By Sarah Corbett
Henna cloth is a deeply symbolic form of textile art which was historically made and worn by the women of Southern Morocco. The pieces vary in size and in function,but were locally woven natural fibre pieces which were adorned with henna.
Henna is grown in Morocco and is believed to have many ritual protective and cleansing powers. Henna is used in ceremonies to bless, cleanse and protect those present. Henna stains are achieved when a paste of powdered henna leaf is mixed with a liquid which breaks down the cells which contain the dye (there are many traditional recipes for this). The dye in henna can only successfully stain skins and fibres which contain keratin.
Henna cloths were produced mainly by Chleuh Amazigh women from Feija in the Anti Atlas region of Morocco.The henna cloths which these women produced were for personal use rather than trade items, and as such were not widely known beyond Feija and comprised very personal significant symbols which are not seen elsewhere in the textile decor of Morocco. These symbols were applied to the surface of the fabric in a painterly fashion, this led to a freedom of artistic expression which differentiates henna cloths from other textile arts of Morocco.
Henna cloths were used as head covers, veils, haik, wedding blankets, shawls and gift wrappings. Production in the Feija region continued until the 1950’s. The designs applied to these natural textiles have deep rooted historical references, including Early Neolithic, Libyo Amazigh rock carvings which are located in Tagragra in the region.
Henna cloths have a wide range of design styles including Bold geometric styles, figurative designs and scripts.
Some of the geometric designs are believed to represent a building such as the tomb of a saint or the fortified villages which many of the Amazigh people of the region inhabited. The boldness and modernity of this style of henna cloth is striking. This design is usually found on a head covering called an Adrar.
Figurative designs include symbols of religious buildings,gates (bab) or portals ( These portal designs are perhaps related to the portal of life theories which equate the womb tot he portal of life, this is a form of goddess worship related to the Phoenician goddess Tanit.
Other motifs include combs, scorpions, bread baskets, palm leaves and people ( the symbol for the Amazigh (the free people) is adapted to a dancing silhouette. THese symbols are seen on Haik and wedding blankets.
Pieces of henna cloth also exist which bear designs using script. The Amazigh people did not historically use a written form of their language, and as such the scripts seen to be ‘borrowed’ from the Tifanagh alphabet of the neighbouring Tuareg people and to some extent from Sufi number squares and magical symbols which represent bad spirits ( djinn) . Indeed there is evidence of Sufi use of henna cloth in healing practices. A well known example of henna cloth is called the Haik of the Fakir, it was used as a protective wrap for the sick, or worn by the Fakir, possibly both.
Each henna cloth is unique in its design, these were never mass produced items, and as such each tells a personal tale of the woman who created this piece of art.
In recent years copies of these textiles have become prevalent in the souks of Morocco. Please be aware that the original pieces are increasingly scarce and will never be seen displayed by street vendors, they are precious and delicate and are stored safely by reputable dealers in cedar wood caskets!