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 patchwork design.
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.

Tessellati

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 shape.
 
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.
 

Zellij

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, Kay Whittle

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 adopted country.

First published in Popular Patchwork September 2000