“I learned to knit from my father, and he learned to knit from his father who learned to knit from his father going all the way back before people can remember. As far as I know, people have always knit here.” Hussein holds his skinny, double-pointed needles in his hands as he recounts what he knows of the craft in his High Atlas Mountain village. Although it is hot sitting in the sun on the roof of his rammed earth house, there is a cool breeze that hints at the harsh and snowy winter season that is just around the corner.
A young man emerges from the dark passageway that leads from the house to the roof. He has a pair of cream-colored socks in his hands. He passes them to his father, Hussein, who shows them to me. They are made of a sturdy knit fabric and show signs of use, but they are in excellent condition with no wear in the heels or toes. “A tightly knit fabric is important to keep out the snow and cold. You don’t want any holes between the stitches,” says Hussein as he pokes his finger into the sock fabric to show me how tightly knit it is. “A sock like this will last you many seasons,” he concludes. Several people with whom I spoke in the village confirmed this claim saying that the rugged hand-knit socks do a much better job of keeping their feet warm in winter.
Not far from us, Hussein’s wife, Atay Aisha, is sitting on a low stool spinning freshly prepared wool. Like many people in the village, Hussein and Atay Aisha have a small herd of sheep that provides their family with wool, meat, and cash when necessary. If they do not have enough of their own wool, Atay Aisha will supplement her stash with raw wool purchased from the local market. She twirls her long spindle on the ground next to her, drafting out a long, thin yarn with her left hand. She is preparing a delicate 2-ply yarn that Hussein will use to knit his socks.
Hussein grabs a ball of freshly spun yarn from his wife’s spinning box and begins to cast stitches onto one of his needles. He makes his own knitting needles from bicycle spokes, as they are the perfect width for achieving the tight fabric he prefers. According to Hussein, people used to carve knitting needles from a very hard wood found locally, but it appears that no one does this anymore.
I am fascinated watching his fingers manipulate the thin needles and yarn in a way that is so familiar yet foreign to me. It is clear that he has been making socks for many years. Hussein adeptly forms the stitches while he chats with those who have joined us on the sunny roof. I ask his adult sons if they have learned to knit. They smile and shake their heads.
In this village, it is mostly those of the older generation who posses the knowledge and ability to knit and to spin knitting yarn. Of those men who know how to knit, only a handful of them continue to do so as poor eyesight prevents the others from continuing their craft. Although many women both young and old continue to spin for the rugs they weave, very few young women have the level of skill needed to produce finer yarn for knitting. It is clear that as the older generation passes on, so to will the tradition of High Atlas knitting and its related spinning craft.
I am working to document knitting practices in the High Atlas to promote men and women like Hussein and Atay Aisha by making High Atlas knitting patterns available for their community as well as the greater global community. I work with High Atlas knitters to record their practices stitch-by-stitch and then adapt those patterns for a wider audience. Any sale of these patterns is divided so that the High Atlas knitter receives the greater portion of the proceeds.
If you are interested in contributing to the story of High Atlas Mountain knitting, please consider purchasing Hussein’s High Atlas Mountain Booties, a pattern that evolved from our first knitting sessions. You can purchase it on Ravelry here.
I am forever grateful to Hussein for teaching me how to knit socks his way; to his sons for translating from Tashelhit to Darija for me; and to his wife, Atay Aisha, for keeping us well fed. I am also extremely grateful to Noura and her family, especially her mother, for taking care of me and making me feel like part of the family. Tanimert bzef!