Moroccan Berber Rugs – An Overview

On the northern edge of the Sahara Desert lives a distinct cultural, ethnic, and tribal group usually referred to in English as the Berber people although they refer to themselves as the Amazighs. Known most famously for inhabiting southern Morocco, today there are more than 30 million Berber people inhabiting parts of Morocco, Algeria, Niger, Libya, Tunisia, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Speaking their own language, the Berber people are today renowned for their high-quality rugs and carpets.

Hand-woven since time immemorial, Berber carpets or rugs are a distinctive form of the craft that uses a loop pile technique for long-lasting durability and comfort. Traditionally made in muted earth tones ranging from light creams similar to the desert sands of the Sahara to darker browns and greens reflecting the mountain ranges that the Berber people inhabit, Berber rugs have become some of the most sought-after and valuable textiles in the world.

Most Berber rugs feature little or no decoration except for small flecks of color or simple geometric patterns, although some rugs have more distinctive and eye-catching designs. Although modern industrial processes have been able to duplicate the essential techniques of manufacturing Berber rugs, the hand-woven varieties remain high-value items and often serve as the main source of income for rural Berber communities in Morocco and other areas on the fringe of the Sahara Desert. Because of the way that Berber rugs are individually handcrafted from natural fibers, they are an excellent choice for use in offices, living rooms and other areas with high foot traffic as Berber rugs offer unparalleled durability and comfort.

One of the most famous tribes of the Berber people are known today as the Beni Ourain. Carpets and rugs woven by the Berni Ourain are made from undyed natural wool and decorated with a variety of simple geometric designs ranging from brown to gray to black. Most Beni Ourain have a traditional fringe or tassels on the end of the two shortest sides but some Beni Ourain rugs are made without this feature. Due to the way that their tribal name is transliterated in either French or Arabic, the Beni Ourain are sometimes known as the Beni M’rirt.

Because most Berber rugs are woven from undyed wool gathered from sheep husbanded by members of the tribe, the lanolin component allows Berber rugs to be generally very resistant to stains and discoloration. When Berber rugs do become stained or soiled, it is imperative to use either dry cleaning techniques or special detergents with low amounts of moisture so as not to change the chemical composition of the underlying wool. Using high temperatures or steam to clean a Berber rug can result in yellow or brown discoloration due to the changes in the acid levels in the wool. If water or other liquids are allowed to saturate a Berber rug, this can result in yellow or brown discoloration as natural colorants in the wool can begin to leach out.

Although Berber rugs are designed to be extremely durable textiles subject to heavy foot traffic, they should be thoroughly cleaned every year and be properly maintained throughout. If a Berber carpet does become discolored due to improper cleaning techniques or is saturated with water or other liquids, it is imperative that it be cleaned immediately either by applying hot air to the bottom of the rug or by applying professional carpet cleaning techniques.

While Berber rugs now compromise a known style and technique of weaving textiles, it is important to understand that the term Berber often refers to several somewhat distinctive tribes living on the edges of the Sahara Desert. One unifying element of Berber culture is the Berber family of languages, a closely-knit group of related tongues and dialects indigenous to the area of North Africa where the Berber people still live today. Considered to be an important branch of the Afroasiatic language family that contains other languages like Hebrew and Arabic, the Berber family of languages is still the primary language spoken by approximately 30-40 million people in North Africa and Europe. Most Berbers today have been incorporated into post-colonial states and often speak French, Spanish, or Arabic in addition to their mother tongue. Today, the Berber language is an official language in both Morocco and Algeria.

The Berber people have existed since antiquity and were mentioned in several important chronicles of the Romans and Greeks. While Berber is the term given to them by the colonial powers, the Berber people refer to themselves as the Amazighs, which is thought to meant either “noble people” or “free people”. Historically a semi-nomadic people, the Berbers were famous for raising sheep that produced high quality wool. It was by using this undyed wool to hand-weave durable and stain resistant rugs that they became known to the outside world as Berber carpets and rugs were of the highest quality, unmatched until the Industrial Age and the rise of mechanized weaving processes for creating textiles on a mass scale.