By Kathleen Curtis Wilson
During a recent trip to Morocco, co-sponsored by TSA and Peters Valley School of Craft, I experienced a culture of beauty, vibrant color, and craftsmanship. Asked to name a favorite memory, I thought of Siham, a needle weaver at the Women’s Cherry Buttons Cooperative, founded by Amina Yabis, a place famous for creating the most beautiful buttons in all of Morocco. Buttons are only one of the handcraft components that go into making a traditional djellaba.
A djellaba, worn by men and women, is a long, loose-fitting, unisex outer robe with full sleeves and a soft hood. The fabric varies from bright pink, turquoise, and purple to floral prints for women, men prefer solid colors of white, gray, or black. For a bespoke djellaba, clients choose fabric, braid trim, buttons, and silk thread used for decorative seam stitching. A finished garment is the work of many artisans. Over the next week, I was able to observe each step in the process that began in Fes.
On day one, our group checked into the Palais Amani, a lovely 17th century palace with tiled walls and floors, a tree shaded courtyard, and magnificent rooftop terrace overlooking the city. The next morning, local guides took us to meet a few of the best craft makers living and working inside the medina, the largest pedestrian city in the world and home to about 80,000 residents. No cars are allowed in the labyrinth of narrow winding alleys and walkways. Individual stalls and courtyards are full of antiques, crafts, clothing, and necessities. I saw intricate braiding in display cases, spools of silk in a rainbow of colors, and mannequins dressed in fancy and plain djellaba, but no button weavers in Fes.
A few days later, we drove to the Women’s Cherry Buttons Cooperative, located at the top of a steep road in a quiet section of Sefrou. The single room serves as workspace and salesroom. Walking past two large handlooms, I saw four women sitting around a square table in one corner, the oldest workers pretending not to notice our intrusion. A colorful display of buttons, in various sizes and shapes, was scattered across the tabletop. The cooperative purchases single-ply artificial silks in a vast array of colors and spins two to four strands together, depending on the size and design of each button. Forty button designs are currently offered with new ones being developed. Buttons are also intricately woven into necklaces.
Siham, a beautiful young woman sat at the edge of the group. With her head down, she smiled shyly and kept working as I walked closer. She took a lightweight piece of paper, about an inch square, wet it with her lips, wrapped it around the head of a long needle, secured it with thread, and dropped it into her lap. This is the base of each button. For a finished button, she threads a needle with the appropriate color to weave the design onto the base, careful to keep the tension precise and the size accurate.
Our guide explained that Siham is the only worker able to make a particular design no one else in the cooperative can duplicate. Recognizing my interest, Siham began to weave her signature button for me to photograph, and shyly presented it as a gift. She was proud of her skill and I wish we spoke the same language, but smiles and hugs had to suffice. And, I have my keepsake button.
Many thanks to our guide, Jalil-Abdel Benlabhili of Morocco Unplugged Tour and Guiding Services firstname.lastname@example.org. The entire trip was a great success due to his expertise.
Kathleen Curtis Wilson, a TSA member, is a researcher, writer, curator, and speaker on Appalachian culture and craft history – affiliated with the Virginia Humanities, Charlottesville, VA. Kathleen has published articles in professional publications and four books, Uplifting the South—Mary Mildred Sullivan’s Legacy for Appalachia and Textile Art from Southern Appalachia: The Quiet Work of Women. Kathleen is currently finalizing an article, An Enslaved Woman and her Dressmaker Daughter, to be published in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.