Known as Moroccan wedding blankets, handira are woven out of sheep's wool, cotton and linen by Berber women in the Middle Atlas mountains of Northern Morocco. Berbers were the first inhabitants of the Northern coast of Africa (back when it was called the Barbary Coast, Aarrrrr, matey). Although in frequent conflict with conquering Arab forces since the 7th century CE, the Berbers have managed to maintain a separate culture and language (though there is ongoing conflict over the official status of the Berber language in today's Morocco.) Despite being an ethnic majority (about 60%) in Morocco, Berbers — Imazighen, in their own language — feel oppressed by the Arabic government, and have been agitating for more autonomy and the freedom to practice their traditional culture. There are several different Berber tribes across North Africa, with different dialects and customs. From what I gather, the tribe(s) responsible for these wedding blankets come from the Middle Atlas region of Morocco, near the Beni Ouarain, creators of those beautiful Moroccan geometric rugs.
Berber wedding blankets are woven in anticipation of, you guessed it, a wedding, by the bride's female relatives. It can take many hours — even weeks — of work to attach those hundreds of mirrored sequins once the weaving is complete; it is thought that during this collaborative task, the bride's relatives teach her all about the birds and the bees, among other marital duties and expectations. After the wedding ceremony, the bride wears the blanket tied around her neck as a kind of cape. It might be associated with her trip to her new marital home, which could be a chilly ride.
For Berbers, objects and visual motifs contain myriad meanings and purposes. The process of hand-weaving, itself, when undertaken mindfully, is thought to endow the textile with baraka, or blessings. When complete, the wedding blanket serves not only as warmth and decoration for the bride, but also to ward off evil and to bestow fertility and good luck upon the newlyweds.
It doesn't take too much sociological guesswork to hypothesize why Westerners are using these wedding blankets as decoration. Almost Modernist in their restrained aesthetics, handira are neutral in color (though often accented with bands of kilim patterns (images 6 & 10), enlivened with rectilinear lines or boxes of texture. At the same time, the sequins lend a touch of glamour, and the texture and handmade feel of the blankets add a traditional exoticism. One can only hope, then, that an appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of the handira awards the user the same spiritual benefits bestowed upon the bridal couple!
Sources: One of the most trusted sources for getting authentic handira is Maryam, who has a beautiful website, and sells wedding blankets and Beni Ouarain carpets, among other Moroccan goods. Laura Aviva is a NYC-based vendor who sells traditional crafts from all over the world. Dia Living is another website that trawls the earth for beautiful goods to sell, including wedding blankets.
Images: 1 Kate Hudson's bedroom, designed by Roman & Williams, via Desire to Inspire; 2 Detail of a Moroccan wedding blanket, via Paris Parfait; 3 Bedroom at the Parker Palm Springs, designed by Jonathan Adler, via decor8blog; 4 Laura Aviva's apartment/showroom, from her AT House Tour last winter; 5 Moroccan wedding blanket as tablecloth, photo by Tim Bjorn, via Desire to Inspire; 6 Detail of a kilim band on a colorful handira, from Marrakech Emma's Zamzam Boutique; 7 Image via Living Etc.; 8 & 9 Topside and underside of the same handira, Dia Living; 10 Tunisian Berber girl, photographed by Rudolf Lehnert around 1910, via Maryam.
(Re-edited from a post originally published 05/27/10 - AH)