Weaving with Women in the Atlas Mountains
by Brooke Bobb
It was 5:00 a.m. in Marrakech and I could hear the call to prayer from my bed. Birds were already beginning to chirp and while this pre-dawn wake-up call would have been hell in a cold November New York, it was pretty blissful here. I had a five-hour car ride ahead of me with Robert Wright and Tiberio Lobo-Navia, the founders of custom Moroccan rug label Beni. We were driving out into the Atlas mountains to visit the women who weave their supply of traditionally handcrafted rugs and to see the process of washing and drying that happens before each piece is shipped off to its new owner’s well-appointed home in, say, Brooklyn or Venice Beach.
With the intention of giving interiors fanatics and first-time home decorators alike the option to choose from a range of designs and customize their rugs according to their preferred color palette and measurements. The rugs, which also include readymade options, are priced between $465 and $5,580. It works like this: a client designs their own rug directly on the site, a photo and size grid of which is then sent out to the various weavers in Morocco. In two to three weeks (sometimes longer, depending on the complexities and details), the rug is woven. Then, it takes another several week to be washed by hand and dried in the sun. Finally, it will be delivered via dhl shipping. Every two and a half weeks, Lobo-Navia—who is currently based in Marrakech while Wright runs things out of New York—visits the looms and checks on all of the orders. At first glance, it seems like a slightly complicated model, not only because the process of weaving a Moroccan rug is an ancient tradition that takes great time and care and human hands instead of modern machinery, but also because of inevitable language barriers, geographical complexities, inclement weather during the drying process and, of course, the imperfect nature of the craft itself.
I set off on that long road trip to see firsthand how it all actually comes together. I left my serene surroundings at the El Fenn riad in Marrakech and drove away with Wright, Lobo-Navia, and Ismail, their local business partner, surrounded by dark stillness in what is usually a manic and vibrant city center. After the sun finally rose and we stopped for a quick “Beldi” breakfast of tea, semen bread, and amlou (the Moroccan version of almond butter), we arrived in a town called Aguelmous. It was located far up in the Atlas mountains, a tiny place with a new main road being built at the end of a twisty cliffside highway. It is home to one of the bigger weaving centers, located across the street from a pastel-painted school so that the children of the mothers weaving there are close by. Beni currently works with 27 different looms scattered throughout the countryside, each of which are overseen and financed by local benefactors and the Moroccan government. In this location, there were around nine looms, with two or three women seated in front of each one.
It was quiet in the weaving center, save for the whispers that came from the smiling women, and the hammering sound of a metal comb used to push down and secure each row of knots tied on the loom. A curious little boy and a smiling baby were there too. I sat down on one of the low wooden benches next to a woman wearing a pink tunic, a matching pink and purple jacket and a bright blue hijab. She took my hand and patiently showed me how to loop and tie a knot. She spoke in Arabic and, though I couldn’t understand her, I knew what she was instructing me to do. Once your fingers start working, a certain flow begins.
The woman and her fellow weavers use only a small picture of the design for reference while crafting the rug. Their understanding of where the lines and shapes start and end is based solely on instinct, a knowledge bestowed upon them by their Berber mothers and grandmothers. One rug was hot pink and purple, decorated with traditional diamond patterns. Another was a deep blue and grey, crafted in the style of a Rothko painting. All of the yarn is hand-dyed and hand-spun using raw wool. Wright and Lobo-Navia studied the stacks of fluffy yarn piled on the floors of one room. They assessed how low they were on certain colors, how they had too much of others. After surveying the yarn, they began to measure the halfway done rugs on the looms. Most were precise; one was off by a centimeter or two. Traveling to more of the looms in the area, they continued to measure and to ensure that the grey was grey enough for one client, the black, dark enough for another.
When we arrived in the river valley in Khenifra where the washing and drying are done, the sun was getting ready to set. A barking dog was stationed on the roof of a small home and a family of goats was starting their dinner in a shed next to the driveway. Finished rugs hung like precious wet artwork, some still damp and others soaked. After the weaving is done, each rug is brought here to be washed over and over again with water, brushed with brooms, and later hung out to dry in the sun. If it rains for days on end, as it tends to do in the fall, the process slows down—the rugs have to be dried outdoors.
The guard dog on the roof went to sleep just as a crescent moon appeared in a lavender sky. Wright and Lobo-Navia were still inspecting all of the rugs, getting down on their hands and knees to touch the freshly washed surfaces, measure the height and width, and to update the document of current orders. They discussed which rugs would be brought to Marrakech for shipping that week and which still needed time to dry. Watching them work, I could hear the evening call to prayer faintly in the distance.
On my end of the world, where boxes magically appear a day after they're ordered, it’s easy to forget how our material possessions are made. As the founders of Beni set about marrying the idea of a digital-facing brand with the hand-crafted, they wanted to tell the story of the weavers and the washers, the people who live in these remote towns in the Atlas Mountains and work hard at their ancient craft. Wright and Lobo-Navia are sending a powerful message to those of us who often fall hard for conspicuous consumption. These rugs are worth the money, the wait, and the design hiccups because they're intentionally made by human hands.
There is one Arabic phrase that I noticed Moroccans seem to say a lot: “Inshallah.” It means “God willing,” and it mainly translates to the English phrase, “let’s hope so.” In Marrakech commerce specifically, Inshallah is a guiding principle of everyday life. Will the pomegranates arrive from the farm to the food stall? Inshallah. Will the sellers of caftans and turmeric make a profit even after the inevitable bargaining tango? Inshallah. Can one of the many hundreds of makers craft a lamp, a chair, or a rug to the exact specifications of a foreign buyer? Inshallah. In other words, the end result is often up in the air, but it’s the process that matters most. Traditional creations being stitched and woven, with all of their intricate imperfections and glorious outcomes, are what makes Marrakech so magical.
Support Atlas Mountains Women WeaversOur cooperative currently provides economic opportunities for 38 women around the Atlas mountains who weave beautiful rugs that are sold in our store. They receive 75% of the profits made, which goes a long way in supporting families across the region. We would like to increase both the number of women we support and the amount they make through new projects as well as more materials and equipment.
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On behalf of all the women weavers living in the Atlas mountains, thank you for your kind support. Choukran!