In the vast, rugged mountains overlooking the sleepy, blue-washed walls of Chefchaouen, northern Morocco, Berber men and women weave labors of love in the strands of rustic cotton textiles called ‘mandils’. Rich hues, created by broad, calloused hands from years of hard physical toiling.

These fabrics are produced from natural dyes and carefully woven on traditional horizontal wooden looms. The material is then transformed into rustic striped cotton pieces; matching the ivory clouds and the fierce sun in their pure tones.

Women’s weaving groups are scattered throughout the haunting mountains of this region; loosely-organized co-ops where women make a small profit to support their families with these sustainable pieces that can be used as blankets, throws or towels. But for the locals, they are much more than a decorative piece.

The history of this striking red and white fabric is as fascinating as the women who wear them-the hearty women of the Rif region of Northern Morocco have worn these ‘mandils’ as aprons for centuries. The reason is deeply rooted in a utilitarian sense; the fabrics are used for practicality-they are deeply warm in the cool, mountain air and can easily be thrown over other clothes for extra insulation.

And why the red and white stripes? The answer is, like the history of Chaouen itself, a bit of a mystery. One theory is that the stripes have just evolved as a natural way to add interest with a simple pattern.

Another speculation is that the Rif region, once Spanish in its possession, has much to do with the presence of the bold pattern.

Color is clearly an essential part of Chaouen’s rich history. Chefchaouen, which translates to ‘see the two mountain peaks’ in Darija, was founded in the 15th century and initially populated by Jews and Moriscos fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

Many stories have circulated over time as to why Chaouen is so utterly blue. Some say that European immigrant Jews chose to paint the tiny town sapphire upon fleeing Hitler’s Nazi regime. Some insist it’s a natural protection against mosquitos. And some even claim that Chaouen is blue as part of its etheral and spiritual aura. In any case, the haven of Chaouen is famous for its gorgeous blue hue; throwing peaceful shades of vibrant azure throughout its charming, winding passageways.

Chaouen has still managed, over the years, to keep much of its pastoral, tranquil appeal. It’s one of those places where you feel you might have just stepped back a few hundred years. In fact, time seems to slow down in Chaouen. Locals still seem to follow sunrise and sunset as their faithful guide. After all, the community around Chaouen is still vastly a farming one. The Rif Mountain range is enormous, spreading from Tangiers all the way south and east to Tetouan and Chaouen.

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The women of the Rif mountain region have adapted to a rugged, rural terrain for centuries. They need clothing that is sturdy, robust and lasts over time. The thick, softly woven cotton of the mandil is ideal for these hard-working locals.

Most female weavers learn their trade from birth; carefully watching their mothers, aunts, sisters and grandmothers patiently labor on their looms, their worn, creviced hands working tirelessly day in, day out. Weaving, sewing, embroidering is in their blood; it flows through them like the blue paint that is stirred in the vivid colors of the old medina doors.

One such women’s group is high above the tiny village of Dardara, 10 km from Chaouen, about a 35-minute bumpy drive down the mountain and into the larger town. The co-op doesn’t even have a name; it is just a small building with no water or electricity and a group of very active female weavers.

Typically, one mandil takes a full day for a woman to weave on a basic wooden loom. The supplies cost about 10 dirhams ($1). The mandil then sells on the local market yielding a few dollars profit, a substantial amount for the weaver.

The telltale traditional red and white colors of the mandils vary depending on the communities of women who wear them throughout the enormous rural region. They are really the identification keys of each community.

In recent years, these distinct materials have caught the eye of vendors and tourists alike.

Other colors, as a result, have been introduced as an entrepreneurial spirit has taken over and merchants have started requesting additional patterns and colors. However, the true originals are deep red and white. One can still see this if you catch a glimpse of a local woman washing clothes or selling vegetables in the surrounding villages. The indigo shades of Chaouen are now visible in the blues and whites of the mandils as well.

The practicality of these fabrics have two benefits for locals-the men and women weavers of the region will always need the mandils for their physical labor as well as protection from the harsh elements. In an enterprising sense, there will also likely continue to be a demand for this unique product to tourists visiting the region.

The story of the mandil is a success story in Morocco for of women creating an income for themselves and seeking an independence that they would not normally be able to find in such a traditional region. These women’s weaving co-ops create a unique means for women to have a small income in a bucolic area, where they would not normally have had the possibility to go to school to learn a trade or profession. This gives them a chance at success; no matter how small it might seem.

These shades of Chaouen-the rusty red of a brilliant sunset from the peaceful rooftop terraces, the pristine white of the puffy broccoli-shaped clouds above the tremendous mountain peaks, the dreamy blue of the dusty medieval doors of the old town. Paramount to the region and etched forever in the hearty cottons of the mandils.

 

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

Mushmina, mindful fashion and home.

www.mushmina.com

 

 

 

 

*any ad content below this is not related to Mushmina

 

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Just outside of Marrakech’s all encompassing magnetism is but another level of living ~Starting my day venturing away from the bustle of the souks towards the climb of the snow capped landscape of the Atlas mountains is truly soul enlivening. One of my favorite parts of our work in Morocco has become our visits with the women artisans of The Eve Branson Foundation. Their berber village along the cliffs of these majestic mountains hosts a creative center for the local community to learn and grow their artistic skills setup by the Branson family and outstanding staff.

Just before working on a project I experience this familiar inner “excitement” as to how things will go, which direction it will take and hopeful it will be successful for all of those involved…you see, every effort is that of a community here in Morocco. This trip was yet another reminder that we all need one another for survival and success to abound. It is in this humble and artistic community that I find I am continuously learning almost more than I’m teaching while I visit for a workshop. My designs are inspired by my surroundings here and it is a joy to see them translated through the handwork of the artisans in this collaborative process. Just opposite the enchanting Kasbah Tamadot Branson hotel, the foundation offers the locals programs on seamstress work, embroidery, woodworking and a now hand loom for women, traditionally a craft of men. The growth of the center is inspiring and we’re thrilled to be a part of the journey. From color theory workshops to new clothing patterns, as Mushmina grows so will our ability to provide artisan employment opportunities with a focus on women’s empowerment while offering inspired pieces in partnership with EBF and beyond.

Something I’ve learned in this unpredictable work which continues to propel me is that when you follow the pull of the universe, in this case into the lure of the mountains, you will be rewarded with confirmations. I’m easy to please and the spirit of the women I meet is reward enough but I’m not opposed to a glass of wine at the end of the day while soaking in the energy of the Atlas Mountains on the veranda of Kasbah Tamadot. Life is majestic.

Cheers,                                                                                                                                                                    Katie O’Neill                                                                                                                                             Mushmina, Creative Director

View our collections at www.mushmina.com

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Master metalsmith Ahmed El Guerche works closely with handmade fashion label Mushmina’s creative director Katie O’Neill to create the Sahara jewelry collection that is a signature of the accessories line. Ahmed grew up in the mountains outside of Ouarzazate, Morocco’s famous film capital renowned for its striking cinematic landscapes and the setting for such films as Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and Babel. Ahmed, lead metalsmith for Mushmina, is recognized for creating pieces that are as eye catching as the arresting surroundings of his childhood.

Ahmed is of Amazigh (Berber) descent, the indigenous people of Morocco. The Berbers are known for wearing jewelry as an expression of tribal identity. Berber jewelry, which is always made of silver, is noted for its beautiful and intricate enamel work and is a definition of status in the culture. Characteristic pieces are often etched with protective and tribal symbols, use vintage coins, and incorporate red and green glass stone. Berber women wear silver fibulas—triangular brooches or pins, and head decorations as a symbol of their wealth in rural society.

Ahmed learned jewelry making and metal work as a young apprentice as he studied under a master metalsmith for five years when he moved to Tiznit, the silver capital of Morocco to establish himself. Mushmina learned about Ahmed from a Peace Corps volunteer who recommended him to Katie and her sister/co-founder Heather because of his outstanding skill in creating collections with mixed metals and his undeniably strong work ethic. The collaboration, which began in 2009 has been a success and although Ahmed and Katie are thousands of miles apart, the two creatively inspire each other.  Katie sends Ahmed sketches of shapes and ideas for new jewelry pieces and Ahmed then adds his own spin, which can include unique Berber etching, swirl designs or a completely new take altogether. It’s common for Ahmed to work through the night to finish orders and his work is so appealing the orders keep pouring in. His dedication has paid off. Morocco’s Ministry of the Artisinat, which serves to promote and support the artisans and craftspeople of Morocco, nominated Ahmed for top artisan in 2012 and he participated in an artisan expo in Morocco’s capital, Rabat the same year.

Ahmed, who started with a small workshop in his home, has since moved to an atelier space where he employs a number of people to help fill orders—sometimes even calling on his brother AbdelWahed to assist. Although Ahmed doesn’t have a formal education, he is a quick learner and embraces technology to advance his work. He uses the Internet, email and digital images to interpret Mushmina’s orders.

As is common in Morocco, Ahmed lives in a mixed household in the southern town of Tiznit with his wife Aisha, daughter Hind (11), and son Soufian (7) and his brother and his family. He’s a man who is always moving. He enjoys biking to work and when he is not busy in his workshop he likes to go running. Katie and Heather take the ten-hour trip to visit Ahmed in Tiznit at least once a year where he warmly invites them into his home to share a lemon chicken tagine and mint tea. Not motivated by money, Ahmed is quick to remind the two sisters that he only works with people who are ‘nishan’ (serious) and whom he wants to do business with.  So, it’s a good thing he likes Katie and Heather. The three manage to converse during these visits despite a language barrier. Heather is fluent in Arabic but Ahmed uses a fast spoken dialect that is a combination of Moroccan Arabic and the Berber language that is known as Tashelhit. When words fail to get the message across, the visually oriented group relies on photos and drawings to communicate.

Ahmed’s latest collaboration with Mushmina is the Spring 2014 collection of etched bracelets, cuffs, and pendants. The collection features pieces in silver, brass, copper, and filigree and each is a modern interpretation of Ahmed’s traditional craft. Ahmed also incorporates wood inlay, which is often seen in Tuareg jewelry. Each piece is decorated and in a touch characteristic of Ahmed the back side of items he crafts are often etched in as he can’t stand to see anything look plain or unfinished. The culmination of the collection is truly collaborative as Katie adds her unique touch and finishing to Ahmed’s pieces for modern appeal.

To Learn more about Morocco’s Berber culture, there is a wonderful new Amazigh Berber Museum in the famous Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech  http://jardinmajorelle.com/ang/introduction-to-berber-culture/

-From “A Window to Morocco Series” – By Heather O’Neill and Yvonne King.

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What Moroccans have taught me above all else is to laugh, to dance, and to give.

Exciting things this week! A  meeting to officiate the cooperative….complete with a 3 course meal, surprise guests, and street drummers. To be continued…..

Today I am grateful.

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Sunday dreaming @Mushmina

November 24, 2013

President of the newly formed women’s cooperative of Oued Zem, Kenza Jbilou’s [Ji-Bi-Lo] dream is to just be comfortable ‘mertaha’  and to learn to drive.

What’s your dream?

Happy Sunday from Mushmina!

Kenza

A Window to Morocco

November 19, 2013

A Window to Morocco, a new series and glimpse into life in Morocco

Having Only a Grade School Education Doesn’t Stop Kenza Jbilou from Using her Business and Artisan Skills to Bring Moroccan Style to the Fashion World

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Kenza Jbilou [pronounced Ji-Bi-Lo] is the essence of warmth and a powerhouse who exudes a strength that inspires those around her. If you find yourself in her native Morocco and are lucky enough to meet her, she will give you a heartfelt welcome hug, mix you her famous sheeba herbal tea, and proudly give you a tour of her workshop. You can be sure you will also leave with an exquisitely crafted handmade gift as a remembrance of your visit.

Kenza was born in Guelmina, a small village in eastern Morocco and grew up in the town of Errachidia on the border of the Sahara Desert. Although her formal education ended in the fifth grade, she learned sewing and embroidery skills from her mother in their home.  Kenza became highly skilled in artisan crafts and it has been the way she has made her income in her life from a young age. Instilled with a strong work ethic by her mother, the hard working and intellectually curious Kenza was not content to only be educated in one area and also gained office skills while working for a Renault car dealership and EFAT private school in Errachidia.

When she was only 13 years old, a desperate Kenza attempted to hurt herself after enduring two months of marriage to a man 20 years her senior. Kenza returned to her family and did marry again at the age of 18 and started a family. She and her husband soon realized that his starting salary as police officer was not enough to cover their expenses. Like many families in the United States, they became a dual income couple after Kenza sought a job to contribute to the family. Her income has been an important and stabilizing factor in the family’s well being. She and her husband have three sons (Yousam 26, Merwan 23, Safwan 18) and a daughter (Khowla age 12).

Concerns about her family are Kenza’s biggest obstacles. High unemployment is an urgent issue in Morocco and Kenza’s sons have had a difficult time finding consistent employment. According to tradingeconomics.com, the unemployment rate in Morocco increased to 9.10 percent in the third quarter of 2013 from 8.80 percent in the second quarter of 2013. *The unemployment rate for youths, 15 to 24, rose from 17.1 per cent to 18.4 per cent, but due to under-reporting it is thought to be a much higher percentage.

While Kenza is anxious about her sons’ prospects, she is not worried about her daughter Khowla because she is still young and she is training her to cherish her freedom and be able to stand up for herself. Khowla is also assured a place in the cooperative alongside her mom.

Kenza came to the cooperative through Mushmina co-founder Heather, a family friend since 2003. She became involved with Mushmina in the spring of 2010. Her initial role was doing the finishing work and hand stitching for Mushmina scarves and wallets. Heather quickly realized that Kenza had a gift for creating beautiful handmade accessories and a head for business. She entrusted Kenza with more responsibility and each year as the work grew Kenza recruited her friends and neighbors to work alongside her. She recently was elected the president of the newly formed women’s cooperative of Oued Zem, which includes managing the work, the payments, and production schedule. She currently oversees nine women and has expansion plans for the cooperative.

She would like to increase the space to a second floor for the women’s workshop and expand the cooperative to offer English classes. She also plans to sell to many new customers both in Morocco and abroad. Most importantly her dream is to just be comfortable ‘mertaha’ (Arabic) and to learn to drive. We have no doubt that with Kenza’s exceptional skills and ambition she will achieve beyond her aspirations.

*Ali, S. (2013, August 8). Morocco Jobless Rate Tops One Million.  magharebia.com/en_GB.

http://magharebia.com/en_GB/articles/awi/features/2013/08/13/feature-04

By Co-Authors Yvonne King and Heather O’Neill

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Saturday, Svens, Sale!

January 12, 2013

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even Moroccan kids like Svens. On sale this week!  20% off

Call us at the store to grab yours today! 215-732-5500.

Green slides-1 left! size 37 originally $150 now $120
Brown suede Ankle strap – originally $175 now $140
Mahogany Clogs- originally $200 now $160

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