Today I will be chatting with Marion and Hendrikje, the duo who are running and managing the Carpet of Life project from their base in Gent, Belgium. Thanks for joining me. For listeners that may not be familiar with Carpet of Life, perhaps you could give us an overview of what the project is and who you engage with.
Carpet of Life is actually a fair design brand and we make carpets of memories. We work in the Sahara in Morocco, and the carpets we make there are made from the clothes of the clients. People here in Europe, or in the States, have many clothes in their closets they aren’t wearing any more but they are really valuable, sometimes. In Morocco they have a beautiful craft making boucherouite carpets and together with the clothes of the people here (Europe) they can make beautiful artworks like boucherouite carpets, made of the memories from the clothes of the clients.
And in that case we try to work on employment in the Sahara, we also give other opportunities for the women and a fair loan (wage) for the craftswomen in Morocco itself.
Perhaps we can start by how you engage the consumer, you’ve just mentioned that they actually donate or contribute the clothing that becomes their purchase. What journey do these clothes undertake to be transformed into a Carpet of Life?
Mostly it’s people that have the idea they want to make a carpet and they want to make it very personalised – they have a lot of clothes that they want to do something with. The first step is to select what the clients have in their wardrobe – the memories they want to cherish and don’t want to throw away… So first of all they will collect and, actually, they can think very broadly; they can use towels, they can use curtains, they can use t-shirts or woollen stuff – so a lot of things are possible… and then they make a nice colour selection, so they really make sure that it’s beautiful colours that go together.
Then with those clothes they actually come to a design intake with us in which we run through the different things that will have to happen. First of all they can choose the size – we have four different sizes, we have several patterns as well that they can choose from. But it is also possible, for example, to make your own design and then we discuss a little bit based on what the craftswomen can do, how it will look like. So its a real co-creation process between the clients and the craftswomen in Morocco to really make each carpet into a unique piece. And so based on what we discuss in the Design Intake we will put it in a Design Form, and that goes to our project women in Morocco and they then explain it to our craftswomen because they mostly speak Arabic, so they explain actually what the client wants in the carpets.
And then once its in Morocco the women start working on it. We make a Pinterest page for every client so that the client sees the process of making, so they can already see a lot of steps, because of course before the carpet is back it takes a while – it’s a really slow design but I think that’s part of the story and part of the adventure for the client, but in order to make them to see already a little bit about how the carpet will look like we make a Pinterest page in which they can follow the process. So that way we really try to make the connection between the women in Morocco and the clients here in Belgium.
And part of your concept is to provide materials and resources for the women in the desert, can you explain some of the challenges that they have maintaining some their traditional craft practices
Yes, like the women we work with – most of the women are ‘ex-nomads’ so they used to do the big caravan trades from Morocco to Mali and they made the boucherouite carpets of actually hair of the cattle. So they had lots of cattle and they made the kind of boucherouite carpets to sleep on during the big fifty day trades between Mali and Morocco. And then actually in the sixties Governments were saying like ‘now you all have to settle because we are making the borders’, and there was not so much cattle anymore so they couldn’t actually keep on doing the craft of making boucherouite carpets so they were trying with leftover textiles to keep on doing the craft. But, then again, in the Sahara there’s not so much left-over textiles. So we starting thinking together, that here there are so many people buying new things that if there is a big hole in your t-shirt you directly buy something new, there are also some textiles left over then actually the women in Morocco can keep on doing their craft if they have those textiles. So if we can give them the resources, they can keep on doing that beautiful craft which exists already for ages. So it gives them lots of opportunities that way.
Was that something in mind when the concept first came about, the textile and clothing waste which is becoming more and more a concern, generated from what is now called fast fashion?
Well actually it was the other way around, the people who started with the Carpet of Life were actually asked to design an eco-lodge in the region and they wanted to do that with the women because they have a lot of crafts and really beautiful talents that they can use. But after a while the eco-lodge never came, but the people who were there to develop something really had seen how much talent the women in the region had and they really wanted to make something out of that. And then the combination of having waste but also clothes that you cannot throw away of find really difficult to get rid of, this in combination with the fact that the women are already making these boucherouite carpets for a long time made the concept happen.
And actually what we tried to do was to indeed focus on a couple of things; and the first is foreign for most, empowerment of women in a very isolated region of Morocco by using their crafts or by working from their crafts at one side, and on the other side as well of course the upcycling idea of old clothes and old textiles that you don’t wear anymore.
And do the women find it challenging using, what I imagine would be, quite different materials? Do they have to adapt their technique? How do they work with the materials?
In the beginning, it was kind of a search to make it happen because of course first from the cattle and then afterwards from their own clothes and our clothes here in Belgium or in Europe can definitely be sometimes different. In the beginning it was sometimes looking for which kind of material they could use. But nowadays, if you have jeans or soft leather or something like that, it really doesn’t matter for them.
Two years ago, or maybe three years ago, we had a co-creation project with a textile museum in Tilbirn in the Netherlands, and the idea was to develop new techniques of weaving that they don’t know yet. So in the beginning it is always looking for ‘Okay, what is this? Why do we have to adapt?’ and stuff like that, but once they’re going for it and they really like it then it starts to become fun and they start to experiment. They also, for example, sometime there are new designs that the clients make themselves, and then the women start experimenting with it so its really nice to see the co-creation and how it influences as well, a little bit of their heritage, a little bit of their way of working. So this co-creation is really nice to see and so through the process you really see it happening.
Its also a way actually of cultural exchange, because not only the clothes from the clients travel there but also the stories that are attached to the clothes. And that way they are getting to know our culture a little bit more and the other way the clients get to know more about the project, about the women and everything. So really the cultural exchange through clothes and through the stories is really important I think.
And how can people learn about the different stories? Do you share some of the carpet stories that have come out of the project?
Yeah, we totally do. On the website there is a couple of stories from our clients that we already had, and how the co-creation process happens – so that’s one thing. Also on our social media we also, every now and then, post a picture of a special story and how the carpet is made, so its mostly through the digital and social media that we try to do that. Also we see each of our clients individually on our design intakes and during these intakes we think its important and its all part of the (experience) that we also explain a little bit to our clients about the project, about the women, about the region where we work. So we really try to pay attention to that as well – that all of our clients know a little bit about the region, about M’Hamid and the women that work there.
And what kind of outcomes do you see with the products and the crafting process? Does it make the clothes even more valuable to the people that are having them transformed?
I think yes, because lots of our clients hand in clothes from someone they lost, that passed-away. And that way it gives them new value to those clothes in the form of memories, but also in the form of something you can really look at, you can really feel, you can touch it, you can see it hanging in your living room, and otherwise the clothes of someone that has passed away most of the time are just somewhere in a wardrobe or given away to a charity organisation. But lots of people don’t actually want that because it carries so (much) value. So that we see really as something really important. And also the women in Morocco they weave more on intuition than on set design rules, so the emotion that comes with the clothes they try to transform it as well into the carpet. So that’s also something nice to see, if they hear the stories they weave on the intuition from the stories they got from the clients.
So they are also aware of the emotion and the memories?
Absolutely. It was also the case that the Boucherouite technique was before also used to explain the stories that the women had. Like for examples there are a couple of patterns actually that symbolise things that come from the lives of the women, how they sew stuff, and things like that. Quite often it happened that they didn’t have the time or the possibility to really chat and talk about what was going on in their minds and they would weave it into carpets and really show their emotions and really show their stories in the carpets. So its also a part of what the boucherouite technique already had in its concept.
I’m talking with Marion and Hendrikje from Carpet of Life – perhaps you could share with us how the Carpet of Life engages with tourism through the Bivouac Le Petit Prince location and also through your Moroccan-based partner Taragalte. So, how do people actually come to be where the women practice their craft, perhaps you could describe that experience for our listeners?
So what happens actually is that, it actually goes both ways sometimes there are people that go to Morocco to visit the Bivouac and be in the desert and have the desert experience, and there its sometimes possible that they meet our craftswomen or some of our project leaders and they are really inspired about what’s going on with Carpet of Life and how it happens. Its also kind of a magical place – its under the stars, it’s in the desert, its really a place where you feel quiet. And in this place they sometimes think about how they can make their own carpet and then they become clients of ours.
But what happens in the other way, is also that our clients here in Belgium come to see us at a design intake or people from Europe, and they are really interested in the region where we work, and then sometimes it happens that, for example, we send the clothes to Morocco and then the client goes to pick up their own carpet in M’Hamid.
Its quite often very special, for example, if its the clothes of somebody who passed away. Then it is almost a ritual actually, because when you go there and see the clothes transformed into a carpet you go to the place where it is made and you see the women who made it and they can tell a little bit about it. It is kind of a ritual in the process of healing the wounds that you have, because you lost that person. So once again, because its a magical place, it can help in that process.
Arriving at the Bivouac, what can people expect to see and experience?
So first you travel to M’Hamid Gislam which is like the last village before you enter the Sahara and then a jeep will take you to the Bivouac, which is a ten, fifteen minute drive through the Sahara. Then you actually arrive in a place that is really magical I think. There is no sound. There’s a beautiful Bivouac – really beautifully designed with old crafts with really good food – and its a place to really process things, to relax, read a book, and to chat with the people from there to get to know the stories of the desert. Because there are so many oral stories about the desert – about the nomads and how they used to live.
So that I think is really an experience that is ‘unpayable’, to say it that way.
So that’s actually when you arrive in the Bivouac you have different activities you can do. It is also an ‘eco-Bivouac’. We are really aware of water and things like that, you can also go there for a yoga course. Sometimes we organise yoga and writing courses, or yoga and slow food courses there in the desert, and its a magical place to experience those things there. Its really difficult for me to explain it, because it is really something you have to experience.
How many visitors do you have to the Bivouac? Is it a relatively small and manageable number to maintain that sense of serenity?
The Bivouac is actually from our partner Ibrahim who is from the region, and he knows lots of the history of the region, who is a bit of a ‘famous’ guy in the region. How many people? The season has now ended, because during summer its really, really hot in the desert so the season starts from the end of September to the end of May. And it depends a bit, sometimes we have groups, if Ibrahim is organising the yoga weeks. Sometimes it is people who just want a different experience in the desert – not a commercial way, but really a tranquil way. But to put a number on that, I don’t know exactly.
It can also sometimes happen that there are only a couple of visitors, but I think that makes the experience even greater, because then you really feel like you live with the people there, and the rhythm there. Sometimes for people from Europe that’s quite a challenge because its a slower rhythm than what they are used to. But after two days in the desert you feel like a different person really, because you go with the flow there and there are no other options than doing that. There are of course activities like riding a camel or doing a walk through the desert, but the rhythm is really different. Its something that actually I think a lot of European people sometimes need.
So for people visiting, are they themselves able to actually make some of the crafts that are practised there?
What we do is we sometimes show the atelier where the carpets are made and then they can see how its done and maybe try to do a small line or something like that, but we don’t really have workshops for people who are visiting. That might be an idea that we can do but definitely there is the option to visit and see the production and how it is going on.
And the nicest is when you bring some of your own clothes and then the first day when you’re there you can ask the women to design something, or you let something be made, and then if you go back, if its not so big, you can take your own carpet with you. So that’s actually a really big part of the travel for some people.
And one thing I wanted to say as well if we’re talking about the Bivouac, and what might be interesting is that every year at the end of October, beginning of November, there is the Taragalte Festival, which is a huge music festival in the desert, with music groups from all over North Africa, like people from Morocco, but also from Mali… and at that moment we also have a stand from Carpet of Life where the women are showing the technique. That’s the moment where a lot of people come and see the crafts of the women and they can have a conversation with the Project Leaders – that also all happens in and around the Bivouac. That’s also really a moment where people come and see a lot of the culture of the south of Morocco.