Beginners' Guide to Moroccan Carpets.

So you are visiting Morocco and you want to buy a carpet? Or (more likely) you get shown some Moroccan carpets and fall in love with one. If your experience is the latter, then there is no need of a guide, simply your own taste and budget.

However, for those with the time and inclination, here is quick guide on the Berber carpets of Morocco.

The Tribes 

There are are around forty-five different tribal groups, each of which has distinctive designs and sometimes varying weaving and embroidery styles. In the first of these articles we will explore where the carpets come from, how to test if it is pure wool or a synthetic mix; and we will examine two very famous tribal design styles - that of the Zemmour and that of the Zaiane.

Top carpet is a pure wool Zemmour and the bottom one cotton and wool

Both of the Zemmour carpets are modern. This is usually recognised because of the intricate design work in the embroidery. In an older Zemmour the work is far less complex, as in the carpet below - a Zemmour whose age is around 80 years.

When a Zemmour is placed next to a carpet from the Zaiane Tribe, the difference is immediately obvious. The Zaiane has very distinctive lozenge shapes in the design.

In this example the Zaiane has raised wool tufting that is indicative of the style (but not exclusively so). The Zaiane come from further south in the Middle Atlas than the Zemmour and according to most reports are no longer producing carpets, so if you come across a Zaiane carpet it is likely to be old. A "new one" may well be a fake!

Above - detail of the tufting of wool in the Zaiane carpet. Below is another superb Zaiane carpet more than sixty years old and in superb condition. The high quality of the embroidery is a feature of all good Zaiane carpets

Our first tip is in regard to modern synthetics. How do you tell a synthetic carpet from one made from pure wool? Simple!  With a cigarette lighter. Holding a flame under the tassels of a carpet will produce a very different result, depending on the material from which it is made.

In the top picture a cigarette lighter fails to ignite the pure wool. There is also a slight wool smell. In the photograph below the tassels on the carpet continues to burn and gives off an unpleasant odour, indicating the presence of synthetics.

Next we turn our attention to a distinctly different style - that of the Beni Ouarain. This Berber tribe uses "live wool" - that is wool shorn from a sheep, rather than taken from a sheepskin after the sheep has been killed. The main characteristic of a Beni Ouarain carpet is the "shaggy" pile. This makes them very comfortable under foot and they are much sought after for use in winter.

A particularly fine example of a Beni Ouarain, with a close up of the "shaggy" pile below.

The Beni Ouarain are an important Berber tribe and come from the Middle Atlas region.

Our next carpet is a 100% pure wool example of a Marmoucha. This tribe is from the region close to the Sahara in the northern part of Morocco and is near the frontier with Algeria. Again this is a carpet with a high shaggy pile. (see the detail photograph below)

Where does the wool come from? The wool – mostly live wool from sheep – cut while the sheep is alive. The cotton for embroidery comes from Morocco, Australia, New Zealand, Spain. Today most carpet wool comes from New Zealand, which makes the best colours. The Moroccan wool is 100% like silk, but the colours are a little dirty in comparison.

And the colours? Poppy flower for the red. Saffron for orange, yellow. White – natural fibre (although some sheep have white wool, some have black).Blue – indigo: one of the poppy flowers. Morocco has one of the few natural indigo dyes in the world.
“Moroccan rugs have rich colours – rich with the red colour and the saffron especially."
Some of the modern carpets use synthetic dyes but these here are only Berber traditional carpets, with natural dyes.

Now we now take a look at hendiras. We're cheating a bit here, because hendiras are not carpets, but are often sold in the same outlets, and can be used as rugs.

a particularly fine Beni Ouarain hendira

A hendira is a rectangular cloth usually made of wool, sometimes with linen or silk added, and is traditionally used as a cloak. Women usually make these for their daughter's trousseau. The hendira can be thick with a shaggy pile on the inside (sometimes with sequins), or fairly lightweight. Some are highly patterned, some plainer. The intricacy of the work and the quality of the wool will determine the price. They're often natural shades of cream, but sometimes black. They make beautifully warm bedspreads, or throws for couches, or wallhangings.

the hendira as traditional cloak

The loose loops of wool on the inside of a heavy hendira would be worn on the outside during snowy weather. The snow would fall off the loops easily so that the cloth doesn't become sodden.

shaggy side out for snowy weather

another Beni Ouarain hendira

The photograph below is another beautiful carpet from a smaller tribe - the Beni M'guila from the Atlas Mountains. This is a new carpet but a fine example. The reverse side is a warm golden colour and would be used during summer, with the shaggy side in winter.

A new Beni M'guila with the reverse side displayed (below)

 In the last few years a brand new style of Moroccan carpet design has appeared in the souqs and markets. There are various stories about the origins of this "painterly" style, but the most intriguing and possible the most credible is that the design does indeed come from attempts to copy paintings.

A riot of "Zanafi" colour

The style is described as "Zanafi Tribe" and the story goes that a Finnish painter married a Berber woman who then began making carpets in the style of his paintings. Whatever the truth of the matter, the style is immediately recognisable and has now been copied by others. A good example can be exquisite although some of the copies are of poor quality.

A modern "Zanafi" (detail)

Some rug merchants also have an older style of rug that is sometimes also called Zanafi although this is a very different High Atlas style with the design elements of the zigzag, triangle and diamond that appear frequently in High Atlas architecture and pottery. The rugs are called also "glaoua"
by merchants in the souqs of Marrakech because they were first made under the rule of Thami El Glaoui, Pasha of Marrakesh.

The View from Fez would like to thank the Bouzidi-Idrissi family who generously gave of their time and expertise in compiling this series of articles. All the featured rugs are available (or similar styles) and can be freighted anywhere in the world! You will find the shops on the Talaa Kebira in Fez - (phone 0535636946 email