Buying and Sourcing Moroccan Vintage Rugs: What You Need to Know

Moroccan vintage rugs don’t really exist. This simple fact is all you actually need to know when determining whether that person who is selling you a Moroccan vintage rug is fundamentally honest about what they do and the impact their work has on the artisan community. This alone should be the blog post, but let’s dive deep into the weeds of the vintage world and provide clarity about what vintage actually means. 

Common Sense

The term vintage is used to refer to something from the past of high quality, something that represents the best of its kind from a certain era, and to some degree, a bit rare. While debateable, 20 years seems to be the consensus around when something becomes vintage. 

For Moroccan rugs that are actually older than 20 years, or pre 2000, they are often actual collector items collected by people who actually know. There is a direct correlation between the age of a rug and how likely it is to end up in an actual private collection. Older, vintage rugs are simply not going to end up on Instagram and Etsy at a price lower than what it actually takes artisans to weave a rug today. 

So how is it possible that Etsy and Instagram are seemingly endless feeds of vintage rugs? Something isn’t adding up. 

The Process of Rug Vintage-ification 

Looking at that endless list of rugs on Instagram and Etsy, it certainly looks like those rugs are really old. But the reality is that the faded, sun swept worn look is manufactured through a process that conceals both the rug’s actual origin and the people who made it. 

These vintage-ified rugs go through a multi-step process to achieve that look and feel. The first step is to have the rug made by living, existing artisans usually under the direction of your standard Moroccan ‘middleman’. The primary hubs where these rugs are made are in Khenifra, Kenitra and Taznakht. The artisans who make these rugs earn as little as 5 dirham a day and they sometimes may be a part of some loose collective of people, a cooperative in name only, or just weave at home. These artisans do not design. They are simply given print outs from Instagram and asked to remake the intricate and often time consuming designs you find online. The lack of jobs and opportunities in these areas is what drives artisans to work for less than 5% of minimum wage.

What happens after the rug is made depends on the complexity of the middleman operation. It is important to note that the complexity tends to fall along gender lines. The vast majority of middlemen of rugs, are in fact women. 

Middlewomen-led supply chains of vintage rugs follow more simpler means of vintage-ification. A middlewoman will buy a rug from some other weaver, but before taking it instruct them to cover the rug in dirt, and then to walk over it in their home for a period of time and lay it out in the sun for an extended period of time. Dyes available for purchase by artisans are not of much quality (look for powdery bags of bright colors on images on Instagram) and are not light fast. So placing dirt on the rug and sun placement can get a rug to have a much older feel. Anou is well versed in this process because every cooperative we’ve banned from Anou for reselling rugs followed this process extensively. This was generally a tip that members of a cooperative we were working with were simply buying and reselling rugs on Anou. 

For middlemen, the process is often much more advanced. Once a rug is woven, the rug goes through an extensive washing process designed to stress and age the rug. Through a lot of extensive research, we’ve been able to reverse engineer these processes and have largely determined that there are two primary ways. The first is through the use of simple household bleach. The catch is that you need a lot of it. To replicate the vintage process through bleach, you often need to use a 1:1 water to bleach solution for one full wash interval of the rug. It can take 100 liters sometimes to fully soak a large wool rug, and each rug that goes through this process is washed 1-3 times on average. 

Keep in mind Bleach doesn’t bio decompose, so for every rug you see on Etsy and Instagram, that’s countless liters of bleach poured directly into the rivers that the artisans who made the rug depend on. The amount of times a rug is washed and goes through such a bleaching process can vary. Other chemicals, heavy in sulfur, can also be used to cut down time to create faded looks on rugs but increase the toxicity to levels we don’t quite understand. We’re still testing the effects of these other means. Ultimately, if you Google Moroccan rug washing and you’ll see people are wearing boots for a reason.   

Once a rug is dry, the rug then is often literally blow torched to burn out plastics that are often found in Morocan yarns and also helps promote color fading and the general feel of the rug. These processes aren’t necessarily a secret, there are ample videos on Youtube of people showing off this process on Youtube. 

Other Forms of Domestic Production

With oceans of bleach and literal blow torches, how can such distortion be believed for so long? One reason why people might believe that all those vintage rugs on Etsy and Instagram are real is because one might assume that artisans still weave and weave things for their home and family. And as these rugs age they might get rid of them. This is correct. However, this alone doesn’t justify the vast volume of vintage rugs for many reasons. 

First, is that your average artisans doesn’t necessarily value traditional design and traditional materials. Visit rural areas where many rugs are produced, and their homes may be adorned with rugs, but those rugs will be made of cheap acrylics because these are cheaper and they are perceived to be modern. 

Second, traditional designs are much more complicated to make and require time and money to make. Today’s genuine artisans have neither, so they don’t naturally gravitate towards the complexity of traditional work. Even well off artisans often don’t touch traditional designs. The most successful cooperatives on Anou, who earn a meaningful wage don’t gravitate towards complexity of traditional designs without the coaching of a design mentor. 

The complex rugs that we perceive to be vintage and traditional are really of a bygone era because the generations that created these gallery quality rugs no longer exist. Since those generations, the market for traditional rugs and such designs has placed such a low value on them, that subsequent generations have not taken up the craft. The rather cruel irony is that in an age where Moroccan rugs are now a global phenomenon, the vintage-ifcation of rugs promoted by Instagram and Etsy have led to a commodification of Morocco’s culture and eroded any market that was once able to support the genuine product of traditional Moroccan rugs.

Today’s intricate and traditional rug designs are made in the middleman supply chain made by people desperate for money. In other words, there are not enough people simply weaving memories in their home to support the stories sold on Instagram. 

Family Heirlooms 

The only place where genuine vintage rugs still exist are in people’s homes. These rugs are most often woven by family members who, with each passing year are more likely to have passed on. Let’s be real, no one holds on to anything for 20 year and gives it away without the breaking of some emotional attachment. So to think of the despair and grief a person or family must be going through to make a decision to sell or give away something made by previous generations is simply indescribable. 


In a poor remote town called Talsint, an area that once used to be one of the most prized rug producing areas of Morocco, the process of separating people from their cherished family heirlooms occurs in almost regular fashion. But it’s worse than you think. Every so often rug sellers descend into Talsint and knock on the doors looking for people in need and willing to sell their family’s rugs. And instead of money, families are so desperate they are willing to trade the rugs for cheap synthetic blankets and other basic essentials. The rugs they collect, all get loaded into a car, and are driven to a warehouse in Meknes and sold on some random Etsy account. When we see genuine vintage rugs the only story we can see is one of grief and despair. 

Entrenched Problems

Finding a solution for this is incredibly complicated. Take your average Instagram seller of rugs. You might overlook an interesting pattern. These sellers claim that they are ending artisan exploitation, or that they enable you to buy direct from artisans, or even ignorantly claiming to be Everlane of Morocco. But look at their shops and the majority of what they will sell are actually vintage pieces. Some shops explicitly label them as vintage, or even more depressing, as family heirlooms. Look even closer, and you might notice that all the imagery of the rugs they sell are mixed with images of artisans, but a minority of those pictures actually show the artisan making what is being sold because most of the top selling product are vintage-ified rugs that weren’t made by the artisans they showcase. 

The sad reality is that many artisan cooperatives require immense amounts of time and training to meet specific levels of quality. As we discussed above, the generations of deep artisan skill has passed and it needs to be rebuilt. Instagram brands that are good at marketing can’t afford to do the real work of artisan development. So they supplement their business with selling vintage-ified rugs made by people they don’t even know, and then use the proceeds from what is exploitive labor to give back to a small community of their choosing. This creates the veneer of change, but instead simply accelerates the decline of the artisan community. 

Worse, the brands themselves don’t even know the damage they are creating. Anou does extensive work in verifying artisans and it is one of the hardest things we do. While we’ve now been doing this for nearly a decade, we still don’t always get it right. It is difficult, unglamorous work. 

The Solution

Mohammed (not his real name) is an artisan within the Anou community and owns a beautiful workshop deep in the High Atlas. While Mohammed doesn’t make jewelry, he sells some replicas of traditional regional jewelry for tourists that pass by. The area where the workshop is located used to be home to one of Morocco’s largest jewish communities in the High Atlas Mountains and were renowned for their jewelry prowess. 

Every now and again, women from the area will come carrying pure silver jewelry crafted by the jewish communities that have since left. In desperate need of money they ask if Mohammed can hang the jewelry up on the wall and try to sell it to a tourist. Mohammed accepts the jewelry, says he’ll do what he can. After the woman leaves he puts the jewelry in a hidden box out of the eye of any tourist. Mohammed has no intention of ever selling them. He believes that the heritage of his homeland is not for sale and he waits to give the piece back to the woman when she is in a position to hold on to it. 

A hidden box isn’t a solution for obvious reasons but the reality is that there are no simple solutions. If we want to ensure that a woman in desperate need doesn’t have to sell precious family heirlooms then we need to address the systemic reason why the woman is in such a desperate situation to begin with. The woman doesn’t need a fanciful story, she needs something structural to change. 

In many ways the women who come to Mohammed’s workshop are a loose parable for the artisan community. Many artisans who are desperate for work are willing to work in obscurity for 5 dirham a day and sell off their most valuable asset — their culture and skill. Sellers on Instagram take the reality of artisans, hide it in a box where no one can see it. But instead of safe keeping, sellers just ignore the deeper rot and profit from an environment where artisans are willing to nearly work for free. 

Ultimately, the women in Mohammed’s area don’t have the clout or ability to create structural reform. The artisan community, however, if organized does. Etsy and Instagram sellers have proven they won’t do what is necessary to reform the artisan sector. 10% charity donations in return for selling vintage rugs is only accelerating artisan decline. As it unfortunately goes with all marginalized communities, real change will only come from the artisans themselves. This is why we believe the work behind Anou is so key. 

The artisan community’s long-term success in changing the sector though can be accelerated by you, the customer. When you buy rugs or craft, think critically about what is being sold and the stories surrounding it. Where possible, try and make sure you’re buying from genuine, artisan owned businesses, not people claiming to be helping artisans. Anou can be of help here. Alternatively, you can buy from some businesses that truly do support artisans. The difference here is that you have to do the work in understanding if the business brings deep added value to artisan communities. Running a Shopify/Etsy store, posting pictures on Instagram isn’t enough. As Anou has shown, artisans can do this too now. There isn’t enough margin in such standard businesses to genuinely support the development of the artisan community.  If this is all too much to think through, just avoid people or business selling vintage Moroccan rugs or heirlooms. 

Lastly, change is dependent on sellers. It’s difficult to be self critical when you think you are doing good. But do the work of evaluating just how your business works and whether it is of benefit, and make the difficult changes that need to be made. And if you cannot make those changes, partner with those who are doing the work that is actually needed. 

The Future of Vintage

A fair question to ask is whether creating rugs that look vintage is bad? Not necessarily. Styles will change, and artisans shouldn’t be locked into a specific way of finishing a rug. The problem is that as of today artisan and environmental ruin is hidden behind the term vintage. If buyers and sellers can bring research and transparency to the sector, it will open to the door for artisans to bring such styles to market in a way that benefits everyone. The Anou Cooperative has been hard at work trying to make sustainable washes available for the wider community and their customers.

The first step to all of this, is to acknowledge the simple truth that vintage rugs as you think you know it do not exist. The second step is then to ensure that when buying rugs be sure to buy from artisans and ensure artisans are earning the full value for their work. It is only until artisans earn the full value for their work will they be willing to invest the creative development of their work.

This blog post is long, but the solution at the end of the day is short. If we can just follow these simple steps, perhaps we can create a future where there is more excitement about the future of artisans who are living today rather than faceless knock-offs of a past that never existed. We fundamentally believe that this future is possible, and we hope you do too.

Anou’s New HQ in David Beach, Morocco!

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Anou’s new HQ in David Beach. 

We’re so incredibly excited to announce our new HQ in David Beach, Morocco! This move has been a couple of years in the making. Through 2014-2015, we have been building a decentralized leadership team and structure for the Anou community.

This structure created deep bench of six artisan leaders that could help manage many aspects of Anou’s operations. However, by the end of 2015 our decentralized structure could no longer effectively meet the growing demands and complexity of Anou’s operations.

In December 2015, we launched a pilot and brought out artisan leader Rabha Akkaouai to work full-time at our office in Rabat. After the first month of full-time work, Rabha was able to get one on one attention and training that should couldn’t receive remotely. As a result, her ability and knowledge increased exponentially. For example, after one month of full-time work at Anou’s office in Rabat she was successfully managing all payment transfers that are required to send the money from a customer to an artisan’s bank account.

We eventually brought out all artisan leaders to work in full-time shifts of either two weeks or one month at our Rabat office. Like Rabha, all artisan leaders had huge jumps in knowledge and an increased ability to manage Anou’s operations.

As a result, we prioritized finding a HQ that could enable a large number of artisan leaders to live and work full-time on Anou’s operations. We also wanted a space where the artisan team and artisans from the community could receive tailored support across all critical areas that the Anou community faces.

Our new place in David Beach will enable us to do exactly that. Our new HQ includes an office, a large design studio and a dormitory that can accommodate artisan leaders, visiting artisans, and soon, leading experts from around the world. It is also only 30 minutes from Rabat and Casablanca so that the artisan team can manage our shipments and other necessary parts of our operations.

Over the next several months we will begin sharing how we will be putting our new space to use. We have no doubt that our new HQ will accelerate the growth of Anou’s artisan leaders and the rest of the artisan community in Morocco!

 

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Rabha Akkaouai of Cooperative Chorouk and Mustapha Chaouai of Association Nahda manage orders and payments from Anou’s office. 

 

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At the new design studio, designer Sabrina Krause Lopez provides visiting artisans with design support on their new product ideas. 

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Anou’s HQ is a short 4 minute walk from one of the most beautiful beaches in Morocco — a source of endless inspiration for all visiting artisans. 

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Anou’s team and artisan leaders set up a bonfire on the beach to celebrate the end of another successful work week. 

 

 

Shipping From Rural Morocco to Any Country in 5 Days

Last October, we were excited to announce that all shipments above 5kg would begin to be shipped by DHL.  Prior to working with DHL, our average shipping time to the United States was 3-5 weeks. Now our shipping average is down to just 5-13 days with shipments delivered by DHL.

Yet we know we can do much better. Our goal is to ensure that orders fulfilled by any artisan in Morocco will arrive at their customer’s address in 5 days flat. This means the waiting time for someone in Los Angeles who is buying a rug from a remote village in Morocco would be the same as if their friend sent a letter to them from New York via USPS standard mail.

To do this though, Anou and the artisans of our community have to overcome numerous, complicated, yet solvable challenges. As such, we wanted to give all our supporters a look behind the scenes of what it takes for artisans to fulfill orders and how all of us are working to reach our goal of a five day delivery timeline.

What it Takes to Ship From the High Atlas 

One reason why the logistics of shipping orders in Morocco is so complicated is that each artisan within the Anou community faces unique challenges, all of which require unique solutions. Association Timdokkals, one of the best selling groups of 2015, was in the unfortunate position of facing the majority of challenges that artisans across Morocco face when shipping products. Fortunately, their challenges make for a great case study.

Every time a customer purchases a rug from Association Timdokkals, the women receive a text message containing the address where to ship their order. Within 24 hours, the women prepare the order and package it for shipment. The women typically work in shifts at the association — half the women work in the morning and half the women work in the afternoon. So whenever a sale is made, a designated woman from the active shift packages the order.

 

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Sana, (left) is one of the weavers who helps with packaging Association Timdokkals’ orders.

 

 

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In the beginning of 2015, the president of Association Timdokkals or its members took their shipments to their local post office, about 5 kilometers away. However, their orders began to overwhelm the post office. By mid-2015, the post office, which has no paved road to it and is one of the most isolated post offices in Morocco, was shipping the highest volume of national and international shipments of all post offices in their province. In fact, many other post offices where artisans within the Anou community operate, have become the highest volume shippers in their respective provinces as well. Even better, because of these shipments, some post offices have become cash flow positive for the first time since they opened — decades ago.

However, this success brings additional complexity.  Timdokkal’s post office, since it used to ship so little, previously contracted a local taxi driver to ship out their mail. But the taxi driver could no longer fit all the shipments into his trunk. The driver eventually grew frustrated that he was no longer delivering a small bag of mail every week and eventually quit and refused to ship artisan products. Now, the Moroccan National Post Headquarters is rumored to have approved a shipping van for Timdokkal’s post office, but it may not arrive until next year. As a result, Timdokkals and two other artisan groups (The Imelghaus Cooperative, and Touda Bous-Enna) in the area that share the same post office have collectively begun paying a local taxi driver to drive their shipments to the Moroccan Post’s regional distribution center in Azilal until the new van arrives.

After the women of Timdokkals package their order, they now walk it over to their local village store and they call their local taxi driver who comes and does one pick-up per day, if the mountain weather permits.

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The local taxi driver stops by the village store to pick up people, and rugs.

 

The taxi driver then drives two hours over two mountain passes and drops the shipments off at the Moroccan Post Office’s distribution center in Azilal, the capital of the Azilal province:

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Once the order is dropped off at the distribution center, the order is then either shipped to directly to the customer or  to Anou’s office in Rabat.

Shipping Directly to Customers

If an order is under 5 kilograms, the artisans will ship it directly to the customer via standard international priority from their local post office (or regional distribution center in the case of Azilal). When an order is dropped off, it usually takes anywhere between 2-5 days for an item to arrive at the Moroccan Post’s international distribution center in Casablanca, where it is then immediately forwarded to the country where the customer lives.

Currently, 70% of the Anou community’s orders are destined for the US and this is where it gets complicated. Once orders arrive at the USPS distribution center in New York, an order can sit for a day, or weeks, and we won’t know because the USPS won’t register the shipment until they move it, not when it arrives. The reason why standard shipping takes 3-5 weeks, is because of the USPS, not the Moroccan Post as is commonly believed. Other countries, including those as far as Australia and New Zealand, only take 10-15 days to arrive.

Anou’s Office in Rabat

It is because the uncertainty of the delays with standard shipping that prompted us to begin working with DHL. Our goal in the near term future is to have all artisans ship their orders directly to DHL’s warehouse from their village, but we’re not quite there yet. As of today, all of our DHL shipments are sent to Anou’s office in Rabat instead.

Shipping from anywhere in Morocco to Rabat takes between 2-5 days. Once the shipment arrives at Anou’s office, Anou’s artisan team inspects packaging and opens up select packages for artisans who may previously have received complaints to ensure an order’s quality before it is shipped shipped on. Most importantly, routing orders through our office is enabling us to standardized our labeling process and troubleshoot problems that may clog up our soon-to-be full integration with DHL (e.g. artisans improperly weighing their items or poor packaging for fragile items).  As we find problems with a shipment, artisan leaders, such as Rabha and Mustapha (pictured below) call up the artisans who shipped the item and teach them how to fix the mistake. Because of their work, the artisan leaders are significantly reducing the amount of errors made by the artisan community.

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Artisan leaders Rabha Akkaoui and Mustapha Chaouai inspect shipments before DHL picks them up.

Once all the items have all been cleared at the office, the artisan leaders call a DHL courier, who then swings by our office and whisks off all our orders to DHL’s warehouse.

 

Abdullah, DHL's amazing courier, picks up shipments from Anou's office.

Abdullah, DHL’s amazing courier, picks up shipments from Anou’s office.

DHL normally ships a package immediately and it arrives anywhere within the world within 72 hours. However, until we’re able to standardize all artisans shipments,  DHL can only send our shipments on Saturdays. So with 2-5 days local shipping, and depending on the day it arrives in Rabat, items currently take between 5-13 days to arrive at their final destination.

With the hard work of artisans in their workshops and Anou’s artisan team, we are quickly reducing our error rate and will integrate the community’s shipment within the next couple of months. And once we hit that milestone, all items shipped by the community will reach any corner of the world within just five days!

 

 

 

 

What is the Difference Between a Flatweave, Pile Knot and Beni Ourain Rug?

A customer recently wrote in and asked us what exactly is the difference between a flatweave, pile knot and Beni Ourain rug? We thought there would be no better place than to provide a quick answer to this question than on our blog!
 
To talk about Beni Ourain rugs, we first have to sort out the difference between flatweave and pile knot rugs. Flatweaves and pile-knot refer to the way the rug is woven on the warp. The warp is the foundation for every rug and consists of the strings (often white cotton) that run the length of a rug. One of the first steps of weaving rug is getting the warp set up on the loom, pictured below:
 

Photo Credit: Association Tithrite

Photo Credit: Association Tithrite

With the warp set up, the artisans can begin filling out the rug with what is called the weft, the thread which is woven in and out of the warp. Rugs that are solely woven with the warp and weft are flatweave rugs (local dialect: hanbel). In the following picture, a weaver from Cooperative Tisseuses of Ain Leuh weaves the weft (the color thread) through the warp:

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Photo Credit: Cooperative Tisseuses

The weft is what gives the flat weave its design. Here is picture of the rug from above in its final form:

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Photo Credit: Cooperative Tisseuses

However, not all rugs in Morocco are woven this way, nor is it the most common weaving technique. The most common technique is called the pile knot, which has a little similarity with a flatweave. On a flatweave, and artisan threads the weft back and forth through the warp continuously until the rug is complete. On a pile knot (local dialect: zrbya) however, the weft is separated with rows of knots tied around the warp.  It is up to the artisan how many rows of weft they will weave between the rows of knots. Many rugs are woven with a little weft woven in between the knots, which creates a pretty dense rug. Others, like this one, have a little more weft giving the rows of knots room to breath and provides a bit more texture. This picture below of a member of the Women’s Cooperative of Imelghaus illustrates this pretty well. The woman is threading a weft between the warp before tying in another row of knots:

Photo Credit:  http://photosby.si/

Photo Credit: http://photosby.si/

To get more of a feel of this process (which we’ve drastically simplified above), you can take a look at the following video which shows a weaver from the Imelghaus Cooperative tying knots and pounding them with her taska to lock the knots with the weft:

So where does a Beni Ourain fit within all of this? Technically, it doesn’t. A Beni Ourain is not a weaving technique. In fact, a Beni Ourain is always woven in a pile knot weave as described above. What separates Beni Ourain’s from every other rug is where it was woven, who wove it, and its design.  Authentic Beni Ourain rugs are those woven by the Beni Ourain tribe or those who have lineage to the tribe that resides/resided in mountainous areas south east of Fez. Proving lineage is difficult, obviously.  I am sure every vintage rug seller has an elaborate story about their rugs or will claim personal lineage to the tribe, so take it all in with a grain of salt. As for the design, there are no set rules as to what defines a Beni Ourain design but many would agree that their designs are almost always a pile knot rug with a cream, ivory, (read: natural wool) base with distinct black geometric designs.

If you’re interested in having a custom order Beni Ourain style rug, the Cooperative of Imelghaus is becoming the go-to coop that uses Anou’s online store.

For pile knot rugs from the highest rated artisans in the Anou community, check out:

Association Timdokkals

Association Afous G Afous

For flatweave rugs from the highest rated artisans in the Anou community, check out:

Cooperative Chorouk

Cooperative Tisseuses 

For all the other groups, just do a search on http://www.theanou.com!

Have any question you’d like us to answer? Want us to go more in depth on this topic? Let us know in the comments or e-mail us at hello@theanou.com

Anou and Disaster Relief Efforts in the Philippines

Like many of you reading, our artisan team was shocked at the events that unfolded in this past week in the Philippines and we wanted to find a way to help. After a short meeting this morning, our team decided that we will be donating any revenue generated from Anou’s 10% selling fee and donate it to the Philippine Red Cross.

It is great to know that even when artisans are empowered to sell independently, they are always still willing to give back to communities near and far.

When the week comes to a close, we’ll post how much Anou’s artisans were able to donate.

To learn more about how you can best support the disaster relief efforts in the Philippines, check out the PRC’s site and this informative article.