When walking the ancient and modern streets of Morocco, it won't take long before you notice the many people wearing a similar piece of clothing called a djellaba. It has been traditionally seen for many centuries throughout Arabic speaking countries, and it is basically an ankle length, loose fitting, unisex outer robe with long full sleeves. A contemporary version of this garment was handmade by a cooperative of 50 blind men and women - the Cooperative Des Non Voyants-and was featured at the recent Exposition D'Artisinat in Marrakesh.
Historically, a djelleba is made out of handspun sheep's wool, but over the years, lightweight cotton has been replacing heavier fibers. Among the Berbers, and throughout the Atlas Mountains, the color of one’s djelleba distinguishes marital status. Darker shades of brown signify bachelorhood, whereas muted colors typically represent marriage. It is also common to see these light colored djellabas worn with a bright red fez hat and soft yellow slippers at religious celebrations.
The djellaba covers the entire body and is an acceptable and modest outfit for both men and women. The baggy hood is of vital importance as it protects one from the sun and sand which tends to blow strongly in the desert areas. During colder months, it protects from the snow and rain. Underneath the djellaba, women often wear a kaftan or long dress which expresses femininity as it is usually made using fine fabrics, such as brightly colored silks, and small crocheted buttons that are constructed with extreme precision.
Cooperative Des Non Voyants was not only selling the traditional djellaba, but also used the same fiber and weaving technique to create a chic collection of striped towels, blankets, and throws, and offered them in a variety of trendy, bright colors—from turquoise and pinks, to black and bright whites.
When I asked one of the founding members where they see traditional Moroccan craft moving in the future, he stated, “In recent years, there has been an emergence of the arts in Morocco. More and more funding has been available to attend artisan Expos, so if this trend endures, Moroccan artisans will have a bright and prosperous future.” He added, “The problem is that a lot of the youth do not see a life without suffering if they become artists, so they tend to stray from this field of work. My hope is that this revival continues and the young people will see value in the arts and pass along these traditions. For those who are blind, weaving has become our only way to integrate them into society and earn a living. We are also a bit concerned because large companies are starting to buy storefronts within the marketplace medinas, so it’s hard to compete. Rent is on the increase and we simply can’t afford a space. China is also starting to produce traditional designs and sell these products in the Moroccan souks. For those buyers who are new to this country's native crafts, it can be difficult to distinguish a Chinese made product from a Moroccan one. But things are progressing as new laws are being formed to reduce Chinese imports and competition is pushing us to be more creative and innovate!"