Highly coveted hand woven textiles have become quite a star-studded international group sought as much for their visual appeal as their native cultural context, including such luminaries as Native American Manta Blankets (rectangular textiles), African Mud Cloth (dyed with iron-containing clay), Indonesian Ikats (cloth woven from resist/tie-dyed yarns), Central Asian Suzanis (embroidered textiles), Japanese Shibori (resist/tie-dyed cloth), and colorful striped Aguayos of the Andes region. There’s no denying the increasing fame of each one of these artisanally significant exotic textiles as they continue their impressive rise in popularity among Western interior design styles.
One of the most recognizable, glamorous and highly desired members of this exclusive hand woven club - one that has been enjoying its status as a sought after one-of-a-kind handmade textile for nearly the past decade - is the Moroccan wedding blanket, or handira (the arabic word for cape or shawl). These sequined, two-sided creamy-toned blankets known locally in their village dialect as tamizart and tahddun by the female tribe members who weave them, are a microcosm of the lesser-known, traditional, rural Berber (or Amazigh, and Imazighen for plural) culture of Morocco, as well as much of northwest Africa.
BOHO GLAM HEIRLOOMS
Part bohemian glam and all tribal heirloom, handiras continue to gain and enjoy global star status due to an appealing combination of their characteristic sequined sparkle, undyed natural fiber color palette, and an exotic storied heritage. Unlike the majority of imported traditional textiles and rugs from Africa, Asia and Europe, the creamy minimalist palette of Moroccan wedding blankets can be effortlessly integrated into a variety of decor styles when compared to more vibrant and bold patterns of native textile arts. Combine this with the finely-patterned designs and shimmery sequins specifically used for their power to deflect the evil, or “bad,” eye, and the effect can be spellbinding.
The spontaneous mastery behind this impressive weaving talent is captivating - there are no patterns, written instructions, or designs to follow. Each one is conceived entirely in the moment from memory by the women who have been responsible for weaving them by hand for centuries. Handiras are also notoriously unique and as one-of-a-kind in their handmade design and bestowed baraka as the bride-to-be is herself.
But what is it that really drives the obsession to own a genuine Moroccan wedding blanket heirloom?
ANCIENT CULTURAL HISTORY
Handiras have a rich, cultural history that goes back centuries, or maybe even millennia. As wedding capes and ultimately sources of domestic warmth and decoration, these textiles were conceived to serve an actual cultural purpose: to become genuine matrimonial heirlooms reflecting the beliefs and customs of generations.
Wedding blankets are hand woven by the Imazighen (Berber) women of the Ait Sdik tribe of Morocco’s Middle Atlas mountain region. It is in this tribal village where handiras are known only by their native Imazighen (Berber) dialect names of tahddoun or tamizart for cape or shawl.
When asked about wedding blankets by referring to them as handiras, Ait Sdik weavers will have no immediate knowledge of what this word refers to because it’s an Arabic word not part of their centuries old native language. The word handira has only recently become synonymous with traditional wedding textiles as they’ve grown in popularity among design enthusiasts around the world and sold in souks throughout Marrakech, Fez and beyond.
Historically, Berbers (Imazighen) were among the first inhabitants of the northern coastal region of Africa according to ancient records dating back nearly 10,000 years. Despite outside interference from various waves of invading European and Arab civilizations throughout the area’s history, many tribes remained too remote in the harsh desert or mountainous regions to be influenced to any significant degree by the language, religion, or culture of the continuously changing ruling regime.
The result is that the daily lives of tribes located in these regions remained relatively unchanged over thousands of years. This has meant that many tribes have kept their native tribal dialects and Imazighen cultural traditions in tact, including their tamizart (handira) weaving customs.
There are several Imazighen subtribes spread across northwest Africa. Each of these communities have contrasting customs and traditions but are able to navigate communication through similarities in dialect as well as the visual vocabulary handed down through the millennia and observed in the design of their handmade arts.
HANDIRA WEAVING FAMILY CUSTOMS
Berber wedding blankets are woven by hand using varying combinations of linen, sheep's wool and cotton as determined by the weaver in anticipation of a future matrimonial ceremony by the female relatives of the bride's family. It can take hundreds of hours - sometimes several weeks to months of continuous work - to weave and attach thousands of mirrored sequins into visually appealing designs believed to offer protection and good fortune.
For this reason, tamizart weaving is done collaboratively with the bride's close female relatives over several months or more using this as an opportunity to educate the bride-to-be about her new marital life, expectations and duties after the union ceremony.
After a 3-day wedding ritual, the bride wraps the newly-woven blanket around her shoulders and secures it with the ties as a kind of ceremonial cape. Symbolically, it represents the start of her trip to the new matrimonial home, which, given the high altitude of the Middle Atlas ranges, distance to the new home, and time of year, could be a long chilly one.
Visual motifs, materials and objects integrated into the design of Moroccan wedding blankets represent a myriad of cultural meanings, purposes and beliefs of the Ait Sdik Imazighen community now nearly world famous for their artisanal talents.
The process itself of mindfully hand weaving, for example, is believed to transfer and endow the blanket with all the goodness and blessings, or baraka, that one can conjure during the process. Sequins are used to deflect misfortune, while symbols and motifs are often used to direct good and confound negative energies.
When finished, the new wedding blanket serves not just as a decoration and warmth-giving cover for the new bride, but also as a symbolic sign of good luck, fertility and health for the newlyweds. It’s undyed natural white color and weaving method are believed to ward off negative spirits from inhabiting the new mother-to-be. And because each cape was custom designed to the size of the bride, they can be found in a wide range of varying sizes.
Given such history and cultural meaning, it probably doesn’t require much of a leap to understand the massive popularity behind these sequin-decked, cream-colored textiles in Western culture and interior styles.
In homes from coast to coast, throughout luxury hotels, inns and cozy Bed & Breakfasts, not to mention a fair share of celebrity abodes, these meticulously handcrafted textiles are finding their way onto sofas, beds, and seating of all kinds. They are increasingly being used as wall hangings, rugs, and to upholster pillows and headboards designed to complement a broad range of interior decor aesthetics.
Moroccan wedding blankets are not sought after simply for the exotic historical and cultural meaning that accompany them. The classic handira is also a high priority because of its easy to blend neutral coloring - though they may be found in less common hues of red, black, fuschia, blue, among others - which is a characteristic that makes it incredibly easy to incorporate one, or even an entire stack draped luxuriously over surfaces, into a wide variety of modern interior decor aesthetics. Some may be accented with bands of unique kilim patterns that give an extra bohemian tribal accent.
As far as hand woven patterns go, Moroccan wedding blankets may be further enlivened with evenly spaced rectilinear lines or geometric boxes of texture. The sequins, which are a major feature of this elegantly handcrafted blanket, add an eclectic touch of glamour that is eye-catching when used to upholster pillows, headboards or seating, or to create stunning bags and totes. As icing on the cake, the handmade tufted fringe is a distinctive tell-tale detail that adds a visual and textural aspect to its tribal heirloom exoticism that’s been near impossible to recreate with authenticity elsewhere.
No doubt this international popularity is why trendy retailers have attempted to mass produce them to a far less authentic effect, while individual resourceful and frugal Moroccan wedding blanket fans developed DIY versions that have made the “look” accessible to anyone willing to put in some effort.
These magical storied heirlooms, created specifically for Morocco’s Middle Atlas Mountain Ait Sdik tribe wedding ritual, are expertly crafted by native Berber (Imazighen) women whose process and intent is to infuse each one with ancient charms and blessings (baraka). Their exotic beauty continues to captivate millions of boho tribal chic design enthusiasts around the world.
Hand woven from a creamy palette of undyed fibers, Moroccan handira blankets are not just a reserve of Bohemian lovers. The textile, which is also imbued with the culture’s belief in its ability to bestow positive energy and good fortune through the mindful skills of seasoned female Imazighen (Berber) weavers, is an excellent way to add a gorgeous global vibe to your favorite space, from living room to bedroom, or anywhere in between.
Native Imazighen tamizart may be the ideal collectible heirloom to acquire and adorn your interior space. On the other hand, with each passing generation, fewer and fewer females are continuing the hand weaving tradition out of practicality.
One more thing before we go...
Although these blankets were originally crafted for their role in traditional Imazighen (Berber) wedding ceremonies (particularly those found with the cape ties in tact), they are now often woven instead for sale and consumption by Western design markets. Nonetheless, they haven't lost the original magical heirloom intent of blessings and good fortune with which their purpose was originally conceived.
BUYING GUIDE: Expert notes and suggestions for purchasing
- Wedding blankets can be made with varying combinations of cotton, linen and wool. Heavier ones contain the most wool.
- For those buyers interested in the baraka value of a tamizart should seek out textiles that were created specifically for this purpose vs. for sale in the souqs - cape ties in tact are often a good indicator, which means they will more often than not be pre-owned, or “vintage.”
- Textiles found with cape ties in tact can almost be guaranteed the item was originally made specifically for the Ait Sdik wedding ceremony vs. for sale in the souqs.
- Most handiras are considered reversible where one side may have been embellished with sequins and fringe, while the other is a flatweave with only kilim bands of abstract geometric designs to contrast with the undyed natural cotton, wool and linen threads.
- Sizes of the textiles created with the intention to be used as part of the wedding ritual will often be of widely varying and uncommon (Western) measurements based on the bride, while those created specifically to be sold in the souqs will often be found in somewhat consistently larger sizes intended to satisfy Western adaptations as throws and bedspreads.
- Some textiles will bear a “stain” - often pale pink in nature - which is considered a weaver’s mark which is done to make the item seem imperfect in an attempt to ward off “bad” eyes of jealousy and envy that might invite misfortune.
- Today you can find wedding blanket pillow covers, ready-to-use poufs, and floor pillows, as well.
- Cleaning should be done with care either via hand washing or spot cleaning, or consider taking it to a professional.