Saturday, April 30, 2011

Learning Moroccan Embroidery

Please note that this post was originally published on my new site, For more news about what I've been up to post Peace Corps, please visit me there. Enjoy!

This May I will be teaching an embroidery class at Crafty Goodness. In the class, I will introduce a very unique and traditional style of embroidery known in Morocco as "Fesi," after the well-know city of Fez (or Fes, as it is spelled in Morocco). One of the things that makes Fesi so unique is that it is completely reversible! So, as part of the class, we will be making greeting cards, thus accentuating this wonderful aspect of the embroidery. To sign up for the class click here. (more details to follow at end of post).

Now for a little background as to how I came to learn this technique. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco (2008-2010), I was assigned to work with a women's handicraft cooperative and though the women are very talented, they needed some help with product development and marketing.

At first, I mostly concentrated on helping them with their crochet work, since crochet was a technique I was already familiar with. However, I desperately wanted to work with developing products with the Fesi embroidery that would be more marketable for them.

Traditionally, this type of embroidery is done on a grand scale. Women embroider large table cloths, densely covered in stitching, and make napkins to match. These tableware sets can take months to finish. The end result is that, though beautiful, the products are either so expensive hardy anyone can afford them, or more commonly, they are priced at an amount which severely undervalues the maker's time and craftsmanship.

Below, Lisa Payne, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, worked with Fatima (right), who is one of the most skillful fesi embroiderers I've ever seen. Here they are with a table-cloth that Lisa commissioned Fatima to make for her parents. Photo courtesy of Lisa Payne.


And this is another beautiful custom piece made by Fatima for Lisa's friends. Look at the detail! Now that's a lot of work! (Photos by Lisa Payne).



Now you get an idea of what I'm talking about when I say that these pieces take months to make. To counteract this, some volunteers who work with embroiders try to help them come up with new products that showcase the lovely technique, yet are smaller, take less time, cost less to buy and make, and therefore are generally more attractive to the growing tourist market. Some groups have started making small items such as handkerchiefs and coin purses.

In the case of Al Falah (the cooperative that I worked with), I taught the women how to embroider on paper so that they could make greeting cards and bookmarks. They even learned how to make handmade paper (out of egg cartons and toilet paper rolls) to do so, since thick, good quality paper is hard to come by in Morocco. Below are greeting cards made by the women of the cooperative using their own handmade paper.

When coming up with new products for the co-op to try (such as the cards), I quickly learned that actual, finished prototypes were the best way to communicate my ideas. That meant I would need to learn the "right way" of making this embroidery.

You see, what makes Fesi embroidery so unique isn't just the intricate, beautiful, traditional designs that originated in the region near Fez. It's the fact that it is completely reversible. When done correctly, there is practically no difference between the front and the back of the work. Below are a pair of handkerchiefs made by a woman who worked with another Peace Corps Volunteer. The two handkerchiefs are identical but the one on the left shows the front of the handkerchief while the one on the right shows the back.

So in December of 2009, about one year into my Peace Corps service, I started to learn the Fesi technique. I learned it the same way that generations of women have learned before me, by apprenticing under a master (in this case, the principal embroidered of the cooperative, Hafida) and made a sampler. Below is my sampler along with detail photos.

The sampler starts at the bottom with the most simple, rudimentary stitch and works its way to the more complicated designs at the top. After about the fifth row I no longer needed Hefida to get me started on each design and could figure out how to do the designs on my own just from looking at other samplers at the co-op or a pattern book. On days that we didn't have other workshops or activities planned, I would bring in my sampler and Hefida would check over my work. The 9 1/2 x 19 inch sampler wasn't completed until April, 2010 and most of the work was done while I was sick with pneumonia for about three weeks and could do little else.

Being an American, learning Fesi embroidery had a very similar effect as learning Moroccan Arabic had, that is to say, it endeared me to Moroccan women. Not only was Hafida and the rest of the co-op proud that I had made the effort to learn the technique, but Fatima (the co-op's most talented crocheter but didn't know how to do Fesi embroidery) soon wanted to learn as well. This was important because at the time the co-op had a t-shirt order to fill with an American company called Mushmina. I had introduced the co-op to Mushmina after meeting the owners, Heather and Katie O'Neill, in a nearby town. The sisters had just started their company and were looking for co-ops to work with and, since Heather was a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Morocco, they were led to the area where I was working at the time. Below (top photo) Oumaima, an apprentice, works on a black t-shirt for Mushmina while cooperative member Fatima (bottom photo, left) and apprentice Fatima (right) work on two sleeves of the same purple shirt.



As the co-op worked at a feverish pace to finish their last t-shirts order in the summer of 2010, I decided to show my support by doing a Fesi embroidered t-shirt myself. I did this partly because I wanted to see for how difficult it is to do this type of embroidery on t-shirt material and to apprieciate the amount of time that goes into making just one shirt. It was clear when they first received the order, along with the gorgeous t-shirts sent by Mushmina, that this was going to be a challenging project. The t-shirts were oh so soft and stretchy, which made doing the embroidery incredibly difficult. Sometimes just getting the shirts into the embroidery hoops would tear the delicate fabric. Below are detail photos of the t-shirt that I embroidered. The embroidery runs the entire lower edge of the shirt, about 37 inches total and took about 2 weeks to complete (it would take the co-op about 7-10 days for a similar amount of embroidery). In order to have a grid in which to embroider, a mesh material is placed on the top of the fabric and then unraveled to reveal the design after it is completely done.




I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to work with such a great group of women and learn this amazing embroidery technique in the process. I hope that the women continue making and selling small items (in addition to their larger ones), so as to keep the technique alive for generations to come. By writing this post and teaching Fesi embroidery here in the US, I hope to make Americans aware of and interested in this beautiful and unique art from Morocco.

If you are in the Cleveland area and enjoy embroidery or at least admire this technique, I hope that you will join me on Sunday, May 22, 2011 from 2-4 pm at Crafty Goodness. The cost of the class is just $25 and will hold up to 6 people, so we will have a nice intimate atmosphere in which to work. To sign up for the class click here. The class is listed by date and under the title Fesi (Moroccan Embroidery). I hope to see you there!

Make sure to like zween on Facebook if you liked this post and want to be updated on future posts about classes, crafty news, stories, and much more!

Below and top of post: Fesi embroidered greeting cards on high-quality art paper by zween.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Crochet Tale...

Please note that this post was originally published on my new blog, zween. To read more about what I've been up to since finishing Peace Corps, please visit me there. You may want to read this post on my new blog, as the right side of my photos were cut off when I transferred the post to this blog. Enjoy!


This is a story about how crochet not only influenced my work with the Al Falah Woman's Cooperative in Oulmes, Morocco, but how it became the driving force behind it.

First, a little background. When I arrived in Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer in the fall of 2008, I thought I knew the basics of crochet. I knew how to crochet in the round and back and forth, and I could do so in single crochet (not double, half double, or triple; just single crochet). I knew how to increase and decrease (incorrectly). I had made hats, fingerless mittens, and a granny square blanket in yarn, market bags from plastic bags, and a giant copper wire installation that was my thesis project for graduating college.

I took up crocheting in Morocco near the end of our three-month Peace Corps volunteer training period (where we learned about Moroccan culture and customs, as well as how to speak Moroccan Arabic). Other volunteers started to take an interest in what I was doing and ask me to lead an introductory crochet class. It was my first time teaching crochet and when I look back on it today I laugh because it was truly the blind leading the blind.

PC Slideshow - 22

Soon afterwords, in November of 2008, we swore in as volunteers. Next, it was time to get settled into our permanent sites where we lived for the next two years.

When I first arrived in Oulmes the women of the cooperative that I was assigned to work with weren't even coming to work. Eventually a couple of girls did show up (usually one or two) and I'd sit with them for however long they stayed at the Artisana, usually just a couple of hours. Sitting there was uncomfortable. It was cold and damp (it rained nearly every day and there is no indoor heating) and the silence was deafening. I wasn't very confident in my speaking abilities yet and it was so difficult to communicate anything.

The first few months were the hardest. I had received almost no background information about this woman's group from Peace Corps, so it was up to me to try to figure out what was going on. It wasn't easy. Mostly I asked very simple questions and relied on my observation skills.

The products the cooperative had on display were so different it was striking. They had rugs woven long ago from people who were no longer involved with the co-op; ugly, heavy macromé "decor" monstrosities; large, intricately embroidered table cloths; and crochet doilies and water bottle cozies. And the projects that they would usually bring with them to work on were hand knit gloves made with the most awful acrylic yarn. Yicks! I didn't know much, but I knew that they were in desperate need of some product development.



It didn't take me long to start bringing crochet projects with me to work on while I sat with the girls, and it quickly became my best mode of communication with them. I started with something familiar, a granny square blanket. It was an easy project that took a long time, about 2 months. Finding materials was interesting. I used this terrible wool yarn, usually used for weaving carpets. It was itchy and the colors bled, but it was also a conversation starter at the co-op, mostly because of my strange yarn choice I'm sure.


PC Slideshow - 211

Soon I decided that I needed to expand my knowledge of crochet, so I burrowed a book on needle craft (circa 1984) from the Peace Corps library. I learned three very important things from that book;

  • How to make all of the crochet stitches

  • How to read a pattern (and thus make motifs that were featured in the book)

  • How to do tapestry crochet

The crochet flower motifs were a big hit. Fatima, the woman in the cooperative best at crochet, wanted to learn how to make each motif as fast as I could explain them. By this time it was spring and the three co-op members (Hafida, Fatima, and Achora) had recruited several girls (ages 16-22) to come to the Artisana to apprentice under them for a year, at which time they would receive their diplomas and become members themselves if they wished. After I taught Fatima how to make a motif she would then teach the younger girls. The Peace Corps calls this "Training of Trainers" (TOT) and it made me feel like I was finally doing something useful, though small as it was.

PC Slideshow - 283

When I brought my first tapestry crochet piece to work, a round coin purse made with the same yucky acrylic yarn they use to make gloves, the ladies became very interested in what I was doing, especially Fatima. Below is Fatima's very first coin purse.


News about my tapestry crochet teaching abilities spread to other volunteers. In July, 2009, I was invited to go to Ain Chaib, down in Southern Morocco where my friend and fellow volunteer, Joy Chen, lived and worked with another woman's cooperative. There I taught two woman the technique. I also found a different type of acrylic yarn that was more suitable for making coin purses. It was a smoother and with more of a luster. When I returned, I was delighted to learn that the same yarn was available right in Oulmes!

I really wanted the women to make more of the coin purses for the upcoming Marché Maroc Craft Fair (a craft fair organized by Peace Corps volunteers) in October, 2009. This was the first craft fair that the women participated in since I came to Oulmes. However, the women only made a few coin purses, and brought mostly the hodge podge of stuff that they had since before I arrived, nearly one year prior.

Sales-wise, The craft fair was a huge disappointment. Though their prices were well below other vendors at the fair, they hardly sold a thing. But sales aren't everything, and it wasn't a total loss. As single women from a small town, Fatima and Hafida (the ones attending the fair) had the opportunity to visit a big city on their own for the first time and network with other Artisans from across Morocco, most of whom where women. As part of the event, the volunteers who organized the show brought in Moroccan consultants to talk with the Artisans about their products and teach them how to better manage their cooperatives. Below, Fatima watches over the co-op's booth at that first Marché Maroc in Fes.


Another good thing about the women participating in the event was that they were able to see for themselves which co-ops were doing well. They realized that for them, smaller, more transportable products were the way to go. They learned that a cohesive booth was much more attractive, and about the importance of having products that appealed to tourists as well as Moroccans.

After the fair I encouraged them to make some purses for me to test out with volunteers and Peace Corps staff in the capital (Rabat) during our mid-service medical exams in December. My fellow Small Business Development volunteers critiqued the products and I was able to sell several of the purses for the co-op. A week later when I returned I gave them the feedback from the other volunteers as well as their money. It was almost twice as much as they had made at the two-day craft fair in Fes! Below are a few change purses that the women made with the nicer yarns.

Now that the ladies had a product that was small and marketable, they went to work making more for the next Marché Maroc in April, this time in Marrakesh. In addition to making the round change purses, I introduced the idea of making rectangular ones for cell phones, but it was their idea to incorporate the Amazigh letter "Z." Not only are they visually interesting, but they have an extra layer of cultural meaning.

The women were always so excited about new ideas and they liked being introduced to new techniques. Whenever I suggested new products, like the i-pod Nano and i-pod Touch pouches they were always willing to give them a try. Though I would make prototypes for all of the products I introduced to them, they always took ownership of what they made, coming up with their own unique color patterns and color combinations. Below are some of the Nano and Touch cases that the women made.

When I came up with a prototype for earrings that looked like blga (pointy Moroccan shoes), I knew that it was time to start teaching the girls how to read crochet patterns so that they wouldn't forget how to make all of these new designs [prototype for shoe at top of post]. For patterns such as the shoes and flower motifs, I drew them out in diagram form, then taught Fatima and Achora (the two main crocheters) what each symbol meant. The women didn't have names for slip stitch and half double crochet, so we decided on what we would call them, then I made a key so that they would remember what the symbols stood for. Luckily, all the coop members are literate. Below, Achora studies a diagram for a textured coin purse.



Once I developed a way for them to record their tapestry crochet designs, using mainly Roman letters in conjunction with numbers, I compiled several designs, along with samples, in a book for them. Knowing how empowered I felt after learning how to write in Arabic script well enough to get by if I needed to jot something down for the girls (which came in handy in several instances), teaching them to be crochet literate was pretty cool.

In April, 2010 they participated in the Marrakesh Marché Maroc craft fair and did very well. Again, the best part of the experience was leaving town and visiting with their growing network of crafty friends, but this time the benefits were also monetary.



Shortly following the Marrakesh craft fair was yet another Marché Maroc in Rabat (May, 2010). Now the women were starting to pick up momentum in a major way. I could see how much they enjoyed getting out of town to meet up with their new friends, who they kept in contact with between fairs via phone. They also liked the idea of being successful and finacialy independent.

In July, 2010, I had another opportunity to teach tapestry crochet to another group of women in southern Morocco. This time I traveled to the very remote village of Oulad L'Arbia and the site of fellow volunteer and friend, April Koury. This time I taught two sisters over the course of three highly intensive days. Though the days were long and hot, the woman were determand to learn the tapestry crochet technique.

This area of Morocco is much more conserve than Oulmes. Here, woman and girls don't even go to the weekly market, let alone travel alone to the major urban areas where craft fairs take place. The education of girls in Oulad L'Arbia is also not what it is in Oulmes. One of the sisters didn't even know how to count. I'm really proud of the progress they both made over those three days. Not only did they learn the technique (which involves counting), but they learned how to read and write tapestry crochet patterns (like the ones shown above) as well!


There was another Marché Maroc scheduled for October, 2010 again in Fes, but unfortunately the event was cancelled. Luckily, the Oulmes ladies would be able to go to the second Marrakesh Marché in early December, 2010, shortly after I finished my Peace Corps Service. I was helping them prepare for the fair right up until I left the country.

Though crochet was just one of many projects that occupied my time as a volunteer, it was probably the most important because it was what helped me to feel accepted and respected among this amazing group of women.

Believe it or not, there are some people who actually think that knowing how to do traditional crafts such as crochet, knitting, embroidery, etc. is a waste of time and a step in the wrong direction for the female sex. But to all those nay sayers I say that you can't judge a woman until you've crocheted a mile of yarn with her hook.




Above three; prototypes and motif samples by Emily Lindberg

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Starting The Next Chapter

About one week ago, on November 12, 2010, Jon and I went from being PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) to RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers). The following are some photos from that day.

Our Small Business Development group together for one last picture.

Our community based training group.

Angie and Terra.

"Stamping Out"

After November 12th we returned back to our site for a couple of days to pack up our stuff and clean out our house. On November 16, the day before 3id Kabir, we traveled to our friend Lisa's site. We left our town shortly after dawn and the drive was one of the most beautiful we've ever had.

Lisa suggested that we go to souk one last time to get some photos. Being the day before the most major holiday in Morocco, we knew that it would be crazy, and sure enough, it was. Most of these pictures were taken while my camera hung at waist level around my neck so as to draw less attention to myself and not make people uncomfortable.

Lisa and Jon standing in front of the horse-draw carriage we took to get to the souk.

The Next day was a full day of sheep slaughtering and eating in celebration of 3id kabir. The following are some of my favorite photos from that day. *Warning, some pictures may not be for all audiences.

Yesterday Jon and I left Morocco and are now doing some traveling in Europe before embarking on a transatlantic cruise and then finally returning home. It is just the beginning of the next chapter of our lives.