Selectionnez une rubrique, un article ou un numéro du GUIDO
“One day, following a family picnic on the grass and taking advantage of a general siesta, a farmer had the idea, out of curiosity, to look at how a doum leaf was made, a palm leaf of the dwarf palm tree that was at hand reach. With the help of a hairpin that he removed from his sleeping wife, he plucked this leaf and realised that it was made of long fibres linked one to the other by chlorophyll. The idea of an organic fibre was born.”
Going through the countryside, one’s attention is frequently drawn to long and abandoned buildings: most of them are old manufactures dating from the Colonial era which still worked until the seventies, just like in the industrial zone of Essaouira where old very flourishing factories dating from the first half of the 20th century are now in ruins.
Towards El Hanchane, a few hundred metres further on the Meskala road, a house with columns on the side of the road intrigues one: it is nearly completely hidden by eucalyptus trees and, around it one can see numerous buildings in ruin. It is one of the organic horsehair manufactures from the North African Company which owned around ten in Morocco, split up between the north and the south of the country; three of them being in the area in Imintlit, towards Talmest and at Douar Arbalou in the town of El Hanchane. The latter was operational as early as 1920 and collapsed in 1970 as organic horsehair was abandoned for synthetic fibres and foam.
Until the middle of the 19th century, seats and armchairs were padded with animal horsehair coming from the mane and the tail of horses and mattresses were stuffed with wool, which made these extremely costly. With the birth of the car industry in the 19th century, it became necessary to find a substitute to animal horsehair and wool: the “doum” or dwarf palm tree, (chamaerops humilis), being plentiful in the Maghreb, will fulfil this role. This plant grows naturally all around the Mediterranean Basin; it is a kind of a branched bush whose roots are sometimes centuries old in North Africa and which grows into low close packed thickets.
Once the factory was abandoned, one family stayed to live there: the grand father, the father M’Bark and the son Omar used to work there and they are now the guardians of memory. The Omar family lives on the spot: they occupy the big house which used to be the factory manager’s house. It adjoins the workshops that are now full of heaps of bags of argan tree nuts or other produce, depending on the season.
A garden has survived; it is filled with orange, tangerine and lemon trees and with a gigantic fig tree. The big tank, which used to provide water for the garden or which was used as a swimming pool for children in very hot days, is a witness to this place past wealth. Ancient stables and pig houses, also in ruins, are on one side of the garden and, at the other end, the factory stretches out with its huge paved workshops: scattered ruins occupied in part by the family goats. All the machinery has vanished but Omar and M’Bark are telling the story of the factory making it come alive: here was a 50 HP English engine, here was the spinning workshop and there was the packaging workshop from which bundles left by boat from Essaouira or Casablanca to foreign parts, mainly Europe. One can feel a great nostalgia but also some pride when they mention the tubs where sometimes the horsehair was dyed following a special order from the Royal Palace.
The house and the factory were fitted with electricity very early on with the use of a big dynamo which was essential for the spinning pulleys! A hydraulic engine supplements it. About 50 men worked here, then the wives took their place during the war, then fuel and charcoal coming from France replaced electricity. Omar tells us that, here, in front of the big building, the first flour mill in the area was erected. This mill was in use day and night and the women working there used to encourage one another by singing, making up a chorus around the boss’s name. Omar sings the chorus to us laughing like a child!
Various steps were necessary to condition the plant before it became horsehair, string or rope. Here, it was mainly destined to stuffing: gathering, plucking and combing were the first steps in the production of the fibre; then a carder cleaned the fibre of any waste that would damage the quality of the horsehair. Then, the women stretched the filaments on a paved area, shook them to air and dry them before bringing them back to the weaving workshop.
The obtained product was very harsh. As a security measure, this workshop was separated from the one where the fibre was made in order to avoid any risk of fire as the filaments were extremely dry. It was a shed of about 20m wide and 60m long with spinning machines where pulleys interlocked in an intricate technical pattern released, after various operations, the ropes that were baled in 80kg bundles to be delivered to trading and to exporting.
During the Second World War, the French Army acquired camouflage nets spinned with horsehair and made in Moroccan factories.
Given the revived interest for natural products, organic horsehair is on the rise in the whole world, especially in European countries. In the countryside here, some people are still using the “doum” but in a very individual way. Is it possible that this century will witness a renewal of these factories that, in their days, made up part of the country’s wealth?