Alia Kate is the founder of Kantara Rugs, a premiere source for trade trade, handwoven Moroccan carpets in the United States. HAND/EYE Online spoke with her about the Moroccan carpet industry, the role of women carpet weavers, about preserving the craft and the future of weaving Morocco
HAND/EYE: How do you think your perspective has shifted since you first got involved in this field of work?
Alia Kate: I first got involved in the carpet industry because I was following a gut reaction. The art and artistry in the carpets spoke to me. I was fascinated by the patterns and symbols. They resonated with me because they represented an unfamiliar language. Initially, I was on a mission to uncover the meaning behind the symbols in the carpets and through doing that, I met the artisans, heard their stories, and ultimately began my business. At that point, I was still trying to learn as much as I could about the history of weaving, the motifs, and the relationship between rural weavers and the urban tourist market. Years later, I still am interested in those things, but now my most immediate goals are to work with the artisans in developing products that are marketable to a US consumer. The more these women sell their products, the more they are able to define themselves within the Moroccan carpet trade, and the more empowered and independent they become within their own communities.
H/E: I know that when you first started, you were working with individual artisan families and now you are working with associations. Can you describe why you chose to go this route?
AK: If I could, I would work with every weaver throughout the country, whether they were organized into cooperatives and associations or working individually. There are no precise statistics of how many women weavers there are in Morocco, although I estimate that more than half of adult women living in rural areas have looms in their kitchens, sheep in their backyards, and recently-dyed wool hanging from their clothes-lines. Right now, I work with one family-based association and one cooperative of weavers, so I get to experience a different organizational style with each of my producer groups. Most women are placed into either of these trade groups, although there still remains a large percentage of women who weave on their own and sell their carpets individually at the weekly markets. These independent women are at the biggest disadvantage because they have no bargaining power with their buyers and are often prompted to sell their rugs at a very low price just to make ends meet.
The groups that I work with produce well-designed and well-finished wares, but this wasn’t always the case. Over the years, I have facilitated quality control workshops explaining the benefits of direct and fair trade, the importance of transparency and accountability in their organization, and the need to have consistent quality control measures in place.
H/E: Could you explain the overabundance of supply that has fueled the carpet industry and how this has divorced producers from the end product? Do you find this issue to be on the increase in Morocco?
AK: A unique set of factors converged in Morocco to create an overabundant supply of carpets.
One factor is that today in Morocco, there is a thriving tourist market. Millions of western tourists arrive every year and most go home with stories of being ushered into the carpet bazaars of Marrakesh and Fez, offered mint tea, and regaled with stories of camel caravans and Berber blue men. Most leave with a bundled up Moroccan carpet under their arms. With the mystery that has been crafted around these historical objects of art, it is no wonder that tourist demand is so high for these products. As a result, bazaarists and middlemen fan out on a daily basis from these tourist centers, as they comb the countryside for new carpets that will hold their own in the Marrakesh carpet trade.
While demand for quality carpets is high, it can never compete with the supply of carpets that is produced on a daily basis throughout Morocco, for the sole reason that most adult rural women are talented weavers. Traditionally, before girls reached an age where they would begin weaving, they would help out by cleaning and carding the wool, and apprentice from the older women in their families. Her first woven carpet would be her dowry piece. From that point she would continue weaving until years later, the young woman would become a Maâlema, that is, a master weaver. She would become adept at weaving symbols of her tribal region into the carpets and recording a visual, living story of her life in the warp and weft threads. When weaving transitioned from a cultural tradition into a commercial commodity, the quality of the carpets decreased, as the weavers were more concerned with producing a high quantity of items. Today, there are more weavers who churn out rugs than there are buyers to purchase them. Because there are so many weavers and the quality of the weaving ranges significantly, it has turned into a buyer’s market where the middlemen are able to name their price for the goods.
H/E: Most women depend on the middleman to set their prices and to sell their rugs at local markets. From your perspective, how has the role of the middlemen changed over the years? Are women gaining a voice and ownership?
AK: The role of the middlemen has stayed the same. They deal largely with individual weavers and set their own prices. As long as there are women weaving out of their own homes and a tourist-driven demand for carpets, there will be middlemen to buy the rugs at cheap prices.
One reason the middlemen have been able to thrive in this structure is because it is difficult for women to travel to the urban city centers in order to directly promote and sell their rugs to the shop owners and bazaarists. It is also culturally inappropriate, as traditionally women would do the weaving while and the men would engage in the selling of the rugs.
There are certain groups of women who are bridging that gap. These women are venturing into the business world, organizing into the cooperatives and associations, and then making the journey to the cities to sell their rugs. While this is starting to change, and I see more mobility among women weavers every time I travel to Morocco, it is still only a small percent that have the means to travel and do travel.
These women have a long road ahead of them, but they have made considerable strides nonetheless. For many, the first task is achieving literacy. Then they must learn basic accounting and financial skills. Computer literacy is becoming more and more of an essential skill to have, even for women living in villages off of the grid. Finally, these women are discovering that it is not enough to speak Arabic and their Amazigh dialect—they must also learn either French or English in order to be able to promote their carpets, communicate with their buyers and maintain a sustainable small business operation.
As they start to acquire these skills, they gain more of a voice and more ownership over their products and how they're sold, for what price, and to whom. Those who are truly successful are the ones who have come to understand that it is not enough to have just a good product, they must also know how to access their customers.
H/E: Considering women are the weavers and bring in money for their craft ... do you believe they are gaining empowerment? Is this craft helping them gain confidence and financial independence? How have gender roles shifted?
AK: Traditionally weaving was a craft that women learned because it was something they could do while staying in the house, taking care of the children, and cooking for their families. Carpets were first woven for warmth, but were also imbued with personal and cultural meaning. As weaving transitioned from something that was critical to survival into a commercialized trade, the women's role in the process remained the same. Women were still only weavers, while men took over the financial end of operations - promoting and selling the carpets. In this way, the art of weaving and the business dealings of the carpet trade have always remained inextricably separated, based on gender lines in Morocco.
Despite the fact that very few women are involved in the selling of their products, they are becoming more empowered for other reasons. Over the last 10 years there has been a concentrated push for literacy in rural areas. Older women are learning to read and write and younger girls are staying in school much longer than they used to. Also, the proximity of the global world is evident through the ubiquity of satellite television and the prevalence of internet cafes. While these women may not know how to use the internet as skillfully as we do, they know it exists and understand the power behind it. They see images onscreen from various countries around the world and are able to detect similarities and differences within their own culture. One illiterate rural woman, who had probably never left the neighboring town of a few thousand people, likened her recently woven Moroccan rug to one that was 'similar to Native Americans'. She stole the words right out of my mouth, leaving me wondering where she had gained that knowledge and self-awareness.
Therefore, while women are still not rising in the ranks of the institutional weaving structure, they are nonetheless becoming empowered through other means. At the end of the day, knowledge is power.
H/E: Do you find the grandmothers to be the only culture keepers, or do you think that children are slowly see the importance in preserving this craft?
AK: The grandmothers truly are the gatekeepers of the craft. While the younger women have learned enough to become Maalemas, they are still not as skilled at carding and spinning wool as the older generation. At one point not so long ago, all carpets were made out of hand-spun and naturally dyed wool. Nowadays, most women buy chemical dyes at the weekly souk and use machine-spun wool for their carpets. Even though the materials for weaving have changed, the old designs and symbols have successfully transcended the generations to appear in modern-day Moroccan rugs. Nevertheless, with each subsequent generation, the skill required to artfully craft a rug from sheep to finished product is starting to fade from their collective memory.
Part of this can be attributed to a saturated market that has limited ability to accommodate finely crafted rugs. With the system that is in place, quantity is more important than quality and tribal boundaries are no longer important, as women are eager to weave the styles that are most marketable in the western world of interior decorating. In countless villages throughout Morocco, weavers have begun to replace their unique weaving styles in favor of the two styles that have become popular in the United States, the Beni Ouarain and Boucherite rugs. Oftentimes, these women have no previous experience weaving those particular styles, but do so in the hopes that they will be more profitable in the souks and bazaars.
As modern weavers attempt to respond to a global market demand, their carpets unfortunately lose a bit of their unique identity and the younger women lose more of their knowledge of the craft as a whole. Instead of inheriting from their grandmothers the skills and styles that have been woven in their communities for centuries, the younger girls learn to weave in response to the vagaries of a fickle western market.
H/E: You mention that Kantara is finding the middle ground… can you explain this a bit? How do you find the balance between viewing the rugs as products as well as cultural relics?
AK: In addition to selling Moroccan handwoven products, one of my goals with Kantara has always been to instill an appreciation for new production of Moroccan carpets in the United States. I aim to change peoples’ perceptions of hand-woven textiles and make them reconsider the value of newly woven pieces. In the US, there is an entire industry built around antique and oriental rugs, but unfortunately that same consideration and monetary valuation does not translate to current Moroccan weavings, which are also beautiful works of art.
Because I am at the forefront of introducing these textiles to the US, I have delved into many different platforms on which to spread the word. I have collaborated with a talented documentary photographer, Anna Beeke in order to launch our multidisciplinary exhibit called Untangling Threads, which displays Moroccan rugs beside artistic photos and videos of the lives and lifestyles of the weavers.
Out of this project, I have developed a comprehensive arts education program that interfaces with state standards and uses the carpets to teach about culture, politics, religion, economics, and geography to children from elementary through high school.
H/E: Do you feel optimistic about the future of weaving in Morocco?
AK: Sadly, I do not feel very optimistic about the future of weaving in this amazing country. The older women will continue to weave, but it is the younger girls that bear the burden of learning the skills necessary in order to continue the historic craft. They see their mothers struggling to sell their carpets in local markets and have turned to other trades that are less time-intensive to learn, like embroidery. On that same note, many rural girls are staying in school much longer and are only beginning to apprentice as weavers later in life. Because of their late start at apprenticing, the girls’ weaving usually stops as soon as they get married and begin to grow their families.
This is why I continue to work with small groups, encouraging them to produce high quality carpets. By paying the artisans a living wage, presenting quality control workshops, and creating a market for the lesser-known Moroccan weaving styles in the United States, I hope to demonstrate that their craft can be lucrative and appreciated when it is most authentic. In this way, I hope to show the young girls that weaving can be not only a source of economic freedom, but also a means for creative empowerment, as they carry on a tradition that spans the ages.