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The little girls in headscarves and flowery dresses, learning embroidery from their ma'allema in Fez, were destined to spend most of their lives stitching, the square of sky above the courtyard of their riad, their only view of the outside world. The confinement of women is the cornerstone of superlative Muslim needlework skills. Muslim refugees from Spain, arriving in Morocco from the 9th to the 17th century, settled in seven towns – Fez, Rabat, Salé, Meknès, Tétouan, Chechaouen, Azemmour – and in only these was embroidery practised. The indigenous Berbers were, and still are, weavers. In Morocco, embroidery can be neatly pigeon-holed, the work of each town instantly identifiable. The women embroidered household linen, such as curtains, cushion and mattress covers and accessories, such as sashes and scarves. The fabric was mostly cheap white cotton. The most prolific of the towns was Fez, where embroidery is monochromatic, counted thread-work, rigid and chunky. Cushions have three borders at each end, the first with small geometric patterns, then a wider band of diamond motifs and a row of arborescent risers. Rabat and Salé were pirate strongholds facing each other across the Bou Regreg river. In Rabat, freely-drawn massed flowerheads in bright floss silks in satin stitch, decorate curtains, while the countedthread work of Salé features 02 borders of architectural motifs. The fine fabric of Meknès, its threads impossibile to count, means that the small multi-coloured flowers scattering the field, and the denser borders, have a lively, spontaneous feel. The bright flowerheads on mirror cloths and cushions of Tétouan, worked in brick stitch, contrast totally with the sombre chest covers of nearby Chechaouen, panels of carpet-intensity centred on a goldwork star made by Jewish women. Azemmour's Assisi-type work recalls Renaissance Italy and, while women's lives have changed, here and in Fez, embroidery survives. ••• Sheila Paine


Sheila Paine

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