(Qaftan khrib) is an iconic part of Fasi heritage, and, by extension, Moroccan heritage.
The craft of handwoven brocade (dibadge) was once practiced across North Africa, with origins in the 13th century Merinid Sultanate. Yet, by the mid-20th century, Fes was the only place in which the art endured, due to the influx of industrial machines. It takes an entire day for a master Maitre Brocart “mu’alim” to produce 1 metre of fabric.
The specific pattern resembling a rose surrounded by woven gold brocade, which is known as khrib, has its origins in one family of master craftsmen. The Bencherif family are a long line of skilled craftsmen who still endure today. They settled in Fes around 1840 as a family of master mosaicist. They were well received and Sultan Mohammed ben Abderrahmane even sent them to participate as artisans in the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867. Sidi Ahmed Bencherif was the grandson of the original Bencherif to move to Fes, yet he abandoned the mosaic profession to make silk brocade. In turn, the Bencherif family switched to the trade of weavers and became preeminent in their craft by the beginning of the 20th century. After Sidi Ahmed’s death, his two sons, Othmane and Abdelkader, carried on the family legacy. They gained even more fame after Othmane sent a finely woven belt to the reigning Sultan, Moulay Abd-El-Aziz. Amazed by the work, the Sultan summoned the Bencherifs to the Palace and officially conferred on them the title of master weavers.
The Bencherifs of Fez initially made only belts out of silks of various colours, covered with gold and silver, and intended for women of the upper middle class. They later expanded into making wall hangings, saddle covers, and imperial court banners. Their fabrics were not only popular in Fes but all over Morocco. Yet when the international market opened up to European imports, production slowed for the family. Fabric manufactured in Lyon, France, came to flood the Moroccan market, competing with local weavers.
The Bencherifs were aware of the decline of their profession and decided to broaden their field by making silk-brocaded fabrics, without gold, and in simpler patterns intended for the European furniture market. It was at this time that their most famous motif, the rose or khrib, became the trademark of the Bencherif family.
They began attracting new clientele in European tourists visiting Morocco, and started assembly work to produce small objects such as bags, napkins, and place mats, which proved very popular around the world. In 1920, the Bencharif family even opened a store in Boston, USA. Although no longer as international, Maison Bencharif still exists today, with stores in various cities around Morocco, including Fes.
While the style of khrib was adopted by Moroccan stylists and designers to use in their own creations, making the pattern an integral part of Moroccan heritage, and the Bencharif names still endures, the craft of making traditional hand brocade is a dying trade. By the 1950s there were only four or five shops left. Indeed, in his classic monograph – Costume of Morocco – first published in 1942, Jean Besancenot identifies gold brocade fabric in the repeating rose pattern as the quintessential fabric of urban and fashionable Fes, even including one example on the cover of the book. Yet he describes the silk brocade as being imported from Lyon, France. So even at this early date the fabric may or may not have been produced locally.
Today, Abdelkader Ouzzani is considered to be the last Maitre Brocart of Fes. Last we heard, in 2019 he had been practicing for 63 years at the age of 79, and was unable to find a young apprentice. Due to the time, it takes to handweave the ornate fabric, as well as the cost of the gold and silver thread involved, his only clients were what Ouzzani called the “elite of the elite.”
Heavily brocaded qaftan were typical of Fes in the late 19th and early 20th century. The hand-woven brocade dibadge was made of naturally died silk thread and silver thread gilded with gold, forming a repeated rose surrounded by arabesque motifs.
The specific pattern is known as khrib which literally means ‘the one who ruins’ due to it costing a fortune. This fabric has become synonymous with the brocaded qaftan of Fes. Traditionally, the qaftan khrib fasi was part of the sumptuously layered costume worn by the bride and guest of honour during the wedding ceremony. Due to the high price of these garments, the bride would often hire the clothes and jewellery for the duration of the celebrations.
The item in the Zay’s collection is very heavy, almost 5 kilograms, due to the weave in silver gilded straw brocade. The motif of roses in pink and green surrounded by arabesque gold pattern is repeated all over the garment. The qaftan is open in the front down its full length, and closed with small ball buttons (iqad) made of gold silk. The round collar and front longitudinal slits on both sides are surrounded by ribbon made of gold and burgundy silk bands. This edging is called (safifah), and it is also added around the circumference of the two wide sleeve openings. The sleeves have side slits, also closed with iqad ball buttons made of gold and burgundy silk. Soft metallic straw was added to the sleeves at the shoulders and the sides of the qaftan.
There are multiple names to what is generally called a Moroccan qaftan, such as (mansuriyah), (tahtiyah), qaftan khrib, and (qaftan_makhzini). Furthermore, in English the term is often spelt ‘caftan’ or ‘kaftan’ changing the [q] from the Arabic letter [qaf] to a hard [c] or [k]. The word qaftan comes from the Persian word khaftan, and entered English by way of Turkish and French.
Historians disagreed about the oldest origins of the qaftan, some give credit to India and Persia, while others to the Ottomans. Some assert that it arrived in Morocco at the time of the Islamic conquest around 680 CE. While still others claim that the qaftan is Moroccan in origin, flourishing during the reign of the Moroccan Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur al-Dhahabi (1578–1603), and from there spread through Andalusia at the beginning of the ninth century CE, thanks to the musician Ziryab.
Most likely, the qaftan was used since antiquity by several ethnic groups in ancient Mesopotamia, possibly sewn from wool, cashmere, silk, or cotton, and originally a long vest-like tunic tied at the waist with long sleeves, typically worn by men. The first documented mention of the qaftan in Morocco appeared in the 16th century, although the qaftan had been worn across the Middle East and Persia long before this time.
Regardless of the differences in viewpoints, no one denies the fact that the qaftan is popular in the Arab Maghreb countries, and that the aesthetic was especially popular in Fes, Tetouan, and Rabat. Indeed, history attests that the city of Fes was known for its textile and weaving factories since the beginning of the thirteenth century AD. Around that time the number of factories exceeded three thousand, and they would have been producing the fabric used to make qaftans.
The qaftan can be worn on both formal and informal occasions, depending on the embroidery and stitching. It is the outfit that expresses the culture of an entire society. Designing, sewing, and embroidering with gold thread or silk are activities that require skill. It is said, ‘the qaftan is the service of a teacher “mu’alim”,’ meaning that the sewing and embroidery involved in making a qaftan must be that of a skilled craftsman. Among the most famous types of embroidery known in Morocco rabati, after Rabat city, and fassi, after Fez, are the most common.
Further reading and links
Besancenot, Jean (1990). Costumes of Morocco. Edisud, Aix-en-Provence.
Kassir, Mufida Abdlnor (1978). Historical Development of the Caftan Costume. Oklahoma State University.
Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian (2010). Embroidery from the Arab World. Primavera Press, Leiden.