Kay Whittle looks at Islamic design sources for patchwork and quilting
As in early Christian times, the Islamic religion disapproves of using figurative representation, such as the depiction of animals and the human form. This is still true in the 21st century, so artistic expression in Muslim countries has its own distinctive characteristics which have evolved as a result of these ancient restrictions.
Frieze from the Ali Ben Youssef Medrasah, Marrakech. From the top - an arabesque design and calligraphy, both in stucco plasterwork; a linear tile repeat; more calligraphy and
arabesque, carved into zellij; star polygons made from mosaic zellij.
There are three major forms of expression used in Islamic art and decoration:
calligraphic, arabesque and geometric. These forms of expression are often combined as shown in the frieze from the Ali Ben Youssef Medrasah (Koranic School) in Marrakech, a 16th century theological college.
Left: Clamshell, a classic
Right: ‘Step and shoulder’,
a classic Islamic shape.
In this article, geometric designs will be explored in more detail as they are the most obvious source for patchwork designs. This type of decoration can also be sub-divided into tessellations, linear repeat patterns and star polygons.
Most people will recognise patterns of tessellati. These are formed from a single shape repeated to cover an infinite surface, with no other shape being involved. Triangles, squares, diamonds and hexagons are all examples of regular polygons which tessellate. Other irregular polygons can be constructed to repeat over an infinite surface. The clamshell design is a tessellation repeat which is used in traditional
pieced patchwork and is not dissimilar to a simplified form of the Islamic ‘step and shoulder’ tessellation
The design work of Escher‚ from the 1930s is well known in popular culture, but it is little known
that he spent time studying tessellation patterns at the Alhambra Palace in Granada - a 14th century
Moorish mosque. Tessellation patterns are often too intricate or too rounded in outline to be used in patchwork without some modification, but this is achievable by simplification. The tessellation polygons of
Escher‚ are readily adapted to patchwork repeat units. Some simple irregular polygons are shown, three
of which could easily be achieved by machine strip patchwork.
Tessellation designs by Escher suitable for patchwork
Easy tessellation polygons - the first three patterns could be easily
achieved by machine strip patchwork.
Geometric designs in the form of star polygons and linear repeat patterns have great potential in patchwork. The usual medium for these designs is in mosaic tilework. The Moroccan term for this
highly technical and extremely skilful craft is zellij. Even today one finds master craftsmen (maallemens), their employees and apprentices hard at work. Such is the regard for zellij in Moroccan society that a young apprentice is likely to make a good living for himself, more certain of a job, than a university graduate.
Left: The basic design unit of the 8-pointed star is used in most traditional zellij
screens. The central motif is the same as the ‘Evening Star’ block.
Right: A more complicated star polygon, based upon a 16-point star, surrounded
by 8-point stars.
The tiny pieces of tile used in zellij screens are all made precisely by hand, marked out by apprentices and cut by the skilled employees. The raw material comes in the form of glazed tiles from Fèz. The nature of the clay from this region produces just the right texture after firing to be worked into zellij. To see the skilled cutters at work is amazing. The great hammers and chisels look far too clumsy to produce the intricate pieces. Yet in the hands of the artisans the right shapes and sizes are accurately produced.
A simple combination of elongated hexagons and squares produces an easy
repeat pattern. This is actually a modern café wall. The same repeat design
has been utilised in three colours of silk to produce a cushion cover.
Once cut, the pieces are placed, face down, onto a smooth soaped surface, in time honoured geometric patterns. The master craftsman will have memorised thousands of pattern variations, which
he in turn passes on to his employees. The most usual designs are based upon the Seal of Solomon, that is the 8-pointed star, or variations of stars up to 96 points. Traditional zellij colours are quite bold - blue, red, yellow, black, brown, white and green.
Not all zellij patterns are complicated, indeed simpler patterns are quite commonplace and to my mind much more effective. The use of regular repeating shapes such as triangles, squares, diamonds, hexagons, elongated hexagons, octagons, octagon and square combinations is widespread. All of these
readily lend themselves to the classic English (over paper) method of patchwork.
This is not a stagnant area of art, far from it. Modern zellij artists are designing new repeat patterns and using repeat patterns and using non-traditional colour combinations. Far from challenging the old order, the work of modern craftsmen compliments and honours its origins, while evolving from the source, rather like the Moroccan youth and the respect shown to their elders! New public buildings are
often the best places to find modern applications of zellij, whilst private homes typically support the
traditional expressions. Good examples of contemporary work can be seen inside the Mohammed
V airport at Casablanca where huge panels decorate the walls.
About the author,
For a large part of the year
I live in Marrakech with my
husband Nour Mohamed
who works as a mountain
guide. When not in
Morocco, I escape to the
tranquillity of the Yorkshire
Dales to visit the English
side of my family.
My early life gave me a
taste for travel (my father
was in the RAF) and I get
itchy feet if in one place
for too long. This factor
brought me to Morocco and
started an unusual lifestyle
with Mohamed and his
family, and has given me
a very privileged insight
into a country, its culture,
people and communities.
Whilst retraining to become a
chiropodist, I also have
the luxury of enough time
to be learning Arabic and
running a charity. ‘Boots
for the Atlas’ aims to help
the Berber children in the
Atlas Mountains, by
bringing used children’s
shoes from the UK and
taking them to the remote
mountain villages, which
are inaccessible by vehicle.
This enables me to see the
very roots of Moroccan
society and to draw
inspiration from my lovely
First published in Popular Patchwork September 2000