A Knitter’s Weekend: Marrakech
Today we bid a hearty welcome—marhba in Moroccan Arabic—to new MDK contributor Gretchen Wright of Philadelphia. When we heard that this lover and maker of textiles had recently explored Marrakech, we were overjoyed. Settle in with Gretchen for a gloriously craft-centric guide to Marrakech, plus a short hop to Fes to delve into more traditional handwork.
—Kay and Ann
“Hi. My name is Gretchen and I am NOT interested in buying a rug!”
Laughing, my tour guide replied, “Call me Kojak.” (Yes, he resembles the eponymous lead of the 1970s TV series and proudly carries the nickname.) A self-described local historian, lifelong Marrakech resident, teacher and social justice activist, Kojak promised that his only intention was to show me the non-touristic parts of the 1,000-year-old walled city.
Hiring a tour guide is usually not how I travel. I’m more the “get-lost-and-try-to-find-my-way-back-and-then-read-obsessively-about-what-I saw-when-lost” tourist. However, the medina (old city) of Marrakech is the stuff of legend. This labyrinthian UNESCO World Heritage Site, begun in 1070 C.E., begged for a local guide to help interpret and explore the glorious sensory overload that it is. It was worth it.
I followed our gifted storyteller through the narrow residential streets of a variety of neighborhoods as though he was our North Star. There were frequent stops to point out architectural details of significance as well as each neighborhood’s community-sustaining structures of mosques, madrassas, hammams, communal ovens, and donkey stables. We climbed down steep, uneven stone stairs to view the last wood-burning oven that still heats one of the neighborhood hammams and also functions as a communal meat roaster.
Down a different staircase was a community oven, where local women still bring their wooden trays of rising dough covered with colorful cloths to be baked.
Ducking through another doorway we came to an open space housing neighborhood donkeys. Down another alley, we found ourselves in the courtyard of a caravanserai—both a center of commerce and an inn for humans and their camels. This one had begun a new life as artisan workshops.
During one of our quick stops to catch our collective breath, Kojak, extolling the virtues of rugby, inquired as to my favorite sport. I sheepishly shrugged and said knitting and weaving. His eyes lit up and he said he knew exactly where we needed to go next.
Racing through the narrow streets, dodging insistent shop keepers, finally I stopped in awe . . .
Oh my dear fellow yarn lovers, a living, breathing, pettable rainbow of yarn.
Through the rainbow yarn tunnel and up through several floors of piles of colorful skeins just waiting for their time in the spotlight, we exited onto a rooftop dyers’ workshop. In large, wood-fired brick and cement basins, the dyers used wooden poles to continuously stir and move the yarn around.
When done, skeins were hauled out onto the racks to dry under the brilliant blue Moroccan sky.
A shelf along an adjoining wall held the buckets containing the powdered dyes.
Turmeric and saffron for brilliant yellows. Pomegranate skins to turn those yellows more orange. Henna for brown and reddish oranges. Madder and poppy flowers for reds and pinks. This dyers’ workshop produced yarns to the rug trade, and one can see them in their final rug form all over the medina.
Close by is Les Nomades de Marrakech, an Escheresque, maze-like rug store/workshop/design studio, where the staff welcomed us with copious amounts of mint tea and a history lesson illustrated by the types of Moroccan rugs and their weaving patterns. And to top it all off, a weaving lesson, taught via hand gestures and smiles, by two lovely rug weavers on their traditional upright rug loom. Fiber arts—the universal language!
The whirlwind tour of the medina left me with quite an appetite. To fill that void and explore a different art form, I spent an evening with the Dadas of La Maison Arabe. A Dada is a traditional Moroccan cook.
The class started with a mint tea lesson and ended with a feast! We cooked our way through two vegetable salads and a chicken tagine, which we quickly polished off amidst wine and good conversation in the beautiful dining room.
I was captivated by the traditional plasterwork of the dining room fireplace surround and am still dreaming of capturing it in fiber.
Whitework embroidery? Textural knitting? Stranded knitting?
Should you find yourself in Marrakech, the riad at La Maison Arabe is a beautiful oasis at the edge of the bustling medina. Full of history, it was the first restaurant in the medina open to foreigners. Ernest Hemingway, Rita Hayworth, and Winston Churchill were all said to have dined here, and I spent a lovely evening with a cocktail and the echoes of their presence in the dim, club-like hotel bar.
Right outside the medina lies Le Jardin Majorelle, a decades-long project of French painter Jacques Majorelle. Begun in the 1920s, this beautiful landscaped garden was restored by Yves Saint Laurent in the 1980s.
Insta-fab photographers clog up the pathways at certain viewpoints, but there are plenty of vistas for all. The vibrant blue, Bleu Majorelle, featured throughout the garden, was patented by Majorelle and small pots of it can be purchased in the museum gift shop. Marjorelle’s villa on the grounds is now the Amizagh Museum, a just-right-sized museum with a fascinating jewelry and traditional costume collection. The gelato at the cafe directly across from the Jardin’s entrance called as I was leaving. As did the boutique shops next door featuring modern takes on traditional Moroccan crafts.
Next was a quick trip to Fes to take in some of the processes involved in one of Morocco’s other well-known craft products: leather. The Chouara Tannery is hundreds of years old and its processes remain mostly unchanged although there have been numerous efforts to control pollutants. The whole tanning/dying/drying process in the courtyard is viewed from rooftops of local businesses.
From above, the closely spaced basins resemble a watercolor paint set. Vibrant yellow skins drying on a rooftop. Piles of discarded pomegranate rinds from an orange dye bath. Racks of hairless hides waving in the sun. It was hard to make my way back down through the several stories of stunning leathercraft without purchasing, but sacrifices had to be made and something had to be left for the next trip!
I stumbled upon the Anou Cooperative as we were heading out of Fes. Both a storefront and fair trade advocacy organization, the cooperative offers workshops in weaving and dyeing, and they also sell traditional rug yarns just in case you have room in your luggage to squish in another souvenir.
And—protests to Kojak notwithstanding—I did end up buying a rug!