In recent years, small-scale artisans have struggled to survive in Morocco. They have been faced with the impact of globalization, the difficulties of transporting their production to markets, and a declining interest in handicrafts among modern Moroccan consumers. The government has acted to improve and foster the handicraft sector because it has long been a major source of national income: Moroccan artisanry is justly famous, particularly in carpets, pottery, and leatherwork.
Moroccan carpets have long been popular throughout the world. In 1829, Edward Drummond Hay, the British Consul in Tangier, was repeatedly given carpets by important local officials as a mark of their respect. Later in the 19th century, there was a boom in carpet production, supplying both the growing local market as merchants enriched themselves with trade, and middle-class consumers in Britain and France. Under French rule, the Native Arts Service worked to preserve traditional techniques and to create new artistic forms that could be incorporated into a modernist aesthetic.
There are two main types of Moroccan carpet, those produced in cities and those that originate in Berber areas. The most celebrated urban designs come from Rabat and may have originated in either Asia Minor or Andalusia, as many refugees from the Christian Reconquista settled in Rabat and Salé. The earliest known examples go back to the seventeenth century. Berber carpet- and rug-design seem to be more ancient, and their motifs vary widely, by region. Today, these regional deigns are defined by the Direction de l’Artisanat, which certifies their authenticity and licenses them for export.
Both the urban and the Berber carpets are high-quality knotted carpets made of wool, with a backing (warp) of wool or cotton or sometimes silk. Another floor covering is the kilim, a woven rug, much cheaper and lighter and often in more vibrant colours. These are not so extensively controlled.
The export of carpets is of great value to the Moroccan economy, although it is declining fast: the value of carpets exported from Morocco in 2000 was only 44 percent of what it was in 1990, although it constituted the largest proportion of the artisanal exports by far (32 percent in 2000). Other types of Moroccan artisanry have weathered the economic problems better than carpets: exports of pottery, jewellery, and leather work all increased during the 20th century.
As with carpets, there are two main sorts of pottery in Morocco, fine urban designs and rural patterns, some of the latter very naïve. The urban ware of Fes, Meknes, and, above all, Safi, is highly glazed and coloured. Safi designs seem to have been influenced by designs originating in al-Andalus (particularly the region around Málaga) and are characterized by a metallic sheen. Fes is noted particularly for blues and greens on a white background. In rural pottery the dominant colour is often ochre (especially in the High Atlas) or green. In the northern regions of the Jebala and Rif, pottery made from rough red clay is decorated with embossed patterns rather than being glazed.
Jewellery was formerly a Jewish tradition in Morocco, but Muslims now manufacture all of it. Gold is essentially an urban production, heavily influenced by designs from Muslim al-Andalus, while silver is essentially a rural production influenced by Berber designs. Gold and silver both served historically as stores of wealth, but only richer city dwellers could afford gold.
The French word for leatherwork is maroquinerie: it is quintessentially Moroccan. Tanning is an important industry in Fes, which provides over half of the leather used in Morocco. With the exception of slippers (yellow or white for men, embroidered and brightly coloured for women), most Moroccan leatherwork is intended for tourist markets or for export.
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