I love shopping in Morocco. There are so many artisans making beautiful handmade crafts which have disappeared (if they ever existed) in Europe, such as beautiful mosaics. Because they make things, people can also fix things – I have had jewellery and shoes fixed in Morocco that I couldn’t get fixed in the UK. The ‘make do and mend,’ hand-crafted mentality really appeals to me.
On a recent trip, I decided to give it a go myself. I had seen towels embellished with cute little tassels in the shops, but they were over-priced and I was convinced I could make them myself by exporting the decorations rather than the towels. So, I set off in search of mini tassels. In the upholstery suppliers of Essaouira, we found tassels to tie back curtains, tassels to hang on purses and tassels to hang on hoods, but no teeny tassels I could sew on a towel. We got sick of saying “la, saghira!” (“no, small ones!”). Apparently, they were only available from wholesalers in Marrakech.
So, I changed tack. I had seen stunning women’s jellabas and kaftans , embroidered with beautiful silks and ornamented with tiny knotted and knitted buttons. I thought I could sew those buttons on the towels – we just had to find someone who sold them. We tried local tailors. Each one we went to sent us to the next. One had a bunch of buttons, which he dug out from the dust under his sewing machine. He claimed were 100 pieces (in reality there were 60 max) and he wanted 100dh (around £7.50). I thought it was a reasonable price, but my friend was determined to find better and cheaper.
Down another alley, we found another old guy sewing away. The thread stretched the length of his shop. He didn’t have any buttons, but he pointed us further down the street. A lady chatting to her friends while sewing in a dimly lit shop told us at 4pm the local haberdasher’s would open around the next bend. Maybe we’d find something there? We went for lunch to re-fuel while we waited. We had high hopes; maybe our treasure hunt was coming to an end?
At 4pm we asked our way back to the haberdashers. It was less a shop and more a kiosk. It looked like she should sell sweeties, not sewing accessories! But as we gazed into the back of the tiny shop, we saw skeins of silks of every colour and the shopkeeper had all her beads, buttons and tassels arranged in “Aisha” brand jam jars on the shelves and under the glass counter. I could have bought the whole shop and kept crafting for a lifetime!! But she didn’t have the buttons I was looking for. She could have them made, but it would take more days than I had left on my holiday.
We were given another tip: outside the medina walls was a reputable jellaba maker. Maybe he could help? By this point it was getting dark. But we were still on our mission. We tracked down the jellaba maker, but he only had enough buttons to fulfill his orders and a few extra for the odd repair. He sent us off further into a local residential neighbourhood: there was a tailor behind the bank. We should try him.
I was getting cold and starting to lose faith. But my friend dragged me on, down a narrow, dark lane of apartments, towards the only light in the street. A young lad – probably only in his twenties – was operating a sewing machine on a mezzanine level. He jumped down as we entered. My friend asked about the jellaba buttons. The young guy pulled a tatty plastic bag out from under the counter. In it were multi-coloured buttons like 100s and 1000s on a cupcake! They were all shades and shapes – some like knots, others like tyres; mini knitted acorns and some like little fists. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Then he produced another bagful! I started to sift through the buttons – I wanted some brown ones for my towels and some brightly coloured ones for other craft projects. I needed a good number of each kind and they were all mixed up, so it was a time-consuming business. The young tailor just looked on, bemused. Eventually, we started to talk prices. We were far off the tourist trail and he had no idea how much he could get away with charging this crazy foreigner! Seeing his indecision, my friend asked him how much it would cost to take them all. The tailor was hesitant. How would he mend his clients’ jellabas if we took all his spares? He wasn’t sure. He looked scared his boss might re-appear and tell him off! With a resigned expression, he plucked a figure out of the air, no doubt intended to be a snip for him, not us. But at 20 dh (£1.50), I’d thrown all the buttons back in the bag before he could reconsider!
Finally, we thought to ask what these funny little buttons are called. The tailor told us: “ma’quda”. ‘But isn’t that the word for potato cakes?’ I asked. Indeed it is. Apparently the etymology is related to the word for ‘complicated’ which reflects the complexity of the knotting and knitting of the buttons. The edible ma’quda are not that tricky, though, so there must be more to it. Maybe that’s a linguistic mission for my next trip….
© Lynn Sheppard
More info on jellaba buttons at this wordpress blog.