Melting snow dripped from the eaves of the rammed-earth homes. My friend and I carefully picked our way through the slick mud of the narrow path that wound between the multi-storied buildings, trying our best to avoid the bone-chilling drops. Eventually, the path widened to a small square flanked on all sides by dwellings with timber doors. A small gray donkey was parked in front of one home. The saddle blanket and panier draped across its back suggested that its owner would be back momentarily.
A man came ambling through the square from another path on the opposite side. My friend stopped him and they exchanged a few words. The man poked his head through the doorway of one of the homes and shouted something to the inhabitants. A few seconds later an older man stepped out of the shadowy doorway and into the sunlight that warmed the square. He wore a dark brown, heavy, woolen djellaba and a black and white striped knit hat. His eyes were a bluish-gray.
My friend approached him and they exchanged a few words in Shliha, the language spoken by the Amazigh in this area of the High Atlas. The man made an expression of surprise that quickly turned into a smile as he looked at me. I approached them both and asked my friend what was happening. “The needles, do you have them?” I looked at her quizzically and then rummaged through my bag. I pulled out my needle case and took out a set of double-pointed wooden knitting needles. “Will these work?” I asked. “Yes, yes,” she said offering them to the man. He inspected them and then shouted up towards the window of one of the homes. Shortly, a young woman appeared in the doorway with a skein of un-dyed ibilou, a type of handspun, wool yarn used by women to make pile carpets. He untwisted the skein and looped one end over his wrist.
“Moah’s going to show you how he knits pants,” said my friend. “Oh! Right now? Here? In the street?” I asked. She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “Can I take a video?” I asked. “Of course! No problem,” she responded. Moah began to cast on as I whipped out my phone to record what he was doing. His hands were a bit shaky. I couldn’t tell if it was from the chill in the air, excitement, or nervousness from being watched. He carefully joined the round and began to knit as we all stood in the muddy square. I was quite surprised to see that he was knitting the way I do – inserting the working needle through the front leg of the stitch, which is often associated with the western style of knitting. When Hussein showed me how to knit socks, I noticed that he worked in the eastern style, inserting his working needle into the back leg of the stitch rather than the front.
Suddenly, the young woman appeared again in the doorway and said a few words in Shliha. Moah stopped knitting and extended his hand towards the door. “Let’s go inside.” I followed the woman into the dark entryway and down a short passage that passed a barn entrance before terminating at a hallway with three doors on either side and a window at the end. We were welcomed into a long, narrow room adorned with handmade carpets, a short, round, wooden table, and a TV set at one end. Being a Friday afternoon, the Muslim holy day, a religious program was playing on the television filling the room with the lone voice of a man singing suras from the Koran.
Moah took a seat at the far end of the room and motioned that we should follow him. We both took a seat on either side of him as he continued to knit. The young woman entered again with a tray that had a silver teapot and small glasses arranged under a hand-embroidered cloth. She placed the tray on the table and left. As Moah knitted, we chatted about knitting and the history of the village.
Moah learned to knit when he was about eighteen years old from my friend’s uncle. The two of them would herd sheep together in the mountains surrounding the village. My friend’s uncle would knit as the sheep grazed, and Moah would watch him, eventually picking up the craft, too. According to Moah, the uncle may have learned to knit from a Jewish man who used to live in the village. Until 1948, there had been a long history of Jews living in the High Atlas and many villages had a Jewish community. My friend said that it was not uncommon for people of different faiths to be friends and work together. However, the Jewish people of the area all immigrated to Israel when it was created, and all that is left are the ruins of the rammed-earth homes where they lived.
According to Moah, all of the men used to wear knit pants in the wintertime. Being made of wool from their sheep, the pants were very warm and perfect for keeping out the snow and cold. In the High Atlas, snow typically falls between November and March. The highest peaks can be covered with snow almost all year round. When there is heavy snow, the flat-roofed buildings must be cleared so that the roofs don’t collapse. This is typically a man’s job; and in the past, the men would wear knitted pants while they worked. Moah said that you could go into snow waist deep while wearing knit pants and not feel cold. However, the fashion has died out, and the last pair of pants he knit was in 1985 for a fellow villager who paid Moah to make him a pair.
It’s unclear exactly how long people have been knitting in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. The French artist, Jean Besancenot, produced gouache paintings of Moroccan dress between 1934 and 1939. Two of these depict a woman from the Middle Atlas wearing knitted leg warmers and a man from the High Atlas wearing the pants Moah was showing me how to knit. Besancenot noted that the pants were used by hunters who would spend long hours in the snow while hunting mouflon. He also remarks that the pants must have ancient origins, and that they are depicted on Etruscan vases. However, as far as I know, there currently is no archaeological evidence of these pants or knitting in Morocco. The most we have is the living tradition that exists today, the oral histories of the people from these areas, and any written accounts from historians of the past. What does seem certain is that people have been knitting in the Atlas Mountains for quite some time; and that until quite recently, knitting played an important role in local textile traditions for keeping people warm.