Beni Ouarain to Boucherouite: celebrating the designs and traditions of North Africa's carpets

Because their geometric designs lend themselves to being copied, it's important to understand and value the traditions of these carpets

Discovering the carpets of North Africa is like taking a highly patterned journey through some of the remotest parts of the Atlas Mountains, before heading into the Sahara Desert.

On this journey, you will discover a celebration of design and tradition, along with the simple practicalities of an essential household item.

Transcending borders

There is a clear distinction to be made between rural, nomadic Amazigh carpets and more urban designs. The on-trend pieces that can be found splashed across the pages of interior magazines and Pinterest are primarily examples of rural Amazigh traditions, which are largely associated with the Atlas Mountains region of Morocco, but have roots and traditions that transcend borders.

To truly appreciate these carpets, you need to understand both the history and geography of the country. While the carpet traditions and motifs of the region are predominantly Amazigh, Arab influences have also made an impact, introducing a formality into some of the more urban designs.

Personal reflections

While a lot of the motifs and patterns that are seen in all the rugs (diamonds, crosses, lozenges and zigzags) are repeated and recognisable, there is a certain freedom and individuality in these rural designs that are not seen elsewhere in rug traditions. These symbols are often references to fertility and protection, and the rugs were woven by women for their homes. As such, they are very personal reflections of the weavers’ hopes and dreams, whether in the monochromatic palette of the Beni Ouarain or the bold and bright weave of the Boucherouite.

What is most striking about the tradition of weaving and carpet-making in Morocco and of the Amazighs of North Africa more broadly, is how tribal the designs, motifs and colours are. To the extent that carpets are still identified in the market today by naming the tribe or area in which they are made.

The Beni Ouarain

Possibly the most popular and well-known of all these tribal designs is the Beni Ouarain carpet, which has been a part of the contemporary design vocabulary for decades. It is a design that sits as comfortably in a humble Berber dwelling as it does in a chic Parisian apartment.

The Beni Ouarain are a collection of tribes from the north-easterly part of the Atlas Mountains – they have had roots in this region for centuries and span formal borders. The monochromatic designs that characterise these carpets are a result of practicality and necessity – originally woven as bedding for cold winter nights in harsh mountain environments, weavers used the undyed wool of a particular breed of sheep farmed by the nomadic tribes of the region. Simple bold geometric designs, often in the form of a simple crosshatch of diamonds, are typical of these carpets. However, a lot of the older versions are more detailed and customised, as the women took their time to weave personal masterpieces, making the Beni Ouarain so much more than merely a black and white carpet that fits in with your Scandi-chic decor.

Until quite recently, these carpets were rarely woven to be sold. It was only when designers such as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright started recognising the innate artistic elegance of these designs and gave them pride of place in contemporary interiors, that they became both appreciated and collectible. Originally, they started life as essential practical household items that were used daily. As a result, an authentic vintage or antique Amazigh carpet will show clear signs of its age and use, with marks and repaired patches forming an integral part of its woven patina.

Following a huge increase in demand, the Beni Ouarain design is being produced by co-operatives and carpet-makers across Morocco, with unique vintage carpets becoming harder to find and a lot more sought after by collectors. Like so many things, vintage and antique designs have more value, but this does not detract from the beauty of a 21st-century Beni Ouarain carpet, either.

There is a symbolic imagery and element of storytelling in the older pieces that is possibly lacking in the modern weaves – but even a newly woven Beni Ouarain remains an intrinsically tribal piece of art and handicraft.

The Boucherouite

Unlike the tribal or geographic differentiation of a lot of the carpets, the Boucherouite is so named because of the technique and materials used. Taken from the Arabic word for scraps or torn fabric, these rag rugs were born out of necessity and a changing access to resources. As lifestyles changed, using scraps became an economic alternative to wool in creating practical household items for use when sleeping and for covering the floor. But these rugs have a particular energy and exuberance that transcends their origins as items of necessity.

Of all the carpet traditions across the region, the Boucherouite is possibly the most playful and creative expression of the woman behind the loom. There is often a joyful eccentricity in the designs of these pieces – some of the asymmetrical designs exhibit colour combinations that are definitely off-piste, but still work.

The overriding sense you get from a lot of contemporary Boucherouite carpets is that the weaver has had some fun, diving into the mix of available fabrics and fibres to create a joyful composition for their home or the marketplace.

These carpets are a wonderful example of how traditions adapt to access (or lack of it) to resources, but although they use new materials, often including bright and synthetic colours and fibres, a lot of the patterns and imagery remain the same – the diamonds, zigzags and crosses that can also be found in the tattoos, jewellery and ceramics of the region.

The Azilal

While the Beni Ouarain and Boucherouite are what most people refer to when considering traditional Moroccan carpets, there are many others. One that has more recently started to grace the pages of design magazines is the Azilal. Like the Beni Ouarain, it has a woollen weave, often with a white background, but with the addition of colours – these have become brighter as weavers respond to market trends. The carpets might be woven in the mountains, but their makers know what sells in the madinah.

Along with the boom and popularity of these carpets comes the inevitable downside of cheap copies and a saturation of the market – there are a lot of “Berber carpets” being sold online which, if you look at the small print, are in fact being manufactured elsewhere. The simple geometric designs and monochromatic palette unfortunately lend themselves to being copied.

With this in mind, it becomes even more important to understand and value the traditions of these carpets. And the upside is there’s now an added value to carpet production that has in some cases given renewed economic energy to some of Morocco’s more remote rural areas, as the tradition of weaving is being valued and kept alive.

Touareg mats

Moving from the mountains to the desert, the deep pile of the wool is replaced by flat weaves and materials such as reed and leather. As the interiors industry continues to scour Africa for inspiration, Tuareg mats are starting to come to the fore.

Just as the Beni Ouarain is a reflection of the cold mountainous environment it is woven in, the Tuareg mat reflects the nomadic desert lifestyle of its makers.

Woven from reed and camel hide and using similarly strong geometric imagery, these mats are an indication of what resources are available to the women who weave their magic.

What is wonderful about all these carpets is they are part of the landscape that has inspired them. They are about utilising local resources, and creating beautiful and useful things in what is often a hard and hostile environment, to last, and to hand down.

It is about unselfconscious self-expression and sometimes, as in the case of the Boucherouite, simply about the pure joy of design and playing with colour. Alongside these design elements, this style of carpet also ticks all the right considerations of contemporary design – of sustainability and slow living, and of recycling and upcycling.