Those who weave in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco are often proficient spinners, as well. From a young age, girls learn to spin all types of yarn to produce different kinds of textiles for the home. You can read a bit about High Atlas textile usage in this blog post here. However, as more and more people buy ready-made items at local markets and weaving no longer brings in reasonable profits, fewer young women are learning to spin or weave.
On a recent trip to the High Atlas, I spent several days with some spinners to learn about their process and the terms they use for different types of yarn. Note that the names are in the local dialect of Tashelhit – the Amazigh (or Berber) language. The terms used in other regions may be different.
Like spinning in the Middle Atlas Mountains, the High Atlas tradition employs a supported spindle while seated. However, the spindle and technique are quite different. In this High Atlas village, the spindle used is not quite as long or thick as the Middle Atlas spindle. It is also twirled with the right hand rather than rolled against the leg. It reminded me a lot of the techniques demonstrated in some of Rosa Pomar and Tiago Pereira’s La em tempo real videos (warning – these videos are highly addictive and you may lose the greater part of an hour watching them).
In this video, you can see the spinner’s movements as she twirls the spindle and draws out the yarn from wool pulled straight off the carders.
Proficient spinners are able to make a wide range of yarn weights using this technique, but the most common are the following:
Pile Rug Weft: Tilmi
When making a pile rug, the weaver separates each knotted row with 4 or more rows of plain weave using Tilmi, a loosely spun yarn about the thickness of a chopstick. The number of plain weave rows between knotted rows plays a role in determining the thickness of the pile. The fewer the rows, the thicker the rug.
Pile Yarn: Ibilou
The yarn used to make the knots in a pile rug is called Ibilou. It can be made as a singles or 2-ply and may vary slightly in thickness depending on the weaver’s aesthetic for the rug she is making.
During my time in the mountains, I also encountered a few older women who spin with a small drop spindle and distaff made from a short piece of reed. The women told me that very few people do this today and the young women haven’t learned at all. When spinning this way, the spinner prepares her wool with combs, creating a worsted top that is wound around the reed distaff. In the video below, you can see how finely the spinner is able to spin using this method.
With the small spindle and distaff, the spinner can create the following two types of yarn:
Warp Thread: Id
This is a strong, thin yarn used to create the warp for weaving. The wool is worsted prepped and worsted spun. Today, the women rarely spin warp threads for their weaving as it takes an incredible amount of time to prepare enough thread. Cotton and acrylic thread can easily be bought at the local market.
Weft Thread for Cloth: Asousti
This thread is similar to Id, but it is woolen spun and used as the weft thread in cloth for clothing items like djellabas (hooded robe) and agoumez (women’s cape). A couple of the women showed me their handmade djellabas and agoumez made with Id and Asousti. They keep them tucked away in chests or suitcases and only pull them out for special occasions. Many of them were made by great-grandmothers, and none of them were new. These pieces are truly works of art and heirlooms to be treasured for future generations.
One more video. I just couldn’t resist. Make sure you watch until the end for a special treat!
A very big thank you to Noura and her family for welcoming me into their home and sharing so much about life in the High Atlas with me.
I’d also like to thank all of the ladies who were so kind and willing to share their craft with me.