The Tribal Rug from Humble Beginnings: The Moroccan Berber

Though beautiful Moroccan Berber rugs are trendy now, they have a history that goes back tens of thousands of years.

One type of Berber rug is made by the Beni Ourain people, who are made up of about seventeen tribes living in Morocco’s Rif mountains. The rugs are woven from the luxurious wool of the sheep these tribes traditionally look after. Though their rugs may resemble each other superficially, a closer look reveals differences in design, symbolism and color.

True Beni Ourain rugs are handwoven by the women of the tribe, who learned the craft from their mothers and pass it down to their daughters and granddaughters. The rugs, which were originally made to serve as blankets and not rugs, tell the stories of the weaver, her tribe and her ancestors. There is no template as to how the rugs should be woven, so no two are exactly alike. They can take as long as a year to weave.

The rugs are also seen as protection against bad luck and often contain good luck symbols. Among the symbols found in a Beni Ourain or Berber rug is the nose, which represents a crow’s beak. This symbol is often attached to a necklace and worn by a child for protection. The lion’s paw, eye and finger are also symbols of protection, while the barley design is a symbol of fertility.

These rugs have thick, soft pile and patterns of brown or black lines and shapes woven into a cream or white ground. The knots at the back of the rug are made in a way that is peculiar to each tribe or even each family. Most of the rugs lack borders and may or may not be fringed. Some weavers burn the edges of their rugs for luck. Authentic rugs are never more than seven feet long or wide, yet they are durable and can last a lifetime. Their beauty and strength attracted such designers as Alvar Allto, Charles and Ray Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Mass produced Beni Ourain rugs aren’t made in Morocco. They can be told from handwoven rugs because the patterns aren’t as intricate, and the pile is not as soft. A rug that’s over seven feet long is almost certainly not original. Beni Ourain rugs are also colored with natural dyes such as saffron, mint, pomegranate and henna, though some are not dyed at all.

Other Moroccan Berber rugs tend to be more colorful than the traditional Beni Ourains. Though these rugs are still handmade in some areas of Morocco and other places inhabited by the Berber people, Berber rugs are mass produced for home and business owners who crave the beauty of these Moroccan style rugs. Though the traditional Berber rugs are woven of natural fibers, mass produced rugs are made from such synthetics as nylon and olefin. These rugs are hardy enough to bear up under high traffic, and are often used in public places.

Experts recommend that Berber rugs or Beni Ourain rugs be cleaned every six to 12 months. They should be cleaned and repaired by professionals who specialize in the care of Berber and Oriental rugs. Steam cleaning these rugs as one would other types of rugs can damage the olefin and leave stains on the fabric. Care needs to be taken to keep these rugs as strong and vivid as possible.

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