEye Magazine here

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