By Kathleen Curtis Wilson
This article was originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of the TSA Newsletter.
Morocco is a land of beauty and poverty, heat and dust, a culture of intrigue, seduction and serenity. In recent years, Morocco has emerged as a major tourist destination and rural artisans use what the land supplies, much as Appalachian craftsmen have for the past 150 years. During my recent journey to Morocco, co-sponsored by TSA and Peters Valley School of Craft, I viewed ancient craft traditions thriving in a landscape where light and heat intensify every hue. From winding alleyways in crowded cities to the scarcely populated Atlas Mountains, potters, basket makers, and button weavers are part of the past and future for Moroccan artisans.
Fes medina, the largest pedestrian city in the world, has a population of nearly 80,000 people living in a winding labyrinth of alleyways with cubicles displaying antiques, foods, spices, clothing, and medical supplies to meet the needs of its citizens. Dyeing leather occupies a large section of the medina, a family-run business where goat, cow, camel, and lambskins have been hand-dyed in huge terra cotta pots, using the same methods and natural dyestuffs, for the past 3,000 years. Visitors climb a narrow staircase in a run-down, three-storied structure to observe the ancient process. The smell is overwhelmingly pungent and a sprig of fresh mint did little to distract the senses.
Hides are softened in large white vats filled with ammonia and pigeon poop, then hung along terrace railings to dry. Once the hair is scraped off with a special knife, skins are placed into enormous terra cotta vats for dyeing. The liquid appears to be a reddish brown, but on closer inspection each vat holds a different dye mixture. Men walk along the edges of the vats or stand in the liquid, twisting and heaving great mounds of wet skins into bundles that are loaded onto donkeys and taken outside the medina to dry on nearby hillsides. The men work without mask or gloves; only a few wore a hat to block the blazing sun.
Inside the building, shelves were lined with colorful slippers, poofs, purses, jackets, and unfinished leather skins. These are tourist items, inexpensively priced and impossible to resist. According to the man who gives an irresistible and flowery sales pitch, everything on the shelves was processed from beginning to end on the premises.
For decades fashion designers and local artisans have chosen butter-soft leather produced in Morocco because of its fine quality. In his 1960s African Collection, Yves Saint Laurent used calfskin from Fez to design a Fez hat painted in a leopard print. Today, artisans Alex and Rebecca Hamimi blend traditional techniques and Moroccan leather with modern styling. Soft as velvet, lambskin is dyed luscious fashionable colors and hand stitched into contemporary handbags with a macramé shoulder strap created by local women in the Atlas Mountains.
Small and large artistic entrepreneurs in Morocco, Appalachia, and across the world discover new ways to combine traditional crafts with contemporary styling and modern technology. The end result appeals to a sophisticated buying public and supports rural artisans.
Kathleen Curtis Wilson, an independent scholar affiliated with Virginia Humanities, a nationally known writer and speaker on Appalachian culture and craft history. She has published three books: Uplifting the South—Mary Mildred Sullivan’s Legacy for Appalachia;Textile Art from Southern Appalachia: The Quiet Work of Women and Irish People, Irish Linen. The last is lavishly illustrated, and tells of art, social history, design, fashion, architecture, and cultural traditions that celebrate Ireland’s linen industry. Wilson will be keynote speaker at HGA Convergence 2020.