The Story of the Women’s Embroidery Project

Published in Grapevine,  the Journal of the Circle Dance Network in Autumn 2016

Introduction   by  Jane Bayley,  La Maison Anglaise “Holidays With Heart”

It is topical to wax lyrical about embroidered clothing as there’s currently a revival of interest in ethnic clothing strongly featured in fashion this year.

The following article examines the fascinating the links between traditional Moroccan embroidery, our guest house in Morocco, and circle dancing.

For centuries, the people of Morocco have been producing magnificent embroideries, pile rugs, and flatweaves with designs of much visual intricacy and an avoidance of literal subject matter. This preference for abstraction and repetition generated a wealth of patterns with symbolic significance. Principal amongst these, as Laura Shannon helped us to understand, are images of female deities, designed to protect and encourage fertility of crops, livestock and families. A common motif is the Tree of Life or Mountain Goddess (lkabab) pattern signifying birth, growth to maturity, death and rebirth.

There are strong threads running through the fabric of my connexion with Moroccan embroidery.  When I set up my Morocco travel business in the 1990s, one of my first contacts was researcher and museum curator, Ivo Grammet. Through my collaboration with him on letting rooms in his guest house, I was inspired to learn more of the fabric heritage of Morocco.  Now coordinator of a new museum in Morocco, he contributed to a book to accompany an exhibition of Moroccan fabrics in the USA.  “The Fabric of Moroccan Life”  

Another vibrant thread was woven in when circle dance teacher Laura Shannon first came to Morocco to lead a holiday at our guest house in Taroudant, Morocco.

A further strand of thread was added some 15 years ago by my ordering organic cotton goods from a company in Sussex, owned by Abigail Petit who later booked a holiday in Morocco through me and now we are supplying embroidered goods through her shop.  See the end of the text, following Laura’s story.

The Taroudant Embroidery Adventures by Laura Shannon © 2014

As some of you know, I’ve been researching Goddess embroideries for many years in connection with the traditional dances and women’s ritual traditions (Sheila Paine & Mary Kelly are the pioneers in the Goddess-embroidery field), so I was very excited, on our first day in Taroudant, to catch glimpses of a couple of local women carrying their babies in Goddess-embroidered wraps. I could not get a close look at them without falling out of the caleche, however, so I was even more thrilled to see the apron Dounia’s cousin Warda was wearing when she served us lunch in her home. 

This was the same pattern I had seen on the baby-carrying-cloths and is a classic Goddess embroidery, incorporating extremely ancient motifs of the Goddess, mountain, mother-daughter, Tree of Life, signs of life energy, and the zigzag.

Warda and Dounia told me we could find those aprons in the Berber market, so Patricia bravely accompanied me through the labyrinth on a hunt for them. To our great disappointment, we only found crude machine copies of the goddess pattern on horrible polyester fabric that even I could not bring myself to buy. Later, Jacinta & I had better luck in the Arab Souk and purchased machine-made copies of a better quality, still showing the importance of this traditional pattern and emphasising the ‘winged Goddess’ motif at the top of the triangle.

Then Dounia kindly accompanied me back to the souk (twice), where we discovered several vendors of machine-made aprons and wraps featuring the traditional patterns and colours (dark red, dark blue, hot pink or green), but could find nothing handmade. She asked everywhere and everyone said the same: nobody does that hand-work anymore, nobody can afford to buy it, the machine work is so much faster and more affordable. Interestingly, they assured me that the luck-bringing patterns ‘still work’ whether made by hand or by machine! Eventually, with Dounia’s help, to make a long story short, I did find and eventually purchase an exquisite set of hand-embroidered sheets and pillow slips. 

Again, you can see the basic Goddess / Tree / triangle motif (called Lkhabab or Lakbab) which according to Dounia brings health, wealth, fertility, prosperity and all good things. Keen-eyed observers can easily spot this recurring motif on leatherwork, carpets, pottery, jewellery and other items throughout the souk. It is also found on the earliest archaeological artefacts dating from Neolithic times, which gives an idea of how ancient and how important it is.

The bed set bought by Laura

The sheet set had been for sale for several years, but nobody had bought it because ‘nobody can afford this expensive handwork now’. The women who still know how to hand-embroider no longer do it, because they can no longer sell it. This is exactly what Little Saïd was talking about when he described local potters going out of business because their clay tagines cost 10 dirhams and the Chinese imports cost only 5. The same process is behind the disappearance of folk art, music and dance all over the world.          

The feeling that I had perhaps rescued the last of the handmade embroideries of Taroudant made me wonder whether there was something we could do to encourage this vanishing women’s art and perhaps help enable its survival – much the way Jane is enabling the survival of the yellow Saharan bee! So we talked to Faysal, whose mother embroiders, and initiated a conversation about supporting village women to embroider small items with the traditional goddess patterns to sell to visitors. Hand made, on natural fabrics, with traditional patterns in traditional colours, with good working conditions and fair pay for the artisans, they make great gifts and souvenirs, as they weigh hardly anything and don’t take up much room in a suitcase.      

Even better, these embroideries would help women keep their traditional skills alive, and enable them to earn good money for their time since they can charge a decent price for them. I have seen, from similar endeavours I have helped to initiate in Bulgaria and Greece, how this in turns increases women’s self-esteem and status in the family and the community, and encourages younger generations to learn traditional craftwork too. And of course, the patterns transmit the ancient vibration of the Great Goddess which has been honoured for nearly ten thousand years, here and through the European, Asian and North African world.  

Happily, Faysal’s mother and her friends were eager to revive their embroidery traditions in this way and the Embroidery Project was born! (See the update below.) Meanwhile, we’ve heard about other embroidery projects in Midelt and Tazenakht, so there are existing models to follow. 

The story ends on my last evening at La Maison Anglaise. When the henna artist visited, I asked Dounia to ask her if the Lkhabab pattern is ever traditionally painted on feet. ‘Of course’, was the reply, and this was the result: dancing feet blessed with the ancient pattern of the Great Goddess.

 Update by Jane Bayley 2016

The irony was, after all the searching, that we then discovered that some of the best quality embroidery in Taroudant was being produced by the wife of Rachid, one of our drivers,

The bed set made by our manageress

and that our manageress, Latifa, had made some beautiful embroidered bed linen when many women still prepared these for a ‘bottom drawer’, in anticipation of finding a husband; she’d made it some 20 years before she met and married our chief guide, Said.

The efforts of two of our regular circle dance guests, Angela Lockwood and Stephanie Rose, led to a new branch of the project.  They undertook to raise funds to repair the roof of a family’s home in a mountain village visited regularly by our clients. So generous were members of the CD network that they raised a surplus of cash.  The village women chose to use the surplus to learn the lost art of embroidery.  This project is part of an ongoing scheme to improve literacy amongst the village women.  One day a week, they meet to learn embroidery skills as a rest from their academic work. 

We are supporting younger women being taught the skills that had been lost as well as older women reviving their skills. The younger women are being taught in Riad, the pottery village next to “Dounia’s village” – all the potters are men so it gives women an opportunity to be more self-sufficient.

As well as the demand for traditional pieces that have been purchased by our CD visitors, we’ve found a small market for traditional braids and more modern designs for patches and cushion covers through Abigail’s Drapery in Lewes.  Owner, Abigail Petit, has over 30 years’ experience in the ethical textiles trade and had charitable connections with us after visiting Morocco with us some years ago.  She can be contacted by email abi@gossypium.co.uk