The Ethics of Shopping for a Vintage Moroccan Rug
Can a vintage rug be "ethical"?
...here I am, the Carrie Bradshaw of the endlessly engaging world of Moroccan rugs, wondering out loud about this to my laptop. This topic of vintage rugs and how to ethically source them (or can it even be done?) has been a big point of discussion within the community of small businesses who work with Moroccan artisans. I've gotten a lot of questions about it this past week ("Is this true?" "Are there any vintage rugs even left?" **endless screaming**), and, instead of attempting multiple nuanced discussions in the photo captions on Instagram (hello, character limit!), I wanted to organize my lengthy thoughts into a single blog post that can serve as a guide for anyone attempting to navigate the vintage rug market.
I'll start with my conclusion to ease the panic: it's not impossible to find ethically-sourced, vintage Moroccan rugs. But it is difficult, and it involves work on the part of the consumer.
If you want to use your dollars to make a difference in this world, we're here to help you arm yourself with a bit of knowledge about the universe of vintage Moroccan rugs-- and how you can engage in that ecosystem in the most ethical way possible.
A disclaimer: I am not an expert, and there may be exceptions to everything discussed in this article. My intent is to paint with the broadest brush based on the most consistent information that has been shared with me in the past decade of working with Moroccan artisans, as well as what I continue to learn from others who specialize in the selling of vintage Moroccan rugs. I think that these will be the most useful (and accessible!) general guidelines to the average consumer. If you have anything to add, I absolutely welcome your knowledge!
Okay, let's start at the beginning. What makes a rug "vintage"? (Translation: Sarah, I see you're getting revved up about this-- can you go back 15 steps and tell me what you're talking about?)
There seems to be a general consensus that the term "vintage" refers to rugs that are anywhere from 30-100 years old. Anything older (100 years plus) is considered to be an "antique."
Ah, interesting! Are there any particular hallmarks or defining features of a vintage Moroccan rug?
I'm going to give a bit of history before directly answering this question: In Morocco, rugs have traditionally been a part of a woman's dowry (there are exceptions to this, of course, but many family heirlooms were produced for this purpose). When a woman became engaged, her family would either begin making the rug themselves or commission a rug to be made. Think of the rug as an investment; the materials cost money, so, if the family ever needed anything, they could sell the rug. Once she got married, she would take the rug with her to her new home, and those rugs were passed down to the children as family heirlooms. This practice still occurs today, but it tends to take place in more rural areas.
Within that context, you can begin to understand some of the defining characteristics of a vintage Moroccan rug. First, they're made to last. Vintage rugs were created with the intention of staying in a family forever-- and, unlike today's fine China, these rugs were actually used in daily life. Vintage rugs may have a bit of wear and tear, but it's typically cosmetic rather than structural because of the incredible craftswomanship. Second, they're unique pieces. These rugs were made for a specific person within a particular family, so each decision about color combinations, patterns, and symbols convey meaning. Some offer regional references, while others include symbols and identifying markers. And, third, their history is passed down orally. There are no records or provenances with your typical family heirloom rug; instead, a family tells their kids about the meaning of a rug, which gets passed onto their kids, and the game of telephone continues. This will oftentimes weave together a beautiful history of lore and fact that adds to the magic of a vintage rug.
Okay, that's really cool! So, is there a way to get one of these vintage rugs "ethically"? (And what exactly does that even mean??)
There are numerous ways to define the ethical procurement of a rug, but, at its core, this means that the rugs were obtained using responsible methods. This is slightly different from (but clearly has its overlaps with) fair trade, which focuses on the wages that are paid to the creators of an item.
If you're buying a newly-woven rug, the degrees of separation between you and the rug are minimal. Perhaps there is a middle man or small business you're working with, but that tends to be the extent of the transaction. Therefore, getting information about how the artisan was paid for their work and assessing whether or not that seems like an ethical transaction is much easier. Businesses who partner with artisans and pay them a fair wage (or better yet, offer them full-time employment with benefits) are the gold standard. You know that the rug you purchased puts money into the pockets of the artisans who made it for you.
- If possible, buy directly from the artisans themselves. Anou set the standard for this model, exploding onto the scene when founder and Returned Peace Corps volunteer Dan Driscoll recognized several barriers to artisans using Etsy (illiteracy, no access to credit cards, language barriers) that rendered it an unsustainable model. Anou provides an opportunity with customers worldwide to know that they are directly paying money to a Moroccan artisan for their item. We also love Saida of Saida Berber House, who is based out of Amizmiz near Tameslouht. She is very active on Instagram and shares a lot of videos of her weaving rugs and blankets. She also sources items from the douars, or small villages, that surround Amizmiz, and assists those women artisans in selling their products. Businesses where the artisan is doing it all are quite rare due to a variety of factors; so, what other options are there?
- Make sure that the business you're thinking of supporting is open and transparent about how they work with and compensate artisans for their work. Mushmina is a great example of this. They have been committed to empowering women artisans since the 2000s, when co-founder and Returned Peace Corps volunteer Heather O'Neill and her sister Katie began Mushmina. Their website details their artisan partnerships, and their entire mission is centered on providing economic opportunities for female artisans specifically. A business should be able to tell you if their artisans are working as independent contractors or if they are salaried with benefits. If this isn't listed on their website, ask!
- Pay attention to materials and quality of the work. Engage in some virtual window shopping. Explore one style of rug from multiple stores, and you'll begin to notice which ones look expertly crafted. That's why we love Amazigh House, founded by Moroccan-Canadian Boutheina. She works with a group of women artisans who create the most luscious and rich rugs, indicative of their high quality of wool. These rugs can take weeks or months to make-- another hallmark of true, quality craftswomanship. But, you're getting what you pay for, as their incredible detail and fine handiwork indicates.
Wow, those are cool businesses and I love their work! Buuuuttttt I've fallen in love with the vintage aesthetic. Can you tell me how I could go about getting one-- how did you call it-- "ethically"?
We're not here to deter you from buying vintage rugs. In fact, we support it-- there's nothing that brings a space to life more than a one-of-a-kind vintage piece. However, we are here to educate, and to encourage you (okay, let's be real-- beg you) to go about it in the most ethical way possible, rather than just turning to an Etsy search.
Trading and selling rugs, even those made as family heirlooms, has always been a part of the history of Moroccan rugs. This doesn't mean, however, that families always get a fair amount of money for their rugs. Especially since the early 2010s when Moroccan rugs exploded onto the international design scene, middlemen will travel to small villages in the mountains and obtain rugs either by paying pennies (or the MAD equivalent) for them (and then reselling them for an inflated price-- from which the family does not receive any additional compensation) or trading families rugs for essential items (food, home essentials, warm blankets, clothes). Unfortunately, a lot of times, the magical stacks of rugs in the tourist markets of Marrakech and Fes are sourced this way....as are many rugs that flood Etsy.
When vintage rugs are sourced ethically, this means that, wherever possible, rugs are sourced directly from families rather from one of these middlemen in the medina. This means that it is more likely that a family is getting fairly compensated for their rug. Personally, this is how we at Maslouhi source vintage rugs-- however, it's not a flawless approach. Working with individual families means that sourcing rugs takes a lot longer, and also that we have a smaller selection to choose from. Consumers may feel frustrated at how slowly the process is moving, or perhaps they don't like the rugs that we give them as options.
We also don't want to imply that all middlemen are inherently unethical in their business practices. It is possible to cultivate relationships with middlemen who are experts and have developed a genuine love and appreciation for rugs. Many are either artisans themselves or from artisan families, so they have an extensive knowledge of the craft-- and they are often coming from the communities where the rugs are sourced. True rug slingers spend years developing relationships with trusted counterparts in Morocco who live and breathe rugs. .
Sadly, for the average consumer, there's really no fool-proof way to know whether or not the vintage rug you're interested in has been ethically-sourced-- you'll have to depend on a business' word. But, we do have suggestions for doing your due diligence to find businesses that you can trust:
1. In general, a true vintage rug is going to have a more complex design-- and have a larger price tag to go along with it. For example, the rugs sourced by Becca at June + Blue have the hallmarks of being genuine vintage rugs, with nuanced color schemes and intricate patterns that are unique-- and even a bit quirky. They tend to be more precisely woven than their contemporary counterparts. Additionally, Becca says that bleached wool (I'm cringing writing this, but apparently some new rugs are bleached and sold on Etsy as vintage) does not have the gloss of aged wool. One other hack? Becca says that rugs larger than 8 ft (240 cm) aren't vintage. This size simply wasn't produced until more recently. Someone's pulling your leg on Etsy if they're selling you that much rug as "vintage."
2. When you're communicating with a small business selling a vintage rug you're interested in, ask a ton of questions about the rug and their business model. This is not annoying at all-- this is a critical part of the process! Some questions that you can (and should!) ask about include:
- Where is this rug from?
- What is the style of this rug called?
- What's unique about this style of rug?
- How do you source your rugs?
A quick google search can confirm whether or not some of this basic information about the style and origin of a rug are indeed accurate. Someone who is passionate about rugs will be happy to provide you with this information. Even better, this information should already be on their website in the product description. For example, check out how Nataliya of Drift Home Collection writes about each of her rugs:
Of course, someone can always hypothetically lie about a rug and where it's from (cue flashbacks to walking through the Marrakech medina and being told that the King of Morocco had owned one of the rugs being sold.....hmmmmmm). But, you can usually tell from your interactions with someone if they're trustworthy and in the business for the right reasons (aka, a rug nerd who wants to share all of the information ever about rugs vs. a slick business person in it purely for the $ and is pressing you to just buy or provides general information).
3. Double-check before purchasing. Cross-reference the information you have about the rug with what's available elsewhere. For example-- say someone is trying to sell you a vintage Beni Mguild rug. Check out other typical Beni Mguild styles and prices to get a sense of what's on the market and how your rug compares. Additionally, Google the people you're buying from! No one has to pass an ethics test to begin an Etsy profile, and they can easily use people's names and images without their consent. We were just made aware of an Etsy site using artisan's images from Tameslouht alongside fake names. Mustapha, being from Tameslouht, knows exactly who they are, and is guessing that they have no idea their images are being used. This may just be in poor taste, but I personally wouldn't want to give money to a business if they're possibly willing to deceive their audience in this way. Additionally, Nataliya told us that she's had several Etsy accounts actually use her images of vintage rugs without her consent to sell rugs. I honestly am not sure what the solution is beyond encouraging you to google, google, and then google again.
Apart from June + Blue and Drift Home Collection, some other reputable sources for vintage rugs include Lahandira (which has a storefront in Marrakech), Soukie Modern, and Shkoon Shop. These businesses offer an excellent benchmark for the styles of vintage rugs, as well as the pricing.
This is not to say that you shouldn't support the smaller and the newer rug shops, but just ask as many questions as possible before giving them your money.
At the end of the day, finding an ethically-sourced and truly vintage Moroccan rug isn't an exact science. I do, however, hope that these guidelines provide you with some context about what to look for, and what could possibly be red flags.
Alright, what are we forgetting? Let us know your questions in the comments!