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Preparing the wool

Tunisian and Moroccan craftswomen use sheep's wool to make their rugs. The wool is easily dyed and allows the creation of all types of rugs. Many craftswomen still do all the work by hand, from shearing the wool to weaving, sorting the wool, washing, framing and spinning. The artisanal work of wool is exclusively feminine, in Tunisia as in Morocco.

Preparing raw wool

First, the Tunisian or Moroccan weaver prepares the raw wool, which is cleaned of impurities such as pieces of straw or dirt, and then spread in the sun.

Raw wool.

Washing the wool

In a second step, the weaver washes the wool to remove grease and soot by soaking it in water mixed with clay, and then taps it with a wooden board or a palm branch. The wool is then rinsed thoroughly with water. This usually takes place on summer evenings in streams or natural water sources. This is a festive occasion for the women, who organise parties by taking turns to wash the wool. The wool is then thoroughly cleaned while it is still wet, drained and then dried in the sun.

Nomadic Qashqhai women washing wool. Sarab-e Bahram, Noorabad region, Fars, Iran, April 2007.

Sorting wool

The weavers then sort the wool according to colour, fineness and age of the sheep. This will determine the purpose for which the wool will be used. If the wool is fine and white, it will be used to make jebbas (jellabas) or barnous (long hooded sleeveless woollen coats), or for blankets for young girls' trousseaux. The thicker wool is used for making rugs.

Preparation of wool for rugs in Kairouan (Tunisia), Georges-Louis Arlaud, ca. 1925.

Combing wool

The wool is then mixed and combed to obtain a homogeneous colour and to make it softer and easier to work with. The women use an iron comb called a "mchot".

The Mchot is often represented in the form of motifs on Berber rugs.

Wool carding

The wool is then carded manually. This is a necessary step to prepare the wool for spinning. There are two types of carding depending on what the yarn is to be used for. If fine wool rolls are to be obtained, the women pass the wool between two wooden plates equipped with several rows of iron needles. To obtain a perfectly smooth strand called 'bous', the wool is combed on a wooden board at the end of which two rows of iron needles are fixed. This operation is however reserved for the most experienced women.

Same carding process among the Navajo Indians, Southern Navajo Agency, 1933.

Spinning wool

The women then proceed to spin the wool. There are two different ways of spinning, one for the warp and one for the weft. The wool intended for weaving is prepared in small rolls and then pulled while forming rotations with a distaff called "maghzel". The diameter of the yarn is determined according to the product to be woven. The fine woollen threads are intended for the clothes (jebba or barnous), the medium woollen threads for the covers, and the thicker ones for the rugs. The wool intended for weft threads is spun with another type of maghzel which transforms the wool into a fairly fine thread that will be stretched on the loom. 

Reconstruction of wool work in Djerba, Tunisia. On the left, a woman spinning wool.

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