Hunting down the original Beni Ouarain

A very special rug has been a glorious objet d’art in the decorating world for decades – and more recently, the Moroccan Beni Ouarain carpet has filtered into the mainstream as a totally chic decorative addition. These incredibly plush, large rugs bring a creative spirit, a bold and powerful design, and a spontaneous and archaic character to modern interiors.

A large Beni Ouarain carpet with lozenges in a house designed by modernist architect Alvar Aalto

A large Beni Ouarain carpet with lozenges in a house designed by modernist architect Alvar Aalto

However, ‘Beni Ouarain’ is often now used as a byword for all Moroccan black and white rugs; although, they are not the same. Sadly their growing popularity has resulted in vintage fakes, which bear few links to the tribes who first created such distinct and unique carpets – bringing little benefit to the Berber peoples of Morocco.

Beni Ouarain carpets were first woven by the Berbers of Morocco’s north-eastern Middle Atlas Mountains, and other neighbouring tribes. The 'Beni Ouarain' are in fact a confederation of seventeen Berber tribes, who are believed to have been living in the region since as far back as the 9th century. They produced these textiles for protection against the cold winters, and used carpets not as floor covers, but rather as beds and cosy sleeping mats. That is why these rugs are long, loose, thick and flexible, and relatively narrow. They are comfortable enough to wrap around one’s body for warmth during the harsh wintery nights.  

A classic Beni Ouarain carpet design usually uses different combinations of diamonds or lozenges on natural cream base with often powerfully simple graphics. However, the oldest Beni Ouarain carpets had more rich designs and were far more decorative; as time has gone by the designs have become less complex.

These carpets began to attract a great deal of attention in the 1920s and 30s – Le Corbusier, Alva Alto, and Frank Lloyd Wright used Beni Ouarain carpets. For decades, many of the oldest, the best, and the rarest examples of carpet designs have been sought out and snapped up. It’s now very difficult to find the old, original Beni Ouarains, and those which remain are rightly valuable and treasured. Other tribes in the Atlas Mountains also weave cream and black carpets, and these are often mistakenly called Beni Ouarain.

So today, factories have begun producing fakes, which can be sold at low prices. Carpets, woven by women who are usually paid very little and who use poor quality wool and dyes, are washed and artificially aged with chemicals. Sometimes the wool is dyed a bright white, damaging it in the process. 

So, how do you know if you’re buying a lovely authentic Beni Ouarain? An old and original piece will usually be long, sometimes over 4m, and relatively narrow. Also, very few vintage tribal carpets will be in perfect condition, so look out for this as a sign of authenticity. If the carpet has really been used in a Berber home it will have signs of its past life – areas of low pile, marks, restoration, little patches where candle wax has dripped, or where women have dropped a little henna dye – these are all natural and welcome signs of authenticity. Beni Ouarain weavers mainly used wool from a particular breed of sheep, and also used a specific knotting technique, which are further signs of an old original carpet.  An old piece is likely to have a spontaneous and archaic lozenge-based design, often featuring irregularities and special design touches added by the weaver just for her carpet. A carpet woven by a woman for her own use would have been crafted with care and pride, using the best wool she could afford.

Seek out the original and the authentic. It's worth the journey.