Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Daily Life: Proceedings of the Third Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–26, 1992 (Earleville, MD: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1993).


Copyright © 1992 by the author(s).



This paper grows out of a group process of studying handmade fabric, embroidery, and trim in Fez, Morocco in the late 1980s and early 1990s.1 The group included three textile scholars, a video specialist and myself, an anthropologist.2 While the textile scholars began the project with an interest in the textile products and their means of production, we all became interested in more social aspects of the work.

Other scholars have noted the cues cloth can give in understanding the social relations of a culture. Reddy (1986) looks for hints of the social tensions leading to the French Revolution in the changing ways merchants and others "talked" about cloth in a universal dictionary of commerce published several times between 1730 and 1784. He finds "...an odd combination of rigidity and flexibility...(264)" which he relates to the later upheaval of the 1789 Revolution, a throwing aside of the old order and difficulty in accepting a new one. In the dictionary's discussion of commodities, he sees "...the necessary intimacy that always subsists between social relationships and things (282)."

In their Introduction to Cloth and Human Experience (1989), Schneider and Weiner give an overview of the way textiles and their manufacture are important in "...the reproduction of social life and power (4)." Of special interest here is their discussion of cloth in large scale societies, like Morocco today. While such cultures have wide access to machine made fabric, some local handmade textiles persist "...as aspects of the consolidation of cultural identities...(16)." One of their examples is Ghandi's adoption of homespun cotton cloth in India as a symbol, and fact, of India's independence from British manufacturing.

While the other papers on Morocco focus more on the textile products, though including social context, I will deal specifically with the social lives and interactions of the textile producers, merchants and consumers, and through them and their dealing with changing economic and social conditions, present a picture of one segment of Moroccan society today.


The name Fez in association with handmade textiles may call up images of the exotic East, frozen in time. While a first visit to the old city or medina can reinforce this image, it is only one part of the total picture. Before we discuss the artisans and merchants and their products and customers in detail, the reader needs an accurate context in which to understand them.

The city of Fez is located in Morocco, on the northwest shoulder of Africa. While Morocco is an Arab Muslim country, for centuries it has been a crossroads for the cultures of Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. In size and climate Morocco resembles California, and grows wheat as a staple crop, a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and citrus for export. Handmade carpets and factory-produced leather jackets, bags and shoes are also exported.

Fez is the traditional cultural capital of Morocco, the source of the quintessential forms of Moroccan music, food, and handicrafts, and longtime provider of the country's intellectual and political leaders. Fez is also Morocco's mercantile capital, where tradition is balanced with innovation, as you will see below. The coexistence of old and new is physically present in the city itself, which has modern Europeanized sections with broad tree-lined avenues strolled by young men in leather jackets and women in western dress. In older sections with narrow winding streets, one can still see traces of areas organized by different craft guilds. The city was founded in 829 A.D., soon after Islam arrived in Morocco, and "new Fez" dates from the 1300s.