Thursday, February 14, 2008


The Natural Dye/Weaving Training-of-Trainers Workshop this past weekend was a big success! As we said afterwards, 90 percent of it was Gregg and his knowledge, passion and teaching skills, but the rest of it was Rose and me putting it together. It was at my brunch in December where the idea first came up, and “we should really do this” could have resulted in nothing but a missed opportunity, but instead I drafted a proposal that night, Rose revised it, the trainers added input and we submitted it that week. That week the Program Manager’s departure was announced and then the holidays came along. As the weeks stretched on, my fears mounted that not only would the workshop not be approved but also that the proposed attendees would make other plans for the weekend. And then we got approval! And we invited everyone in the Middle Atlas, and all of the SBDs were available, as well as a quorum of Environment volunteers. And then we put together a detailed logistics memo and then we had the workshop! In retrospect, we put together a fairly major training in a short amount of time.

I went up to Sefrou a day early, on Wednesday, to help with preparation. We wanted the trainers (who had not met each other except through email) to detail the flow of their sessions – but both Gregg and Janeila are such experienced teachers that they knew that their sessions would flow. There was also a lot of work required to house and feed that many people – we had 17 people in three houses in Sefrou (all of whom came to Rose’s for two dinners) and 12 people in my house in Azrou (for a dinner and a breakfast). We made shopping lists and went over the logistics, and that night shopped and grated cheese and made tortillas in advance.

Almost everyone arrived on time on Thursday and had a chance to see the Sefrou artisana. We did introductions and then went to lunch in the medina. Sefrou’s medina has walls and close, curved streets – it feels very different from Azrou’s. The two towns are supposed to be the same size, but I think Sefrou is bigger. The medina seems bigger, and there are a number of different neighborhoods, all with white block buildings, not the yellow with the green- or red-tiled sloped roofs of Azrou. Anyway, after lunch we walked over to the workshop for the natural dye workshop, led by Gregg.

Natural dye can increase the value and beauty of a rug. The inconsistencies in color from batch to batch are part of the charm. Chemical dyes don’t run when they are used on the right material, but the dye is imported and sometimes by the time it gets to the bled (country) the instructions as to how to use them are lost, and consequently Moroccan rugs now sometimes have a reputation for bleeding. Many of the cooperatives use pre-dyed wool, and if they could be convinced to dye their own, they could regain some traditional knowledge and improve the value of what they make. I will certainly ask my weavers if they would consider it and want to learn! It’s not hard, though it requires some time and labor. You take the white wool and put it into a solution in what is called mordanting – some sort of salt, usually alum here, so that the dye will stick to the mordant and the wool will stick to the mordant (without it, the dye and the wool won’t stick to each other). You boil it and let it soak. When it dries, you then put the mordanted wool into a dye bath. Gregg has a spreadsheet of over 1000 things that can be used for natural dye, including readily available here things such as walnut shells and carrot tops; we used onion skins for the demonstration. After dyeing and drying, you can then do a post-dye treatment with baking soda, vinegar, rust or ammonia, each of which alter the color slightly – differently for different dyes – or leave as is. The picture shows some yarn coming out of the post-dye baths.

The group then went on to cassecroute at a nearby cafe, at which time Rose and I and two other designated shoppers bought vegetables and fruit (nobody had designated themselves as shoppers for Azrou, so I decided to get everything I needed in advance – it meant some extra carrying but then I didn’t stress about how shopping would fit into Saturday’s schedule). We had a Tex-Mex dinner at Rose’s, followed by a roundtable discussion in which everyone discussed their work situations and cross-sector potential of the Environment people working with farmers or gatherers of the dyestuffs, which they would then sell to the artisans the SBD people work with.

Friday we bid farewell to the Environment volunteers and had morning and afternoon sessions on weaving. Gregg, prior to joining Peace Corps, was a weaver and ran a weaving program at an art school in Asheville, so this is second nature to him (prior to that, he was a math teacher and a Peace Corps Volunteer in the ‘60s in Micronesia – he rejoined after September 11, served two years here in Sefrou and extended, but left in the middle of his extension to help a friend with cancer. He was here for a few months visiting his host family and is leaving next week – hence the urgency to get this training in, and training the volunteers as opposed to artisans in the various sites, which would have required more time and expense to coordinate. He said more than once that this workshop gave him closure. In addition to his knowledge, he’s also a good person, and I am glad I met him and hope I haven’t seen or heard the last of him). I have observed weavers for a while now, but I gained more knowledge as to the process, and several of the new volunteers had not worked with weavers in their CBT sites so were just getting to know everything; the timing of this workshop was good.

Gregg talked about the mechanics of weaving and why some rugs are more valuable than others, about how to tell a good quality rug, and about how to suggest product or process improvements to our artisans. Quality comes first from the materials – the more wool, the better. Most of the rugs made in Morocco have a cotton warp, and even if they have a wool weft (look at me, throwing out terms like warp and weft as if I had always known them!) they are less valuable that way. Many rugs, still with cotton warp, has a weft that is a combination of wool and cotton or (shudder) acrylic. That cactus silk? Acrylic! You can tell by burning a strand – if it smells like burned hair it is a natural fiber and if it beads up it is acrylic. Not that there aren’t beautiful acrylic rugs- they are just less valuable. To shop for a rug you must see it on the floor (hmm – I have not always done that). It must lie flat on the floor. And be a rectangle or square, not longer at one end or bulging out to the side. It’s important to look at the ends - often the ends of rugs I see are not done well, and that is something that could be changed relatively easily. Those are just some of the tips. Then we had a chance to watch the weaver knot at the vertical loom (she was too fast for us to give it a try) and a little hands-on at the horizontal loom (we learned about those too – and knotting vs. flat-weave – and more. I am just giving you some highlights).

We then had our roundtable at cassecroute rather than after dinner, since the night discussion the night before had gone late, talking about the Small Business Development program as a whole and then specific problems, such as artisan group dynamics and willingness to embrace new ideas. It was then on to Rose’s for a spaghetti dinner; the night before I had helped cook but on this night while others cooked and cleaned, Rose and I introduced some of the new volunteers to Piffle. Always good to know more card players!

Janeila had gotten sick on Thursday night and stayed in bed all day Friday at Rose’s. She still wasn’t feeling well, but she rallied to give her Saturday morning talk on color theory, including a fun exercise where we had to use color to tell how we were feeling – no words, just blobs of color. We interpreted each other’s strips of paper and some of the interpretations were exactly right! That illustrated the power of color to express emotion and reinforced that we do associate certain colors with certain emotions.

We then left for Azrou – I was in the first taxi, and when I got home we diced the eggplant to let it soak, and we cut the double batch of brownies I had made; there were still some left by the time the last people arrived. Lunch out was followed by a trip to the Artisana and to the nearby yarn shop, where we could now tell natural from synthetic fibers. The highlight of the afternoon was a seminar at Abdou’s, led by Abdou. First we had tea and cassecroute there, and it seemed so relaxed that I was afraid that Abdou had misunderstood and thought we were all just coming for tea and cookies, but then he got out his books with the maps showing the tribes of the Middle Atlas and brought out representative rugs from each different tribe, rugs made with natural and chemical dyes (same rug, chemical – 800 dh, natural – 2000 dh; ‘nuf said?) and with different materials. It really reinforced the learning from the two days before and tied everything together.

Pasta with vegetables followed, and then a wrap-up discussion. In addition to having designated meal helpers, we also had designated note-takers for each session; this was mine. We’ll put all of the notes together to share with each other, with Peace Corps, and with volunteers in other regions who didn’t attend, and then I want to get some technical terms translated into darija with my tutor. The wrap-up included many next steps and ideas for future collaboration. All in all everything went well – all of the volunteers were attentive (of course, it helped that Gregg and Janeila and Abdou were good teachers) and I think all got something they could use. Some have already put the new knowledge to use!

Sunday morning we had eggs, yogurt, clementines and pumpkin bread and an optional session we billed as “fun with fibers.” People could bring their own knitting or crocheting or learn felting from Gregg. I was really looking forward to felting – I have felt slippers that I bought in Marrakesh and the thought of learning to felt for myself was intriguing. Joy and I had looked it up on-line when she was here, and several web sites mentioned that felting is messy. Well, Gregg managed to contain the mess, so I was able to relax. We took raw wool (though other natural fibers can be felted as well) and separated it and made the fibers go every which way. The every which way is important. Then you dip it into warm, soapy water (can do without soap but it makes it easier). The key is agitation – which is why when you put a cashmere sweater in the dryer it felts. The web sites recommend buying a bamboo mat and rolling the material back and forth – we just made little balls that we rubbed and rubbed with our hands, and then flat pieces that we tapped and tapped with our hands. You keep rubbing or tapping and eventually you get felt! To make things such as slippers you can felt over a piece of hard plastic or another kind of last (for example, maybe, the ruined shoes that I was holding onto in case my new ones didn’t come and I had to try to salvage them – I might try it). In addition to being a great teacher, Gregg is quite a punner, so it seems fitting that I close this entry by saying that when it was time for everyone to WEAVE, we all FELT that we had gotten so much out of the workshop that it was as if we had DYED and gone to heaven!

Hello! I am looking for contacts in Morocco with whom I would like to talk about PCVs and Internet etc.

Please get in touch. Thx,

I've been doing some writing at work about Spring Training - focus on fundamentals kind of stuff - and I thought of you. Hope you're doing well! Dawn and the girls say hello!

Mark Vance
That is nice! Hello to all of you too. A friend of mine and I are in the habit of saying, "you can put it on the board, yes" and "he gone," so baseball is not far away (plus, this weekend we looked up Allen Iverson's "practice" press conference and Jim Mora's "playoffs" - someone cleverly combined them into a youtube clip...)
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