If yellow slippers and painted tagines are all the rage in the souks, textiles and weaving are really at the heart of true Moroccan art. Textile production is the most important artistic tradition in Morocco. The number of Moroccans involved in textiles and the range of materials used are immense. Textile production on a large scale in Morocco dates back to 1500 B.C. when the Amazighs of North Africa made use of fundamental weaving techniques used for practical, magical and religious purposes.
The Amazigh woman wove textiles used for shawls, blankets, carpets, tents, bags, pillows and mats. With time and practice she eventually learned more specialized weaving and dyeing techniques, adding a wide range of symbols, designs and artistic motifs. In the 7th century, textiles became an essential part of the Moroccan economy, which continues to this day.
The techniques created by Moroccan women have been preserved over the centuries, mainly because weaving and embroidery are a fundamental part of people's daily lives, but also because they are seen as a source of magic, protection, survival and power.
Moroccan tribal textiles are among the most dazzling and impressive in Africa. The variations in patterns, vivid colors, and variety of textures set them apart from other Islamic and African textiles.
The traditional weavings of Morocco are used for practical purposes. The weavings were intended to be used by the family to furnish the house or tent, and as personal clothing. Textiles can also serve as an indicator of the weaver's wealth, social status, and religious background, as well as the daily life of her tribe. Weaving allows her a rare freedom of expression, even within the limits of strictly conservative design traditions.
The city of De Sefrou, in the Middle Atlas, became in the 12th century a flourishing trade center where producers from the northern regions of Morocco and those from Tafilalet met to exchange crops, handicrafts and skins. It was also the starting point for the famous sub-Saharan caravan trade in which Morocco exchanged salt and skins for gold from the hard-packed mines of Black Africa, a trade that is now known as "unfair trade".
For centuries, this trade was financed by Jews who ran small "bank stores" known as "Hwanet tale'" in the medina of Sefrou and were the sponsors of the caravans that traveled for 44 days to Timbuktu in present-day Mali, led by Jewish guides respected for their leadership, fairness, patience, courage and initiative. They were known as azettat (because they carried long sticks displaying the azetta, a carpet cloth with the distinct patterns of each Amazigh tribe traveled in peace (aman)), which in the down-to-earth language means prepaid tithes of passage in peace. The colors of the carpets, azetta, and their different patterns were synonymous with peace and concord among the Amazigh people of yesteryear.
For the non nomadic peoples of Morocco, textiles can be used as furniture or interior decoration such as a bed, a chair, a blanket, a coat, a pillow, a trunk or a saddle. For the nomads, the carpet could become the roof, the doors, the walls or the partitions of a house. The "table" of most Moroccan households, whether a house or a tent, takes the form of a large rectangular carpet covering a couch. The vibrant colors and patterns of the carpets brighten houses and the generally dimly lit Riads of villages and towns.
Many decorative textiles are used in ceremonies and have a sacred status. A Handira, is used to wrap a bride on her way to her new home, it is a kind of protection against the ayn, the evil eye of the jealous, petty and wicked. Some blankets are used as funeral gifts. The finest carpets, blankets and cushions are used to decorate the tents of guests during festivals or worn and carried to graves to honor the saints and the dead.