From Sheep to Shop: The Journey of a Beni Ourain Rug

The Beni Ourain rug has found new admirers all over the world, but the process of making one has remained the same for centuries
The Beni Ourain rug has found new admirers all over the world, but the process of making one has remained the same for centuries | Courtesy of Grant Legan
Photo of James Tennent
30 January 2020

Travel deep into the Atlas Mountains, the range that traverses North Africa and makes up a good section of Eastern Morocco, and you’ll find villages where rugs are still woven by rural mountain communities.

In the Middle Atlas, many Berber tribes still live in villages barely accessible up dirt tracks edging off the sides of cliffs. These communities hold the secrets to weaving Beni Ourain rugs, an ancient process that has found a host of new admirers from around the world.

Traditionally, these rugs began their lives high up in the mountains before finding their way to a shop in Marrakech, Fez or some other Moroccan city. But due to their rising popularity, a new business venture has stepped into the fray, creating an alternative way for people to acquire these coveted carpets direct from the source. And in doing so, they’ve cut out a crucial stage in the typical journey of a Beni Ourain rug. But does this change cut out an essential element of it?

Villages of artisans

The very first point of call is out on the mountainside, with the sheep. Duties are generally split up by gender, but shared between the whole village. Most of the shepherding is done by the men, who also shear the sheep when the time comes.

Most of the shepherding is done by the men in the village | Courtesy of Grant Legan

That wool is then separated, depending on factors like age and where on the sheep’s body it comes from. The very best wool sits along the sheep’s neck and spine – even better if that animal hails from the High Atlas. The softer, purer fleece is then usually mixed together with the hardier, coarser wool that comes from the Middle Atlas herds.

To get enough wool for a standard sized rug, it’ll take 50 to 100 sheep giving up their well-grown winter coats. Once it’s separated, the women take it for its first cleaning, often using Morocco’s famous Beldi soap, down in the local streams that flow from the mountaintops.

Wool from the sheep’s spine and neck is softer, purer and usually reserved for special projects | Courtesy of Grant Legan

The spooling is another job for the women, who hand-spin the wool into different thicknesses of yarn that are then twisted around a wooden dowel. Much of it is left the colour of natural cream, but if different shades are needed for the design, weavers use local flora and spices to dye the yarn.

Once they know the rug’s basic design, the women can start to set up the loom with the necessary dimensions and begin to loop on each string of yarn. If the design is being kept traditional, they’ll leave a space for tassels and additional adornments on one side.

Some of the wool is dyed with local spices and flora | Courtesy of Grant Legan

‘The charm of the hand’

Inevitably, mistakes are made during the making of Beni Ourain rugs. But these inimitable imperfections are precisely what gives them value – something that is missing from their factory-made counterparts. Locals refer to these unique whorls of errors as ‘the charm of the hand’.

They’re also found in zellige, the geometric tiles that adorn the interiors of Moroccan structures, from mosques to riads. They look like complete, perfect designs from afar. But as you get closer you start to see the slight mismatches and minute mistakes.

The imperfections of each Beni Ourain rug is precisely what makes them precious | Courtesy of Grant Legan

No two zellige or Beni Ourain rugs will ever look the same, even if they’re ostensibly of the same design. And that’s exactly why collectors, designers and those who like to buy fine things are flocking to Marrakech to find one to call their own.

No two Beni Ourain rugs are the same, even if they’re made with the same designs | Courtesy of Grant Legan

The typical rug shop rigamarole

For over 60 years, Galerie Ben Rahal in Marrakech’s Nouvelle Ville has been in the business of buying and selling rugs. If you’ve got an antique rug you’re looking to get rid of, they could help; if you want to amble through 20th-century rugs from across Morocco, they’re there for that experience, too.

“These rugs are mostly vintage 20th-century and older,” Youssef says. “All are handwoven.” Some are flat-woven kilims, some are knotted pile rugs, some are multicoloured and heavily patterned – all are completely unique.

Each tribe or village will impart their own unique aesthetic sensibilities onto the rug | Courtesy of Grant Legan

There’s an inventory of thousands to explore, coming from all over the country – tribal designs from the High Atlas and the Middle Atlas, Rbati Arab designs, Haouz designs. This shop is for people who want to peruse, drink tea and talk about carpets while making their decision.

The traditional rug shop rigamarole can be an incredibly time-consuming process – one that typically takes at least an hour if not several. And the customer usually ends up compromising on something – perhaps it’s a little too big or the colour combinations aren’t quite right.

Beni Rugs ensures that weaving studios are built near women’s homes, so they don’t have to travel far for other household duties | Courtesy of Grant Legan

That’s where Beni Rugs comes in – a new business that is threatening to cut out the salesman altogether.

Bringing Moroccan rugs into the Internet age

It’s been nearly two years since Tiberio Lobo-Navia and his business partner Robert Wright fully launched Beni Rugs. Their online platform allows people to design their own carpets to then be handmade in the traditional style by Berber tribes. It’s a change to the old way of doing things. But that’s not to say they don’t understand the real rug shop adventure.

The village involved with Beni Rugs creates bespoke pieces that are made to measure | Courtesy of Grant Legan

“It’s an experience that you have once in your life,” Tiberio Lobo-Navia says, sipping a nos-nos (a Moroccan style of coffee that’s about half milk, half espresso) outside Marrakech’s iconic Grand Café De La Poste.

With the carpets becoming increasingly popular in interior design circles, having someone like Tiberio who can go straight to the source and get the exact rug you desire is very useful. While in the business of imperfection, Beni Rugs caters to perfectionists – letting customers design their rugs exactly the way they want them, either with traditional patterns or completely unique designs.

While this appeals to those with particular flair and concentration for interior design, for many, the age-old carpet shop – and the charm of the sale – is still the way to experience the whole carousel. For some, haggling is part of the experience. Take that out, and you remove an essential element of acquiring a Beni Ourain rug.

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