Morocco's last brocade master

As fashions changed, the wide, colourful belts that for centuries were the pride of the master weavers of Fez gradually stopped selling.
Thursday 09/05/2019
A dying tradition. Abdelkader Ouazzani, the last of Morocco's brocade master weavers, works on a tapestry at his workshop in Fez. (AFP)
A dying tradition. Abdelkader Ouazzani, the last of Morocco's brocade master weavers, works on a tapestry at his workshop in Fez. (AFP)

Abdelkader Ouazzani, the last of Morocco's brocade master weavers, has been repeating the same gestures for 63 years in his dilapidated workshop in the heart of the old city of Fez.

"This profession is vanishing ... There were many craftsmen in Fez but they all died and only memories remain," said the 79-year-old weaver, the last witness of a bygone era.

His skilful hands create intricate shimmering silk fabric, enhanced with gold or silver thread, for bridal jewellery, designer creations or high-end furnishings. His feet rest on wooden pedals, his shoulders are bent forward, his arms move apart with each launch of the wooden shuttle.

His entire body engages in the delicate job, using a complex drawloom mechanism made up of a large wooden frame topped with beams, rafters, blades, pulleys and counterweights.

"It's all a question of calculation, each thread takes its path. It's like mathematics," Ouazzani said.

He is secretive about the "rules of the art," which he learnt long ago when, he said, "there were no industrial machines" to do the job.

His work is physical and meticulous: It takes an entire day to weave 1 metre of brocade.

"Not everybody is allowed to see that. It's very special. He is the last man working like that," explained a tour guide leading Thai tourists to the workshop.

They are visiting on the recommendation of the wife of the head of a major Moroccan bank, herself a client of Ouazzani’s.

An article in the historical journal Hesperis, published in 1950 by the Institute of Higher Moroccan Studies, described the weaving of brocades from Fez as a tradition that "disappeared everywhere else in North Africa."

It said the ancestral knowledge had its roots in the era of the Merinid sultans of the 13th century.

"In the 1950s, there were still four or five workshops left," said Mohamed Akhda, the tour guide. "You are now in the last one left in the country."

Ouazzani said he can't find a young apprentice to take over his workshop.

"People no longer want to learn this profession," he said. "No one cares."

"The future of this refined craft is now threatened," states a panel affixed by the tourist office outside the workshop, hailing Ouazzani as an "undisputed master of the craft."

As fashions changed, the wide, colourful belts that for centuries were the pride of the master weavers of Fez gradually stopped selling. In the age of globalisation, the final blow came with industrial-scale competition. In Fez as elsewhere, souvenir shops sell low-end products that are machine woven in China.

Ouazzani, on the other hand, works on commission for a clientele he describes as "the elite of the elite." His rare fabrics cost up to 5,000 dirhams ($560) per metre, depending on the complexity of the patterns.

A digital tablet he uses to show pictures of his most beautiful pieces -- and of his grandchildren -- is the only modern object in his workshop, which is otherwise crammed with ancient furniture.

On the high walls of the dark room hang framed diplomas and faded pages from fashion magazines.

The master hides his most cherished "treasures" in a small wooden cupboard protected by a dusty tablecloth.

With an expansive gesture, he unfolds his "catalogue," a 16-metre-long roll of fabric with motifs that range from the Hispanic-Moorish tradition to Oriental art or European designs.

"This one I made for Colette," Ouazzani said, showing a photo of a caftan with a purple geometric pattern on a black background.

His pride and joy, the exquisite work was displayed in the window of the famous French boutique, which, until it closed in 2017, was one of the most popular addresses in chic Paris.

(AFP)