The Berber Rugs

Berbers were the original inhabitants in the North of Africa and for thousands of years they were completely isolated from any external influence. “Berber” proceeds from the word “barbarian”, the name Romans used to refer to them. However, they call themselves as “amazigh” which means “free men”.

They do not form a nation or a state although they still claim for their rights as an independent culture and spread across the Maghreb (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Western Sahara). In this chapter of our Blog we only will refer to their Moroccan rugs.

From time immemorial, Moroccan Berber rural people and shepherds based their economy on sheep and their wool used by women to weave rugs, which fully reflect the importance of wool in every aspect of Berbers life. The rugs are artisanal handmade with sheep wool using simple wood looms either vertical or horizontal, laid on the floor. The loom size restricted the rug wide to 2 meters approximately; the size needed by a family to sleep, and it is very rare to find an old rug which is not long and quite narrow.

Culture and tradition within every Berber community may be very different among regions. So and depending on the tribe, rugs may show different styles, colours and weave techniques even belonging to the same generic type.

At present, most used and known rugs may be classified as 4 basic types, described as follows.

Beni Ouarain rugs’ origin is the Beni Ouarain tribe, living in the Atlas Mountains, and were created in view of the high mountain hard winters. Traditionally, these rugs show a neutral or a cream colour, with dark brown geometrical lines which may even be black when using the sheep head wool. Originally, their purpose was not decorative and were used to cover the floor of the Berber tents in order to keep heat during the cold nights in the mountain or deserts as well as bed linen. So, they usually were large and narrow as well as thick and heavy.

In the northern cold regions, the rugs were mainly hand-weaved with 100% natural sheep wool. In gentle climate regions, Beni Ouarain rugs were generally used as mats or to cover chairs and were therefore smaller and light-weighted. In the warmer south regions, women used cotton as a basis but the rug knots were made of wool.

At present, the Beni Ouarain rugs are very popular among interior designers as they match almost any type of decoration.

The Moroccan Kilims were originally created by the Central Asia nomadic people to heat the floor of their tents and wrap their essentials. Later on, they spread towards Eastern Europe and North Africa and kilims are considered as the oldest rugs in the world.

At present, kilims are considered as an object of desire due to the enormous variety of models and colours, its beauty and personality to cover home floors and walls. But… let’s go bit by bit!

“Kilim” is a word of Turkish origin meaning the “colours are not mixed” and referring to rugs which never mix colours, and any time the colour is changed a new strip appears on the rug. They are hand-made and do not have pile knots, i. e., they do not have “pile” at all.

Kilim is hand-weaved using natural fibers such as wool and cotton and silk in some occasions. The geometric motifs like diamonds or triangles are the most used, with bright colours, such as dark red, magenta, mauve, pink, orange or brown, obtained with natural dyes like henna or other extracted from plants, insects and minerals. Likely the thick Beni Ouarain rugs, every tribe used different traditions when weaving a kilim.

In Nordic countries where the white colour is most used, kilims make give colour and warmth to decoration. After all, kilims are basic in Arabian and Moroccan decoration of floors and walls.

The Boucherouite rug appeared on the market around the 60’s when the shepherding suffered a decline and, at the same time, Berber rugs demand increased leading female artisans to use every type of material they had on hand. “Boucherouite” is an Arabic word meaning “piece of used clothing” thus transforming rugs in a domestic hand-made marvelous and extravagant coloured variety: rag strips, threads of recycled clothes, wool, calf pieces, cotton and in some models lurex, nylon and pieces of plastic bags.

The colours of these materials are brighter and audacious and the female weavers started to use non-traditional styles, free and non-symmetrical form based on tribal symbols and original motifs such as squares and Chevron, a heraldic symbol similar to a compass.

The Azilal rug’s origin is the remote and precipitous Azilal region at the High Atlas Mountains, at the south of the Beni Mellal town.

They are weaved by Berber women for their domestic use and are 100% virgin wool, showing alternative patterns made of 1 only line of knots and 1 or 2 lines weaved in accordance with a ritual transmitted from mother to daughter during many generations.

In terms of design, the Azilal rugs combine abstract and irregular patterns with many Berber symbols. They frequently decorated with other materials such as cotton and wool dyed with vegetal colours or recycled fabric threads of different colours.

These rugs mean the history of every female artisan and are decorated with tribal symbols referring mainly to their rural works, birth labour and maternity. These rugs were weaved as personal and domestic, not for sale, and to face the High Atlas cold. However and at present, they are used in our eastern countries as floor covers and mainly as wall-hanging interior decoration.

The Azilal rugs were unknown in the market until the 90’s. As a result of the female weavers imagination they are considered as true works of art comparable to abstract painting. From Paris to New York passing through Tokyo many art galleries exhibit these rugs as works of art. Its strength and originality were a true inspiration to artists like Matisse, Paul Klee and Le Corbusier.