Keepers of the Sheep: Knitting in Morocco’s High Atlas and Beyond

Keepers of the Sheep: Knitting in Morocco’s High Atlas and Beyond documents the knitting tradition of shepherds in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains. It is the culmination of three years of research, interviews, participant observation, and writing. Seven essays and thirteen patterns give the reader a glimpse of life in a High Atlas village and the important role knitting once played there. The book also explores the history of knitting in Morocco taking the reader backwards in time from Morocco, through Algeria, into Spain and Tunisia, and eventually Egypt, where historians believe knitting may have originated. Despite North Africa’s deep connection to knitting, very little has been written about this corner of the knitting world. Keepers of the Sheep: Knitting in Morocco’s High Atlas and Beyond fills this gap by presenting what remains of an age old knitting tradition and examining the available historical and artifactual evidence – some of which has not been shared in knitting books before. Included in the book are patterns from High Atlas shepherds, contemporary designs inspired by the High Atlas, and others recreated from historical accounts and artifacts. This book brings to life a North African knitting tradition that has all but disappeared.

I am extremely grateful to the shepherds with whom I worked and hope this book fulfills their wish to pass on their knowledge to future generations. As requested by the shepherds, a portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to their village’s women’s co-operative, Cooperative Ibilou. Without the welcoming support and encouragement of Cooperative Ibilou’s members, I never would have met their husbands, fathers, uncles, and brothers who are the knitters of their village. The cooperative will use the funds for projects that will benefit the entire community.

Find This Book

Buy Directly from the Author

EU: Retrosaria Rosa Pomar and Retrosaria Serafina

UK: Daughter of a Shepherd and Wild and Woolly

USA: Wild Hand

For wholesale enquiries, please contact Irene here.

What People Are Saying

Rosa Pomar, Retrosaria Rosa Pomar, “There are knitting books and knitting books and if I had to choose one very special book from our shop I would choose this one. Maybe it’s because I love the history of knitting as much as knitting itself, maybe because I had the pleasure of meeting (Irene) during her research, maybe because Irene’s book reveals men knitting wool trousers using a new (to me and I bet for you too) way of carrying your yarn when working stripes.”

Rachel Atkinson, Daughter of a Shepherd, in reference to Hussein Mardi’s Tqasher Jadeed/New Socks pattern – “The pattern is designed to fit the individual foot and have to say, I think they’re the best fitting socks I’ve ever made!”

Paula Spranger, Retrosaria Serafina, “The book is even better than I thought. It’s so interesting to read and the patterns are wonderful.”

Jenny Dean, author of Wild Colour, “Beautiful and clearly the result of much painstaking research and experimentation. It’s the ideal combination of the practical and informative with plenty of background and historical detail.”

Erin Pirro, Morehouse Farm Merino, “Fantastic narrative of an amazing place and it’s rich wool craft traditions. I’ve gotten to experience just the basics first hand and am thrilled to have Irene take us behind the scenes. I cast on the Shabka/Trellis Socks as soon as the book arrived and am learning some amazing new techniques! It’s so freeing to have the directions result in a project that fits instead of just following and counting, following and hoping. I can’t wait to give a second copy to a dear friend. Thank you Irene – this isn’t just a story, it’s the heritage of our craft.”

Laura-Lee, Etsy Customer, “By any criteria, this book is top-drawer. It’s a wonderful ethnographic study; the photographs are worthy of an award all by themselves; the knitting patterns are interesting and clearly written. It would be of interest to anthropologists, knitters, and anyone who enjoys owning a beautiful book.”

Katherine, Etsy Customer, “Love this book! We live in Morocco at the moment and it is so fun to read the essays and learn about the cultural and historic aspect of the patterns. I have not seen any books like this. The pictures are beautiful. Can’t wait to try out the patterns. Should be a fun gift for anyone that loves textiles and crafting. Awesome job, Irene!”

Emily, Etsy Customer, “Wow. Blown away by this book and the care that went into making it, and how it honors the amazing humans who make up the book. Cannot wait to cast on some socks!! Thank you. This book will be a treasure to reference for generations to come.”

Washing Wool in the High Atlas

How do Cooperative Ibilou artisans create such fluffy, clean clouds of carded wool for spinning? It all starts with a walk to the river with a bundle of fresh High Atlas sheep wool. You can read more about the washing process and how the wool is spun in my article published in Ply Magazine’s Summer 2020 issue.

Below are some photos and videos that illustrate the process. Please note that High Atlas sheep produce wool that is low in lanolin, so this cold wash method works very well. When I tried this method with some merino wool, which is very high in lanolin, it didn’t work well at all. The lanolin was like velcro – it kept the VM and other debris firmly stuck in the wool.

walking to the river – in the early summer, the river is quite low in some spots

gently opening the locks and placing the wool in a bucket to soak with water

squeezing out the water

beating the soaked wool to break up clumps of dung, dirt, and debris

washing the wool in the flowing water after beating the wool
all of the wool is washed in the river with no soap – the running water pulls unwanted matter away
the washed wool
after drying, the wool is fluffed and pulled apart by hand removing any leftover VM
if there is still too much VM, combs are used to take out the excess – if not, the wool is immediately carded

Other posts related to High Atlas spinning:

Spinning in Morocco’s High Atlas

Morocco’s Knitted Pants

Timloukine_streetsMelting 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.

IMG_7451It’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.


Men Who Knit: A High Atlas Knitting Tradition in Morocco



“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!

Spinning Yarn in Morocco’s High Atlas Tradition

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.

Tanimert bzef!

How the Amazigh Use Their Famous “Berber Rugs”

Berber-style rugs from Morocco are extremely popular around the world. You can find photos of them on Instagram and Pinterest decorating living rooms, bedrooms, and even bathrooms. Danielle Blundell from Apartment Therapy shares her hypothesis for why in this comprehensive piece that also includes a photo of a Citizenry rug made by artisans of the Anou community of cooperatives.

But have you ever wondered how the people who make these rugs use these rugs? There’s a reason why traditional Moroccan pile rugs come in what we might consider odd dimensions for a room. Some are long and narrow and about the size of a person. Others are very long and narrow, but much too wide for a hallway. During my last trip to the mountains, I was lucky to experience first-hand how these textiles fit into Amazigh life.


Many Amazigh, or Berber, of the High Atlas Mountains still live in traditional-style, rammed earth homes made by the men of the village. The rooms of these buildings are often long and narrow with a door on one end and a window on the other. When the women aren’t tending to the animals, cleaning, or cooking, they spend time spinning or working at their vertical looms to create the textiles that furnish their homes.

The long rooms of the house are often decked out in several layers of long, narrow rugs with thick cushions generously laid out along the walls. I happened to visit in the summertime, so the family I was staying with had laid out flat-weave rugs (white and brown in the photo below) topped with pile rugs, warp-side up.


During the day, people sit on the floor, leaning against the cushions. A low, wooden table might be brought in for tea and snacks when guests arrive.

At night, the room is transformed into a bedroom. First, the cushions are moved to the side and the long pile rug used as a floor covering is doubled over as seen in this picture:


Then, a smaller “bed-sized” pile rug is placed on top:


Here’s a better look at the design on this beautiful rug that was handmade by the oldest daughter:


I asked her if 2009 was a significant year. She told me, no, it’s just the year the rug was made. Then, another pile rug is added on top:


This one was also made by the same daughter:


And, another:


This larger one was made by the mother back when her children were small and didn’t help with the weaving:


Once the sleeper is happy with the thickness of the bed, a pillow and sheet or blanket finishes it off. Since it was fairly warm, we just used thin sheets to keep us comfortable as we slept.


I spent an entire week sleeping very comfortably on my pile of thick Berber carpets. It reminded me a lot of spending the night at my Japanese great-grandmother’s house in Yokohama, Japan where we slept on futons on the floor.

Today, Amazigh weavers produce carpets to fit international taste and style. This has caused some trouble as we often want rugs that are large enough to fit in our rather square living rooms. But, the weavers are eager to please their customers and have come up with ingenious ways of getting longer loom pieces into their homes.

Life is also changing in High Atlas villages, and not everyone continues to sleep on homemade textiles. Just as certain clothing items have gone out of fashion, replaced by cheaper alternatives and more modern styles, the use of pile rugs for bedding may not survive into the future. I have a feeling that I was lucky indeed to have spent time with a family who still produces traditional rugs for home use.

Yarn Weights in Morocco’s Middle Atlas Mountains

In many countries around the world, knitting yarn is available in different thicknesses or weights. Each weight has its own name, so it’s easy for knitters to describe exactly what they’re using for a given project. A knitter might choose a fingering weight yarn for socks or a light shawl; a sport or DK weight yarn for a Fair Isle-inspired sweater; or a chunky yarn for a blanket. Weaving yarns in Morocco are no different. In the Middle Atlas, each type of yarn has its own name and is associated with different kinds of projects. What follows are some of the yarn types we learned about on a recent trip. Note that the names are in the local dialect of Tashelhit – an Amazigh (or Berber) dialect.

Araaf: This is a thin, tightly spun yarn used for the warp in weaving projects. It’s visible as the tassels on a rug or from the back of the weaving.


The black yarn in the tassels are Araaf.

Tafardast: This is a thin, loosely to moderately spun yarn used for the weft in weaving projects. You can find it in djellabas (the hooded robe worn by many Moroccans) and Hanbels. The Hanbel is a type of flat weave rug found throughout Morocco.


The red yarn in this Hanbel is Tafardast.

Uzleeg and Uzleeg Sgheer: This is a tightly spun, bulky yarn used primarily in hand knotted rugs like the famous Beni Ourain. Hand knotted rugs, also known as pile rugs, are referred to as “zarbiya” in the Middle Atlas region we visited. Beni Ourain is the name of a specific Middle Atlas tribe that is associated with the ubiquitous natural cream with dark brown or black linear designs. You can read more about the Beni Ourain here. Uzleeg Sgheer is simply a thinner version of Uzleeg. Sgheer means small in Arabic.


The natural cream and black yarn in this zarbiya is Uzleeg.

Kharri and Kharri Sgheer: This is a very loosely spun, super chunky yarn. Some people might consider this pencil roving, and it could probably be used for projects that require pencil roving. This super soft, very fluffy yarn is used for the weft in the local Btaniya blankets. These are soft, fuzzy blankets that develop a natural nap with use. They are perfect for keeping warm during the harsh mountain winters. Kharri Sgheer is the thinner version of Kharri.

Kharri Sgheer (left); Kharri (right)

The weft in this Btaniya blanket is Kharri.

All of these yarns are made with wool from local Middle Atlas sheep and are prepared with carders and a long spindle. You can read more about tools and techniques in this blog post here.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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)


Wool Carders (Arabic: Qarshal)



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!

Notes on Wool: Sample #1

Through my Notes on Wool series, I explore various types of wool available in Morocco. As a new spinner, I am also using this opportunity to learn about the process of turning raw wool into yarn suitable for knitting (my preferred craft medium). What follows are the steps I took, their results, and my observations so that I don’t forget what I’ve learned.

Approximately 600 grams of unknown fleece from a Moroccan couch maker located in Rabat’s Old City. He uses this wool to stuff the long, bench-like couches that flank living room walls.


A close-up of the unknown wool. It appears to have been washed as it does not have a greasy feel and it is fairly free of debris. However, it still has bits of VM and possible feces and urine marks from the sheep. This is not a complete fleece and appears to be odds and ends mixed together.


The staple length appears to be between 5.25 inches and 7.5 inches. The fibers appear to be quite smooth with very little to no crimp.


After 3 to 4 passes through the combs, the fibers line up nicely and almost all of the VM is gone. I removed a few noils as I combed, but there remain a few. The combed wool has a rustically soft hand, and it feels quite fluffy.


The combed top pulls through my makeshift diz fairly easily. The staple is fairly long, so I am able to pull in long-ish chunks.


I encountered a couple of noils as I pulled the top through my diz. I carefully removed these to create as smooth a top as possible.


A close-up of the combed top.


I’m still new to spinning and am working on consistency. My preferred mode of spinning is park-and-draft. I used a top whorl Ashford spindle and a mostly worsted draft.


I used very hot tap water with some dish soap in it to set the twist. There probably shouldn’t have been so many suds, but I think it worked, anyway. After filling up my wash basin, I placed the skein on top and allowed it to sink to the bottom of its own accord. Once on the bottom, I let it soak there a few minutes more. Then, I gently removed it from the bath, rinsed my sink out and filled it with very hot tap water. I let the skein soak in this for a few minutes before removing it, gently squeezing out the water, and then laying it out to dry.


I used US 7 knitting needles to make a swatch.


This swatch was soaked in cold water and gently pinned to dry. There are 15.5 stitches in 4 inches and 23 rows in 4 inches. It has an overall fuzzy halo, and the feel is rustic but soft. It is less scratchy than Icelandic wool and could be worn next bare skin on your arm. I wore it tucked into the collar of my shirt for half an hour and did not notice it too much.

Time Traveling to a Green Sahara

“You see those tiny rocks there? Those used to be plants,” said Dr. Paul Adderley, a soil scientist who was giving me a tour of Gobero, a 10,000 year old world in the middle of Niger’s Sahara desert.

We were standing on a low ridge looking across the barren earth stretching far beyond the horizon. As the wind kicked up, a sheet of sand moved across our feet.

“When this was a lake, there were reed-like plants living in the shallow areas along the banks. These plants left mineral deposits forming the little black rocks you see today.”

Fossilized plants along the edge of a Holocene lake.


Plant remains are not the only things that have been revealed by the shifting Saharan sands. As we walked down into the depression that had been a lakebed during the early Holocene period (approximately 11,700 years ago), we scanned the ground covered with rock-like debris. Fragments of fossilized turtle shells, the scattered skeleton of a hippopotamus, and the needle-like bones of fish lay on the desert floor in much the same position they had taken after falling to the muddy depths of their ancient home millennia ago.

Amongst the petrified bones were stone arrowheads in a multitude of colors and broken pieces of harpoon made of bone. The animals of the Green Sahara were not alone.

An ancient metate possibly used to grind wild rice.


On the other side of the lakebed at the top of a gentle rise, hundreds of people lay buried just below the ephemeral surface. Two paleontologists were lying on their sides gently brushing the sand away to reveal the knee of a tightly wrapped skeleton.



“Gobero is extremely apropos,” Paul Sereno, the University of Chicago paleontologist leading the expedition, told me later under twinkling stars after dinner. “It witnessed the passage of two peoples who flourished and were vanquished by climate change.”

About 12,000 years ago, Africa’s seasonal rain patterns shifted slightly to the north creating a wetter environment in the Sahara. From 10,000 to 8,000 years ago, tall hunters known as the Kiffians exploited Gobero’s verdant lake and buried their dead along its shores. As the climate became arid and the lake disappeared, all life abandoned the area for the next 1,000 years.

When humidity returned to the region and the lake once again teemed with plants and animals, a shorter, more gracile group of cattle-herders known as the Tenerians took up residence at Gobero where they lived from about 6,500 to 4,500 years ago.

Like their Kiffian predecessors, the Tenerians left behind a legacy of arrow heads, harpoons, potsherds, stone metates, and unique burials at the top of the gentle rise along the shores of the lake. Mysteriously, they buried their dead beside the Kiffians without disturbing the earlier sites.

But once again, the lake dried up and its residents disappeared. Gobero has remained part of the dry, inhospitable Sahara ever since.

As the shifting sands expose more artifacts, time is running out to learn as much as we can from the ancient inhabitants of Gobero.


“Gobero’s story is important to today’s world in which we see climate change,” continued Dr. Sereno. “How do people react to climate change? Will we be able to adapt?”

As industries around the world pump toxins into our waterways and spew pollutants into the air, the story of Gobero is a reminder of how fragile our existence is on this Green Planet. Without water, we cannot survive.



With the muted light of the full moon behind him, Dr. Sereno concluded, “Both (the Kiffians and the Tenerians) lived off the fat of the land – fish in the lake, animals who came to drink – as long as they could, and when it ended… they moved somewhere else… and the story here ended.”

Driving back to modern civilization across the trackless Sahara, I thought about the fact that unlike these early Saharan peoples, we do not have anywhere else to go.

Barcan dunes in the distance.