Morocco revisited!

With our Lakes & York knitters' tour coming up in May, Philip and I were reminiscing about our last trip. This time last year we were just back from Morocco, where we'd spent a couple of weeks with a group of intrepid knitters. I wrote an article for The Knitter and on re-reading it, thought would be interesting to share it with you. It's not a comprehensive or even chronological account of what we did, but I hope it'll give you a taste of our travels. Enjoy...

Wonderful inspiration
everywhere you look!
We knew it was going to be a challenge.  After ten years of shepherding our international knitting travellers around choice spots of the British Isles, our regulars had asked for something further afield, so this time it was to be exotic and hectic Morocco.   Aware that jet lag plus culture shock could be a risky cocktail, we were more than a little apprehensive, but we had done our best to warn people of what to expect. But nothing really prepares the first time visitor to Morocco.  The colour, noise, smells and teeming street life of the medinas are something else. Apparently there is no single word in Moroccan Arabic for privacy and this reveals much about the country.
Stall in Marrakech souk
So here we were waiting anxiously for our people to arrive from the airport at our very obliging hotel on the edge of the rag trade district in Casablanca. Wholesale fabrics and trimmings spilled out of  gloriously faded art deco, French Colonial buildings. We’d planned a three-centred tour with enough time to hang out and absorb the unique atmosphere of each city:  imperial Meknes, frenetic exciting Marrakech and cool, trendy Essaouria.  
Hassan II mosque in Casablanca
We would stay in the old medinas in beautiful family riads, the traditional courtyard houses facing inwards on their own gardens with splashing fountains, date palms, citrus trees and songbirds. Susan, our family contact in Casa, had assured us that the Arab Spring was not going to send Morocco into turmoil, as its politics were rather different from the rest of North Africa. 
Workshop at one of our riads 
So our main concern was that we might lose people in the notoriously unnavigable souks.  Despite much vigilance our worst fears were confirmed when one of our party disappeared down a dark alley as we walked from our coach to the Marrakech riad. However, I suspect this must be a regular occurrence, as a search party was drummed up instantly by our unfazed hosts and she was back in the fold in no time!
Musician in Rabat

The plan was that we would each knit a shawl on our travels, guided by a series of workshops, and inspired by the colours, textures and patterns that bombarded us from every angle.
Janice's gorgeous feature on her shawl
Seik-Yee's entrelac in the round
Workshops were held in striking locations evocative of Matisse canvasses, only the odalisque was missing!  An intimate courtyard with banana plants in Meknes, an orange-tree garden with a swagged Arabian Nights-style daybed in Marrakech,  and in Essaouria, a roof terrace cooled by the ocean breeze, sporting stupendous views over the Atlantic coast. We usually include a couple of other designers - Alice Starmore, Sasha Kagan, Martin Storey and Debbie Bliss are amongst many of the excellent British designers who have contributed their expertise in the past.  This time we were joined in Marrakech by Sarah Hatton who led stimulating workshops on Finishing and The Pi shawl.
Sarah's workshop in Essaouira
Much time was spent exploring the souks.  Medieval mazes choc à bloc with artisans in cramped booths using traditional skills to fashion exquisite items in cloth, leather, metal and wood. Mohammed, our guide in Fes, regaled us with his opera singing as he led us through the souk and had us loudly chorusing wacha (ok), ostensibly to kickstart our basic Arabic. 
Making pots in Fez
First, a pottery making intricate mosaics, followed by the famous tanneries, where sprigs of mint were offered to disguise the fetid smell.   
Dye vats in the tannery in Fez

Cactus silk weaving in Fez
Next a silk weaving fondouk, a North African and Mediterranean name for a caravanserai, and finally a carpet emporium in a grand converted palace. Moroccan traders are renowned for seductive but ruthless sales techniques and many of us did return that evening laden with irresistible purchases of leather bags, silk bedspreads, shawls, babouche slippers and more. We quickly learned how to haggle, albeit for some a little too late! 
Carpets in the Marrakech souk
In Marrakech our riad was only a few minutes walk from the theatrical maelstrom that is Djmaa el Fna with its henna tattooists, orange sellers, musicans, snake charmers and hustlers.  The streets outside are dusty and swarming with people -  you need eyes in the back of your head to avoid the ubiquitous two-stroke motor bikes that weave in and out of pedestrians.  I’m sure there must be order amongst the chaos, but it is not immediately obvious to the tourist!

All life is here!
Henna tattoo in Djmaa el Fna

Some of our group had admired the handmade silk bobbles, used to fasten djellabahs and other traditional garments. Wandering back to our riad one evening, I spotted a large bag containing virtually every colour in the back of a tailor’s shop.A very economical purchase was quickly made and it was generally agreed next day in the workshop they were perfect finishing touches for our shawls, and affectionately renamed noobles. Yarn shops are very thin on the ground, so we were delighted to discover the dyer’s souk in Marrakech where drying hanks of colourful homespun yarn festoon all the nearby alleys and rooftops.
Yarn drying in the wool souk in Marrakech
Haberdashers Souk, Marrakech

A highlight of the trip was a day at the Adwal weaving and knitting co-operative, off the beaten track, fifty miles from Fes, 3000 feet up in the foothills of the Middle Atlas.  
Yours truly with members of the Adwal Co-op
First, a workshop on traditional dyeing using local plants like madder, camomile and woad, then a more informal skill swap with their young apprentice knitters, who were eager to devour new techniques and use the fabulous yarns our knitters had brought.  Their enthusiasm was a joy and the camaraderie and warmth transcended any language barrier, even though we did have our good-humoured interpreter oiling the wheels.  
Dyeing with camomile
Jane with a student of Adwal co-op

Lunch was a real Berber feast on the terrace that looked across to the snow-covered Atlas.  Word had got round and we were joined by the mayor and other village dignitaries.  The day was magic, an enormous success - the art of knitting enabled us to cross cultural boundaries and engage directly on equal terms with local people. 
Cathy with Adwal students
Beautiful gardens are always featured in our trips. The Andalusian Gardens next to the ancient pink-coloured Kasbah in Rabat were stunning and in Marrakech, the Majorelle just oozes the wow factor.  
Majorelle Gardens
Designed by painter Jacques Majorelle and bought and restored magnificently in 1980 by Yves St Laurent and Pierre Bergé, its  acid blue and yellow pigments set off the plant collection of spikey cacti and succulents perfectly beneath the hot Moroccan sun.  When we arrived there was a long queue snaking away from the entrance  -  I must have got into the Moroccan way of doing things by then as a modestly-sized dirham note discreetly slipped into the right hand did the trick and we sailed in.  I was very pleased with myself!

Yours truly on Essaouira quay

Essaouria on the cool Atlantic coast was a chilled-out spot to wind down and finish our projects.  Painted  white and deep azure blue, the city was the original hang-out for artists, film makers and hippies in the sixties and stories abound of Orson Welles, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix and other luminaries. Our guide, Rachida, was a treasure, opinionated and happy to depart from the usual tourist script to discuss politics, religion, women’s lives, Islam… a mine of information whilst showing us the picturesque port, the crumbling mellah (Jewish quarter) and the awe-inspiring ramparts.
Essaouira pharmacie
Our trip could only ever be a taster, it’s just not possible to do Morocco in a couple of weeks.  However, we wanted our people to experience the spirit of Morocco, to rub shoulders with local people, listen to their music and exchange knit skills in the Atlas. The shawls we’d made or started will remind each of us of our own unique Moroccan journey.  As we said our goodbyes, Philip and I were both hoping that some of Morocco’s special magic had rubbed off!

We run regular knitters’ tours. Next one is Lakes & York with Martin Storey and Carol Meldrum, 4-17 May 2013. There are still a few places and late deals, both for the whole tour and also workshops only.  If you'd like to join us visit the website for more details.


  1. This is wonderful, Jean! I buy The Knitter occasionally, but must have missed this issue. Makes me want to build my own riad in the backyard... Someday it will be my turn to take a knitter's tour. Joyce James is taking a bunch next month from Ontario to Wales. Thanks for a beautiful tour of Morroco! Pam x

  2. What a fabulous trip this must have been!


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