The history and stories contained in tribal rugs are as complex as their weaves and patterns. Knowing a little about their background will immeasurably enhance enjoyment of their beauty. To set you on the road to Morocco, here are some terms you may see as you hunt down that perfect rug.
Berbers, also known as the Imazighen, are indigenous people living in tribal communities scattered over North Africa. Weaving has a long history among the Imazighen and many distinctive rug forms have emerged from their complex culture.
The term ‘Berber’ appeared in the west in the ’60s and ’70s, referring to an oatmealy loop pile carpeting. This wall-to-wall floor covering referenced the distinctive knot form and natural multi-coloured flecks found in Berber rugs made in Morocco. Nowadays, the word is more correctly associated with hand-woven rugs crafted by tribal Amazigh (the singular of Imazighen) groups.
Beni Ourain Rug
The Beni Ourain rugs are a confederation of nomadic Amazigh tribes from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Their rugs are made from the superior quality curly wool from their sheep and goat herds, mostly left undyed. One of the most recognisable and sought-after rugs today, the iconic pattern consists of irregular black or brown linked diamonds and abstract symbols on a thick-pile white or ivory background.
Original Beni Ourains were used as blankets, bedspreads and cloaks for warmth, the loose soft structure designed to conform to the body. They are traditionally woven by women and are infused with elements of the life, aspirations and history of the weavers. Recently, artisan groups have come together to create marketing systems ensuring fair return for their skilled and time-consuming work.
Wouldn’t it be lovely to own an original pre-1950s Beni Ourain? They are sadly becoming rare and expensive. Older rugs are smallish as they had to be carried during nomadic movements – a rug larger than about three metres square purporting to be vintage or antique is probably not. Be wary if a fringe has been sewn on or if the reverse knotting is regular and perfect. Before investing in what you believe to be an old Beni Ourain, get professional advice and valuation.
Beni Ourain women are still turning out gorgeous rugs in this style and they can be custom-woven to order. Buy through a reputable dealer and ensure it’s wool, to get that luxurious look and silky feel that is the joy of Beni Ourain.
Why choose a Beni Ourain?
The 1960s saw a shift in Berber rug making. Tribal cultures and lifestyles were changing, wool supplies were dwindling, while demand for Moroccan pieces remained high. In a superb example of adaptability and resourcefulness, some Amazigh women began hand-making rugs using found fibres, cotton and fabric scraps from Moroccan garment factories, including nylon, lurex and even plastic – upcycling at its best. The name for this new style, Boucherouite, is from the Arabic bu sherwit meaning a scrap torn from a garment.
Why choose a Boucherouite?
These are woven in the Azilal province in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco. They combine the freestyle zaniness of Boucherouites and the restrained dark grid of Beni Ourain, often with a natural wool background throwing bright colours, motifs and diamond lozenge shapes into relief. Natural dyes from saffron, henna, indigo, wild mint and pomegranates lend these rugs their vibrancy. They display the intuitive artistry that permeates tribal Moroccan rugs and with their modern aesthetic, make superb wall art.
Why choose an Azilal?
The Tuareg rugs are a semi-nomadic tribal ethnic confederation that shares a language with Amazigh tribes in Morocco. Not strictly Moroccan, they are Saharan desert dwellers inhabiting a vast area surrounding Morocco. Known as ‘the blue people’ because the indigo dye used in their clothing colours their skin, theirs is a matriarchal culture where men, not women, wear the veil from the age of 25.
Why choose a Tuareg?
Because you were born under a wandering star, adore leathery, robust natural textures and want a show-stopping but practical rug that is happy indoors or out and will grow old gracefully. Because you don’t do soft pastels and tiny florals, but like to introduce a gutsy masculine touch.
Kilim rug isn’t the name of a tribal group, but a weaving technique. These rugs emanate from a vast geographic area and use a tight flat-weave method that sharpens and enhances the design. Many Amazigh tribes produce kilim items, such as blankets and grain bags, that are being used in modern homes as rugs. Styles and symbols differ widely, from intricate to more orderly, like this boldly striped piece.
Why choose a kilim?
Because you are a minimalist, but need one glorious patterned piece to pep up a room. Because you can’t be bothered with dirt-trapping pile rugs and like to give a rug an occasional shake out. Because you want a lightweight rug that can be moved to other rooms at a whim. Because there’s a kilim for every budget.
Today, tribal weavers of Berber rugs have one foot in their ancient cultures and one in the 21st century. While still creating rugs telling their old stories, new more contemporary designs on a larger scale that suit modern homes are coming from their looms. The authenticity of the industry is under some threat from knock-offs made in China and India – these are budget-friendly, but lack the romance of the real thing.