Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Beni Ouarain Weavers Face Competition From Cheap Knock-offs

Without doubt, the most famous of the Moroccan Amazigh (Berber) carpets are those of the Beni Ouarain, a confederation of seventeen Amazigh tribes.  Now their unique corner of the carpet market is under threat from cheap Chinese, Turkish Indian and Egyptian copies

Located in the Middle Atlas, the nomadic Beni Ouarain probably began to settle south and southeast of the range of mountains known as Jebel Bouiblane around the 9th century AD, but it is suspected that the flat weaving tradition they brought with them is considerably older. Genuine Beni Ouarain carpets are much sought after and the demand for them has fuelled imitations. 

An old Beni Ouarain

According to respected Moroccan carpet expert, Si Mohammed Bouzidi, the Chinese machine made copies are produced in their hundreds and can be sold for a fraction of the price of an original. However, he points out "you can easily detect the frauds by inspecting the reverse side of the carpet. The irregular knotting is a sign of the genuine Beni Ouarain".

The sale of fake Beni Ouarain rugs has reached a point where some web sites are using the name Beni Ouarain as if it were simply a style of carpet, no matter where it was made. One site described their fake rugs as... "Moroccan Beni Ouarain rugs are basically North American tribal designs, Rough geometric motifs and bold colors represent Moroccan Rugs. With Moroccan patterns on it these rugs are luxurious and perfect for every kind of home décor. This rug is fully hand woven in India by best of Indian artisans. Because of such unique cress-cross patterns every piece you take is the only piece, one of its kinds."

Checking the knots on the reverse side of a genuine Beni Ouarain
Detail of a new Beni Ouarain

Si Mohammed explains that the Beni Ouarain produced their rugs, not as carpets, but as bedding, blankets and as capes (handira). 'They were essentially used as protection against the cold," he says.

1920s Beni Ouarain
Gebhart Blazek is a specialized dealer in Moroccan carpets and textiles and one of the few who has done the research. He spent more than 18 months in field-research projects in Northern Africa since 1992 and is a constant contributor to international conferences and specialized publications. Gebhart Blazek agrees with Si Mohammed Bouzidi about the functionality of the rugs as a method of protection. "The loose structure of the rugs, which adjust to the shape of the body and offer effective protection against the cold."

It might seem surprising that in addition to rugs which, in their archaic character, suggest the origins of the pile weaving tradition itself, the Beni Ouarain also produced sophisticated flatweaves. The structure of their pile rugs is based on function — the number of wefts and the high pile being essential for good insulation — and design possibilities are therefore limited. But by contrast, Beni Ouarain weavers were able to display all their technical skill in the making of women's flatwoven shawls, some of the finest and technically most demanding of Moroccan textiles. As none of the other tribes appear to have produced flatweaves of such complexity, it seems reasonable to assume that the Beni Ouarain played a central role in the textile development of the Middle Atlas nomads, and that their work may even be linked to a far more ancient tradition.- Gebhart Blazek
An example of a handira from around 1900
A modern handira
There are three distinct types of shawls or coats (arab.: handira), whose names correspond to a particular technique and design density. The finest, known as tabrdouhte, are worn only on special occasions. They are like a pattern book, with up to seventy closely packed decorative rows in a sophisticated weft-wrapping technique, made not only from wool, but also from cotton and - more important - from linen. - Gebhart Blazek
"They are like a pattern book"

One of the main reasons for the difference between the Beni Ouarain rugs and other Moroccan Amazigh styles is geographical isolation. Because of their remote location, the Beni Ouarain were not influenced by the Arabic designs common to other tribes until the 20th century. Blazek says, "It is therefore not surprising that formal similarities of design and palette are to be found not in the urban rugs of the Maghreb, but rather in rural ceramics, which have retained an archaic decorative system of black lines on a white base, as well as production methods unchanged since Neolithic times."

The classic Beni Ouarain carpet design has a network of diamonds made up of relatively fine black lines on a white (or cream) ground. Borders are uncommon, and even the secondary guard design elements along the sides appear to be the result of external influences.

A typical new Beni Ouarain

Hand in hand with Beni Ouarain rugs becoming fashion items has come a lot of misinformation and also a huge distortion in the pricing. One recent internet article quotes Elizabeth Mayhew, the design consultant for the American Today Show saying that currently, "very few new carpet style Beni Ourain are made ​​in Morocco." This would be news to the Beni Ouarain weavers who are still hard at work producing their masterpieces.

In an article published on the website Triblive and based on interviews with American professionals, Mayhew quotes James Ffrench, a director of Beauvais Carpets in New York, who points out that traditional Beni Ourain tribal designs were woven from memory, not patterns, so they have an appealing “quirkiness.”
"This quirkiness is exactly what makes these rugs appealing to interior designers. “They give a room, particularly a cold, modern room, warmth and patina as well as a dose of ethnicity,” says Timothy Whealon of Timothy Whealon Interiors in New York. The converse is also true: The idiosyncratic patterns of Beni Ourain designs give more traditional rooms a much-needed shot of modernity. It is because of this versatility that Whealon, like other decorators, has used them for years. And despite their recent omnipresence, he says he will continue to use them. “I don't see them as trendy; I see them as timeless.”
Ffrench explains that the demand is high and insufficient and expensive originals are causing decoration companies to turn to China and Egypt.

Back in Fez, Morocco, Si Mohammed Bouzidi says he has yet to see a Chinese or Egyptian copy of a Beni Ouarain, but he has seen significant numbers of other tribal designs coming from a new source - Spain. "again they are all machine made," he says.

So what should you pay for a genuine Beni Ouarain?

If you are buying in the United States, prices can easily range between $5,000 and $8,000 for a rug of around 50 years old.  That is between 41,800 and 67,000 dirhams. Older (eighty to one hundred year old) rugs can fetch as much as $25,000 dollars (more than 209,000 dirhams) each.

And, if you are buying in Morocco? The View from Fez checked out the prices at three carpet retailers in the Fez Medina and the good news is that even counting airfare and accommodation, it is cheaper to buy your Beni Ouarain in Fez! An 80 year old Beni Ouarain in very good condition costs on average between 10,000 and 15,000 dirhams ($1,200 -$1800).  Medium aged rugs were generally between 5,000 to 7,000 ($600 - $840), while new pieces ranged between 3,000 and 7,000 ($360 - $840).

And if you can't find a good Beni Ouarain, then take a look at a less well known Amazigh tribe - the Marmoucha - who knows, they may be next year's fashion trend.

The bold designs of a Marmoucha

A brilliant old Ziane 
Photographs and story: Sandy McCutcheon
Carpets courtesy of the Bouzidi-Idrissi family who generously gave of their time and expertise in compiling this series of articles.


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Anonymous said...

I love moroccan carpets! It waaaaaay cheaper in Morocco, I bought a stunner of beni ourain last year in Essaouira for around $400. I saw people who has gotten cheaper ones too...I was happy with that price, it was less than i was prepared totty it every day,its so pre spend.

I just told the guy I had $400 to spend and no more. He tried for more, but i only took that amount with me. He still tried but i held firm...eventually I got my prize, and I enjoy it every day, its so pretty!

Anonymous said...

do you have a contact or name for the place in Essaouira?

Anonymous said...

do you have a contact name or number for your shop in Essaouira?

Sandy McCutcheon said...

The shop is in the Talaa Kbira in the Fez Medina