Friday, December 24, 2010

Artisan weaving in Fez

Sy Hassane Kabil and his wife Isabelle run a hand-weaving atelier in Fez known as Dar al Tiraz - the house of embroidery.

The art of weaving this highly textured and ornamental fabric was one of the arts of Fez, but has long since been lost. The fabric, called lampas, was developed in the Middle East in the 11th century and was much more ornate than previous textiles had been. The art spread from Andalusia across to Fez somewhere in the 13th century.

Datatextil, a trade magazine that features Dar al Tiraz in its latest edition, explains that the lampas technique in Fez was enhanced by immigration to the city after the fall of Granada in 1492. The lampas was used by wealthy women as belts and was made of silk, often embellished with gold or silver thread. The belts were worn folded lengthwise and rolled several times around the waist. They became longer, wider and more colourful over time as fashions changed.

Lampas production is time-consuming and expensive as it is woven on hand-operated drawlooms. The art was kept alive in Fez until about a hundred years ago when it disappeared. Sy Hassane and Isabelle have now reinvented the techniques and are producing exquisite examples of the fabrics.

Sy Hassan is an artist as well as being a trained Jacquard engineer. His father was a prominent master-weaver who specialised in silk brocade; this, and the fact that he loves old fabrics, led Si Hassan to restore the art of lampas weaving. This was no easy task as he had to start from scratch by designing and building the drawlooms. There were no loom craftsmen left who knew how to make them.

Datatextil reports that the date and place of birth of the hand-operated drawloom is not precisely known. But it is clear that this complex handloom was long in use in many countries, from Japan and China in the far East, to Spain and Morocco in the far West. Although all hand-operated drawlooms follow the same fundamental scheme, adjustments were made in the various countries where they were adopted. The Arabo-Andalusian type in use at Dar al Tiraz is typical of Fez and was used in the brocade workshops for which the city is famous.

The contemporary textile industry, of course, is now computerised, so hand-operated looms – and even more so, drawlooms – might appear to some to be completely outdated. In most countries, the hand-operated drawloom was supplanted as early as the 19th century by the Jacquard loom, its direct offshoot. In order to master this old-time weaving technique, one needs not only a comprehensive knowledge of textile engineering, but also a great deal of passion and patience. The result, however, is well worth the effort: the fabrics produced by such looms is almost without equal.

Sy Hassan has been studying the textile arts for more than 25 years. In the course of his extended research and work with the craftsmen of Fez, he gained a large number of skills and became an expert in the textile field. His passion is drawing new patterns, and he enjoys learning about the history of handweaving on a worldwide scale.

Isabelle Riaboff is a doctor of ethnology and specialist of the Tibetan-speaking populations of the Western Himalayas, where she carried out research for more than 15 years. Since 2005, following a valuation which she conducted in Fez for UNESCO, in collaboration with the Ministère de l'Artisanat du Maroc, she has reorientated her research to focus on the Moroccan handweaving of figured fabrics.

What the couple are hoping to do now is prevent this outstanding knowledge from vanishing once again. Sy Hassan and Isabelle are happy to share their experience and knowledge with weavers, be they professional or amateurs, as well as with onlookers and travellers who want to know more about the amazing artisan heritage of the city of Fez. They have three dreams: to open an educational workshop for both visitors and students; to found a school dedicated to training young weavers so that the art will not be lost again; and to write a book about the history of the handweaving of figured fabric in Morocco and the weaving techniques related to drawlooms.

For more information, see
For technical details of the drawloom, see the Datatextil article in full here.


Anonymous said...

Excellent article and beautiful textiles...thank you for shedding light on this little-known area of Fes artistry.

Dominick said...

I am one of the lucky owners of a piece woven by Sy Hassan and his brother (please note it takes two people to operate such a complex loom)and it is one of my most treasured possessions. Best wishes to Sy Hassan & Isabelle in their quest to re-populate the world with lampas.