Berber Rugs – The Tribal Rug With An Individual Flair
High in the picturesque Atlas Mountains of northern Morocco, the 17 Berber tribes that comprise the larger “Beni Ourain” tribe practice a unique rug-weaving tradition that has earned worldwide recognition. Beni Ourain people raise Marmoucha, an ancient breed of sheep. They harvest the sheep’s silky, cream-colored wool, and the women of the tribe transform the raw material into luxuriously soft rugs with distinctive beauty.
Their weaving technique is known as “zrbya,” or the pile knot method. First, the weaver stretches out a series of strings lengthwise on the loom, defining a skeletal rectangle shape that will be the base of the rug. This is called the “warp.”
The “weft” strings are what give the rug its pattern. Instead of weaving the weft horizontally through the warp, Beni Ourain rug makers tie the weft around the warp in thousands of little knots. They pound the knots into place with a tool called a “taska.” The process is complex and hard to duplicate. The end result is a plush, dense woolen rug with its own special pattern.
An authentic hand-woven Berber Rug has an earthy cream or ivory color. The natural wool is not dyed or adorned in any way. Berber women use dark wool wefts to form geometric patterns on the rugs. Often they tell stories through the fabric, hand-knotting simple forms that evoke spirituality, fertility, growth, and other aspects of life in the mountain tribes. Some rugs are woven with symbols that ward off bad luck and protect people from the “evil eye.” However, the most common feature is a sparse pattern of interlocking diamonds.
The striking minimalism of the Berber Rug has captured the imagination of great artists like Henri Matisse, Paul Klee and Alvar Aalto. Famed modernist designer Le Corbusier paired the Moroccan rugs with his own sleek furniture. The traditional did not clash with the contemporary–rather, the elegant geometric rugs provided context for the decisive lines and shapes of Le Corbusier’s work.
The Berber Rug is popular with interior decorators because it is rugged and cozy without being kitschy. Its pattern adds interest to a room, while its neutral hue keeps it from overwhelming the space. Sometimes cryptic, sometimes basic, the handwoven rug lends an air of soul to a starkly curated room.
Some beautiful rugs are mainly valuable as showy art pieces or tapestries hung on walls. These Moroccan rugs can play that role, but they also have exquisite texture that deserves to be lived in. Thick and soft, they add warmth to a chilly room or provide a spot to snuggle in front of a fireplace. Their off-white hue complements a monochromatic white ensemble.
Berber tribes in the Atlas Mountains have honed their craft for hundreds of years. They have seamlessly incorporated modern technology with tradition to keep producing their one-of-a-kind wool rugs. The colors and patterns found on these rugs are the fruits of the synergy of art, nature, and civilization. They are handmade pieces of history that have stood the test of time.