Spinning in Morocco’s Middle Atlas Mountains

Last week, I spent a few days with Mustapha, an Anou artisan leader, and his family. They live in a small Middle Atlas town near the Ifran river. The goal of my trip was to learn about the spinning techniques used by the women in this area. After some mint tea and under the watchful eyes of the children, Mustapha and the ladies of Cooperative Nahda shared their spinning expertise with me.

First, one woman fluffs the cleaned wool, picking out pieces of vegetal matter (VM) as she goes.

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Once a fairly large pile of fluffed wool has been amassed, one or two women will begin carding. They pass the wool back and forth between the carders until the wool is free of noils and VM and looks nice and smooth. This can take awhile depending on the quality of the wool and how clean it is.

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Once they finish carding, they roll the fiber sheet off of the carder to create a rolag.

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Now, the spinner is ready to get to work. In this Middle Atlas region, the women use a long spindle. It is made of a single piece of wood that tapers to a point on both ends. One end is weighted by a thickening of the wood that may or may not have designs carved into it. The spinner sits on the ground and rolls the long end of the shaft up or down her leg depending on whether she wants a Z or an S twist in the yarn. If spinning outside, she may place one end of the spindle against a mound of grass to stabilize the spindle as she spins. Inside, she may use a bowl like the spinner in this video.

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Once the spinner has spun as much yarn as she can, she unwinds it by stretching out her foot and passing the yarn from the spindle around her foot and her other outstretched hand. When all of the yarn has been removed from the spindle, she twists it tightly before taking it off of her foot and letting it wind back on itself into a skein.

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With these simple tools and techniques, the women are able to spin a wide variety of yarn – from tightly spun thin yarn used for the warp in a rug to soft, fat yarn used for the weft when making thick blankets. On average, it takes a spinner about 12 hours to produce 1 kilogram of yarn. An 8’x10′ rug requires roughly 20 kilograms of yarn. That’s at least 20 full days of spinning that goes into that rug!

While it is still fairly easy to find women who can spin yarn by hand today, it is a skill that is beginning to disappear. The time and effort it takes to process wool and spin yarn is not usually calculated into the cost of rugs, which is one of the many reasons why Moroccan rugs are often sold at such cheap prices by middlemen on Etsy and Instagram. Because of this, it is not economically worthwhile for women to make rugs anymore. Younger women no longer take as much interest in learning spinning and weaving since they cannot earn enough money to survive as weavers.

At some weekly souks, or markets, it is possible to find hand spun yarn for sale by the kilo. The women who make these yarns usually earn only 20 MAD or roughly $2 USD for 1 kilo of yarn, which is 12 hours of work. This is quite low in comparison to the agricultural minimum wage, which is 70 MAD or roughly $7 USD. One can’t help but wonder if this is yet another example of women’s work being valued less.

The artisans are trying to turn this phenomenon around by educating the public about the immense amount of work that goes into a 100% handmade Moroccan rug. The artistry of Moroccan rugs does not begin with the weft passing through the warp. It begins with the shearing of the sheep, the washing of the wool, and the spinning of the yarn.

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All of the tools used by the women can be found at the weekly souk, or market. Some women inherit their tools from their mother or grandmothers. The following tools are shown next to a 10 MAD coin, which is roughly the size of a USD quarter or 2 Euro coin.

Middle Atlas Spindle (Arabic: maghzal / Tashelhit: izdi)

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Wool Carders (Arabic: Qarshal)

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I would like to thank Mustapha and Hanan for being such wonderful hosts, as well as all of their friends and family for the warm welcome they gave me. Shukran bzef!

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