Book review: Keepers of the sheep

Keepers of the sheep – knitting Morocco's High Atlas and beyond, by Irene Waggener with Muah Ahansali, Hussein Mardi, Muah n'Ait Tabatoot and Noura Eddylymy. Photo published with permission from the author.

Today I give you a book review. I have read the lovely and important book Keepers of the sheep – knitting in Morocco’s High Atlas and beyond by Irene Waggener with Muah Ahansali, Hussein Mardi, Muah n’Ait Tabatoot and Noura Eddelymy.

I have been wanting to read this book ever since I learned that it had been published (in December 2020), and a couple of weeks ago I finally got around to actually ordering it, from Retrosaria Rosa Pomar in Portugal (you can also buy the book from Irene’s U.S. Etsy store). I had it in my mailbox only a week after I ordered it.

Keepers of the sheep is a beautiful book, both in its appearance and its content. In the book we get to follow Irene’s journey and exploration in knitting, story and history in Morocco’s High Atlas. We also get to peak at sheep, shepherding, spinning and wool. The book is built up of stories and portraits of the landscape and the people, knitting patterns and a historical journey back in time to possible origins of knitting.

Story

We begin the book in Irene’s own first encounter with the landscape and the people of Morocco’s High Atlas. We get to see the vast landscape through her eyes. For a moment I am there with her, getting a first taste of the soft, still vibrant colours. Page by page we get to follow Irene as she comes closer to the people in the village. She finds men who show her their knitting traditions and teach her to knit some of the garments that we can enjoy in the book.

Irene’s story

To prepare for this review I asked Irene a bit about her own background and how she ended up in Morocco and writing a book about knitting traditions. She tells me that she came to the country as a language student and later to teach at the university. On yet another visit she began working with artisans and shepherds in the village of Timloukine.

Keepers of the sheep – knitting Morocco's High Atlas and beyond, by Irene Waggener with Muah Ahansali, Hussein Mardi, Muah n'Ait Tabatoot and Noura Eddelymy. Photo published with permission from the author.
Keepers of the sheep – knitting Morocco’s High Atlas and beyond, by Irene Waggener with Muah Ahansali, Hussein Mardi, Muah n’Ait Tabatoot and Noura Eddelymy. Photo published with permission from the author.

During this work they realized the importance of the knitting skills of the shepherds and artisans. Irene says that the branch of the knitting family tree the book covers doesn’t get much mention in the knitting books. The knowledge has traditionally been passed down orally and through observations which would be another reason why this book is so important. A book like Keepers of the sheep would also be a means to help the community promote traditional crafts like sock knitting that is usually practiced by women. She also says that the book indeed has inspired many of the women to learn to knit from their fathers and grandfathers.

At the moment Irene is researching for an upcoming project that she hopefully will be able to share soon. I can’t wait!

History

In the past part of the book we get to follow Irene on a trail back in time to possible origins of knitting traditions in North Africa. Decade by decade we get clues to the knitting riddle of North Africa, starting with World War II, going back through the colonial period, and to medieval Egypt. Through various periods of migration, linguistic clues, cross cultural pattern similarities, designs and styles Irene describes a possible scenario of the origins of knitting in the area and perhaps even of the origins of knitting in the western world. An interesting aspect here is that Sara Wolf makes a similar journey through knitting history in the book Knit (spin) Sweden, and ends up in an Egyptian sock as a clue to a possible knitting origin in North Africa.

In this section Irene dives into the archives to look at textile fragments and images and creates designs inspired by historical patterns, techniques and period garments.

Oral tradition

Knitting in Morocco’s High Atlas starts with the yarn, the need and the needles you have. There is a framework of knitting and detail techniques, but as a knitter you need to make the decisions of yarn weight, needle size, gauge and size while you knit. You try as you go. Again and again.

I realize that it must have been a challenge for Irene to explain the orally transfered try-as-you-go description in a written form for a chart and detailed oriented audience. I think she does this in a lovely and balanced way, maintaining the respect of the oral traditions while being at the same time very pedagogical toward her audience.

An advantage of a perspective that starts with the material you have is how perfect it is for handspun yarn. A framework of techniques instead of step by step instructions seems to open the doors to experimentation and a sense of freedom.

Wool and spinning

In the High Atlas the tradition is that men knit while keeping the sheep and women spin. The spindles are long floor supported spindles that the spinner spins while sitting on the floor. The yarn seems to be mainly for weft and pile in rugs, but some older women also spin for knitting.

Spinners in the village of Timloukine. Photo published with permission from the author.
Spinners in the village of Timloukine. Photo published with permission from the author.

If you look at Irene’s Instagram you can see a few videos with very talented spinners dancing the wool into soft and airy woolen yarn from cloud-like carded batts. It looks as though they are effortlessly breathing out the yarn through their relaxed fingers. It is truly mesmerizing to watch. When they ply the yarn they roll the shaft outward along the underarm, a technique I haven’t seen before.

 When I ask Irene about the wool from the local sheep she says she thinks it is similar to a Cheviot she has spun when it comes to softness, texture, drafting length, and behaviour on the spindle. High Atlas sheep are as fare as she knows not dual coated but do have a bit of kemp. She describes the wool as having a dry, airy quality and is not overly strong or weak.

If you want to dive deeper into the spinning in Morocco’s High and Middle Atlas you can read Irene’s lovely article in the Supported spindle issue of PLY magazine. She does a very good job of describing the spinning techniques used in the area.

Irene has an Etsy shop where she sometimes is able to sell both wool, yarn and spindles. I am hoping to be able to buy a spindle if they become available.

Knitting patterns

Scattered through the book are lovely knitting patterns, all written in a try-as-you-go fashion using the material and tools you have at hand. The patterns come both from the techniques Irene learned from the knitters she met and from garments and fragments she has found when researching the knitting history in the area.

Tqasher Jadeed socks

The first pattern in the book is a pair of socks. I don’t see myself as a sock knitter, but I can see that the engineering of these is different than the models I have seen. As with all the other patterns in the book the pattern is built up as a try-as-you-go process where you need to be confident enough to trust your instincts when it comes to the fit. All of the parameters – needles, yarn thickness and numbers – are sort of fluid in a very compelling way. It looks very liberating to just go! The technique for toes and heels are there of course, but the rest is up to you to balance.

Tqasher Jadeed, new socks. A lovely pattern in Keepers of the sheep. Photo published with permission from the author.
Tqasher Jadeed, new socks. A lovely pattern in Keepers of the sheep. Photo published with permission from the author.

I would really like to knit the Tqasher Jadeed socks. Perhaps in a rya wool yarn.

Sirwal pants

We need to talk about the Sirwal pants. Suspender pants in broad stripes of natural black and white handspun yarn. A zig-zag stripe follows the sides of the legs to elegantly travel the passive colour along the active without floats or joins. They remind me of the first bathing suits for men – striped, covering and knit in wool.

Sirwal pants in Keepers of the sheep. Photo published with permission from the author.
I’m fascinated by the Sirwal pants and their dazzling lightning bolt up the sides of the legs. Photo published with permission from the author.

Now, as some of you may know, I take daily baths in my nearby lake all year round. In the winter I need to dress practically – I need to stay warm in clothes that are loose and easy to put on a very cold body after the bath. Wouldn’t the Sirwal pants be just heavenly ideal for this purpose? I long to spin this yarn, on a spindle from the High Atlas if possible, and knit straight off the spindle. Raw, improvised and simple. I have the perfect candidate for the job. Gunvor the Gestrike sheep, my longitudinal fleece study sheep, was born white with lots of black spots. Her first fleece will be perfect for the Sirwal pants. I can’t wait to knit those vertical zig-zag side stripes.

Historically inspired patterns

In the historic section of the book Irene creates designs inspired by textile fragments, traditional garments and art in the area. Hats, socks, belts, a bath mitt and complex but ingenious multi-colour intarsia details.

Lovely belts in Keepers of the sheep. Photo published with permission from the author.
Lovely belts in Keepers of the sheep. Photo published with permission from the author.

After the historical journey Irene takes us on towards the end of the book she writes (p. 118):

“Rather than solely focusing the narrative on Muslim Arab expansion across the continent, the evidence available to us raises the importance of investigating the role indigenous Amazigh people may have played the dissemination and possibly even development of knitting. It challenges us to consider North Africa not as a passive recipient to cultural influences from abroad but an active player in the evolution and transmission of knitting between continents and peoples.”

There is so much we can learn from this book and from the, in my western perspective, very fresh framework that comes from the oral tradition and try-as-you-go technique. The techniques and perspective constitute an key foundation of knitting history. Keepers of the sheep plays an important part in spreading this perspective. Thank you Irene and the artisans and shepherds in the book for sharing this knowledge with us.

Part of the earnings from the sale of the book is donated to the women’s cooperative Cooperative Ibilou. The cooperative works with community development projects benefitting citizens of the village Timloukine. When you buy the book you will be part of spreading the knowledge of an oral tradition while at the same time contributing to keeping the tradition alive and sustainable for textile artists in the High Atlas area.

Happy spinning!

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