The Truth About Moroccan Sabra: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About the Mythical Cactus Silk Agave Fiber

The new big thing in Morocco is Sabra, or more often referred to as cactus silk. You can’t scroll for too long on an a social media hashtag for Morocco before seeing a pillow or rug made out of sabra. From small shops all the way up to  massive companies like Restoration Hardware, everyone is scrambling to pull together their product lines.

Sabra products are incredibly popular because they embody the imagination of what people perceive Morocco to be. Simply look up descriptions of sabra product and foreign sellers via their Instagram account who dote wistfully about divorced or widowed nomadic Berber women who search the expanse of the Saharan desert for the finest cactus. And then when the perfect cactus is found under a hot Moroccan sun, the Instagrammers continue, the women undertake the painstaking work of extracting vegan fiber thread by thread only before dyeing it using hand crushed natural dyes via Indigo mud cloth techniques. Beautiful.

At a certain point though when it starts to seem that not only is such a popular product the embodiment of Morocco but also every artisan technique ever known to humankind all available in pillow form for less than $50 USD including shipping on Etsy, you gotta wonder: is any of this even true?

Finding Sabra

About a year and half ago we started getting a spike in requests for sabra product. The first clue that something might be amiss was that even though we worked with hundreds of weavers across the country none of them had ever posted a standard sabra product online. Nor were there any pictures of this process anywhere online. Many cooperatives said they could easily make the product if asked, but did not have a desire to make it on their own. Association Nahda volunteered to create some samples but first we had to find sabra.

To get started, we first visited the plentiful shops that sell sabra across the country. You’ll instantly recognize the shops with stacks upon stacks of small spindles of sabra thread. But every shop we went to in the Middle Atlas purchased their sabra in bulk from a supplier in a major city and when we met with the supplier, they told us their sabra was imported from India. When we asked to see the packaging, it was all clearly labeled as a cheap rayon. The distributor just said he supplies to small village shops and that real sabra, the sabra for weaving, was found elsewhere.

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Stacks and stacks of…cheap rayon.


Shocking as that was we reached out to some of the more well known artisans who work with sabra. All of them, who have worked with sabra for many years, claimed that it was fiber from cacti that grew on farms, much like the stories people tell online. We worked with these artisans to trace the full supply chain of their material to the source, hoping it would lead us to these all female farms, but we found ourselves in Spain instead. Much of the high end sabra sold in major cities is sourced through a manufacturing company located on the outskirts of Barcelona. Spanish sabra? Sure, why not? We eagerly got in touch and the company responded by saying that they were rather incredulous anyone could extract a useable fiber from a sabra cactus, but that they wouldn’t know because they exclusively sell acetate filament threads. We brought this information back to the artists who use this product and they said it wasn’t true.

Through our research that led us to Spain, we had also found the supposed source of the actual sabra in Morocco that is most commonly used for pillows and rugs. The location is in a small, wind swept town just outside of Marrakech. We found the largest cluster of sabra cactus we had seen after months of looking that could have resembled a farm, so we assumed we were getting close. We found the owner of the land, and when we asked if we could take some sabra cactus stems, he said no because that cluster was on the land of a grave site. He had some sabra cactus in front of his house and bemusedly let us take as much as we wanted curious as to why anyone thought they could do anything with it.

 

While in the town, we met with nearly 100 weavers of sabra product and distributors of sabra. The distributors, primarily the most well known, were all incredibly frank in that sabra had never been produced in Morocco and that their businesses started importing rayon fibers because it was shiny, relatively cheap and sold well. We were surprised that they spoke so honestly, but they said it was the first time someone had asked them such specific questions.  

We have since tested the fiber and have confirmed that it is in fact rayon. Further, we’ve extensively tested contemporary and traditional techniques to extract the fiber learning from techniques used on similar fibers in Algeria, Mexico and the Philippines. So far all have failed. It’s not even clear if sabra fiber could even be used for basic rope. As a result, we can definitively conclude that sabra as of today is not real, and it’s story just as manufactured as the rayon that it is.

The Economics and Abuse of Sabra

We’ve written extensively on the economics of a lot of products in Morocco and as always the result is the same: artisans are paid next to little while middlemen take extensive mark ups. But in a land where exploited artisans is the norm, the scale of exploitation with sabra was unmatched.

The sabra product made in those windswept towns are places where middlemen in Marrakech set up their workshops and where most products you find on Instagram or in the Marrakech medina are made. The areas are out of the eye of tourists as well as the clients of middlemen and much too inconvenient for buyers to visit for themselves. The artisans are simply too far away to know what is actually happening in the market and are largely unaware. It’s a perfect environment for a made up story to thrive.

In one of the most well known towns where sabra product is made there isn’t one single official cooperative. All the women work as individuals, who middlemen pit against each other to extract the cheapest price and turn around times. When we talked to the women, they laughed at the thought that they could sell their sabra pillows, which take them 5 days to make, for more than 50 MAD ($5 USD). That is 10 MAD a day ($1 USD per day) in a country where the minimum agricultural wage is 70 MAD per day. Oftentimes, the women are expected to pay for the material which comes out of the 50 MAD price they are paid. A middleman likely tells their buyers the artisans are happy with what they pay, and the women may very well be because they do not know any better.

One of the more expensive parts of this process is dyeing the fiber. Sabra rayon comes in large tangled hanks and it is incredibly difficult for the dye to absorb quickly and evenly. We did extensive testing on best ways to properly dye sabra rayon, and because of the physical state of the fiber, it takes about two hours of manual work and extensive amounts of dye and water to complete one kilogram. To reduce the overall amount work, traditional dyers cut down the dye process from 2 hours of manual labor to 20 minutes using formaldehyde based mordants. So instead of 200 MAD ($20 USD) for 1 kg of sabra rayon, you can get away with paying as little as 20 MAD per kg ($2 USD) while pushing any adverse health effects on to the dyers and artisans. When the product is woven by the women, the product is passed on to another person, often times the middleman, who applies a bleach wash to fade and turn the product ‘vintage’. Bleach is key because there are no vintage sabra products since they only showed up on the market within the past 15 years.  All in all the final material cost of imported rayon and dyed with formaldehyde comes to about 50 MAD ($5 USD) for a standard size sabra pillow.

Collectivco (and we can list many other similar companies) just recently launched their new line of Sabra pillows for just $50 USD each. You can assume that they’re at least working with a margin of at least 50%, so they paid at most $25 USD for a pillow in the Marrakech medina, which falls in place with the break down above. To any ethical seller, you’d know that something isn’t quite right with a handmade product of such detail price at just $25. At that price either artisans are getting exploited or the material isn’t what the customer thinks it is. In the case of sabra rayon products it is both. While people in Morocco may just not know any better, that excuse does not extend to many foreign companies who benefit most from the deception and often drive such trends.  And let’s be real: if a company like Collectivco is selling you sabra is anything else they say legitimate?

An Alternative?

We’ve heavily debated over the past year what exactly we should do about sabra rayon as we figured out that nothing about it is real. Calling it out likely won’t stop people like Collectivo from marketing a fake product — there’s too much money to be made. It’s also not clear if customers care. When we reached out to a customer of a sabra product their response was, “Don’t bother me about it, bother the seller. I think it looks pretty”.  Further, by outing the material, we eliminate the ability for artisans within the Anou community to sell it and we may harm genuine cooperatives and artisans that do use sabra rayon in one way or another but are simply not aware or afford to believe in its actual origins.

We decided we wouldn’t make this information public until we could research and develop a better alternative to sabra rayon. And with our partners at Stitch (www.stitch.ma), who have led our research into better, more sustainable fibers, and bamboo has heavily emerged as the best replacement so far. Bamboo is ideal because it’s more environmentally sustainable, it’s less complex to dye nor does it require as much water or dye, and it is much much softer and stronger. Bamboo can be used for both warp and weft, where sabra can only be used for the weft (and is why it is most often paired with a cotton warp) because it is just too weak. Ultimately, bamboo yarns feel and act as you would expect from something called vegetable silk. We’ve spent the last several months working closely with Stitch to develop the dye systems to consistently dye bamboo fiber in a wide range of colors all in an environmentally sustainable way while ensuring good wages for artisans who take on the dye work at Atlas Wool Supply Co.

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Several shades of blue and brown bamboo, drip drying in the sun.

Once we perfected the dye system, we brought out several cooperatives to Anou’s HQ to run side by side tests of Bamboo and Sabra and the results were stunning. Bamboo proved much easier to weave with, dropping the weaving time by about 20%. Further, the bamboo is luxuriously soft unlike the coarse, rough cotton sabra mix of most sabra products that you find on the market. From a purely aesthetic perspective, bamboo is just better.

 

Starting today, Cooperative Tiglmamin, Cooperative Tithrite and Cooperative Nahda will begin taking orders on bamboo sabra. And while we predict in a couple of months middlemen will start to say they have bamboo, it won’t be true, because Stitch and Anou are exclusively importing it.

 

Bamboo Tests

 

An Artisan Centered Craft Economy in Morocco

After researching this for one and a half years, we can certainly conclude that sabra does not accurately represent Morocco nor the hype in everyone’s imagination. What rayon sabra does embody, however, is how artisans are harmed when sellers and buyers don’t do their due diligence and devalue the worth of artisans. What is most striking about rayon sabra is that it just goes to show what happens in a middleman centered economy. Only when every last cent is squeezed from artisans’ actual traditional products would everyone open their arms to entirely made up story about a product to extract even more from artisans.

Bamboo yarn isn’t a cure all solution to the sabra rayon problem. It’s not made domestically, if it isn’t made mechanically or in a closed loop system it can have more environmental cons than pluses, and Morocco has no real history with bamboo yarns. But it is now a known product, with room to improve immensely. And when you buy bamboo sabra products via artisans within the Anou community, you’ll know exactly what is in the product you bought and you’ll know exactly how much is going to the artisans who made it. And as more artisans earn more than just a fair wage for their work, it will enable artisans through the Anou Cooperative to do the real work of  much needed research, experimentation and sourcing of  new materials, of which we aim to be rooted in Morocco’s culture and environment. And perhaps artisans may just find a way after all to incorporate actual Moroccan sabra into beautiful products in the future. This is what an artisan centered economy in Morocco looks like.

Realizing this future starts with you, the customer. Ensure that you or your friends do their due diligence whenever they’re buying their next artisan product. Encourage people to buy direct from authentic artisans and not from just middlemen who say they’re helping. With your support, artisans can create the future of craft in Morocco and ensure that all Moroccan products resemble the best of what the country and people of Morocco have to offer.

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The Atlas Wool Supply Co: Building a Modern Craft Material Market in Morocco

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Not only was this rug designed by Kenza of Association Tithrite, it was the first rug made using Anou’s own in house sourced wool and non-toxic, environmentally friendly dyes. 

This past winter, a cooperative within the Anou community received a large order and they struggled to meet timelines that they had set themselves. Each time a weaver began on the order, they’d get sick, and another artisan weaver would begin working. The weavers said that they just all happened to get subsequent colds but it was clear something was a little off. Whatever was happening, it seemed to go deeper than an excuse. Curious, we decided to bring the weavers to work on the order at our HQ so we could better monitor the progress of the order and see what the real issue was.  Within 24 hours of having the weavers at our office, the artisans eyes started to swell and if we had not stopped them from weaving their eyes would have swollen shut. The artisans were sick alright, but it wasn’t from a cold. They were having severe allergic reactions from the materials they were weaving with.

We have always felt that artisans were sick more often than the average population but we never had any data to prove it. Perhaps it was the result of a wide range of challenges often faced by those in rural, poor areas.  But after bringing the weavers out to our office it was clear that materials artisans use, whether they realize it or not, seems to play a significant role in the quality of their health. And what it certainly proves is that there is something severely wrong with the craft material market that is literally and figuratively killing the artisan community of Morocco. To ensure that we can build the future of Moroccan craft in Morocco, we can no longer overlook the lack of safe, natural, quality materials in Morocco.

Familiar Problems

Ensuring that artisans have access to quality materials may seem like a simple problem to fix, but like many things, the problem is the result of a vast range of complicated problems. And yet after nearly a year of immersing ourselves in the material market of Morocco the source of all these problems find their roots in how the Moroccan artisan economy is structured.

As we’ve wrote many times on this blog before, middlemen keep on average 96% of the final selling price of products on the artisan market. We’ve come across groups where middlemen don’t even pay artisans in cash, and simply pay artisans in more material to make them more product. Middlemen in many cases have optimized the labor cost to zero. Yet there is still cut throat competition, so materials becomes the next place of focus to maintain margins. Therefore, every decision made by middlemen is focused on eliminating any costs and cutting any possible corner to get the cheapest material available. Since middlemen control the majority of the market, their demands dictate what artisans largely buy.

One of the most prominent sellers of craft material in Morocco now sells more than 90% synthetic material imported from India and China. When asked why he didn’t sell authentic material that could theoretically be sourced locally, he said that middlemen don’t buy natural products, and the artisans don’t earn enough from their work with middlemen to ever afford natural products themselves.

Domestic Demand & Confusion

What is odd is that Morocco is flush with natural materials — the same natural materials that gave rise to the artisan sector of Morocco to begin with. It isn’t impossible to find natural materials like wool but it isn’t so straightforward sourcing it. In some cases, sourcing natural materials can be worse for an artisans’s health than a synthetic. For example, groups who use wool instead of acrylic threads take the wool to dyers in Marrakech and Fez to create the colors they want. To properly dye 1 kilogram (2 pounds) of wool and chemically bond the dye to the wool while ensuring no environmental impact can take up to two hours of work. After working in the dye tanneries for several months we were shocked to learn that the dyers were using cheap dyes and cutting corners by skipping the chemical bonding process by ‘gluing’ the dye the wool using heavy concentrations of toxins like formaldehyde. This process only takes 20 minutes to dye several kilograms of wool. Not only does this dye become incredibly prone to bleeding, it affects the health of anyone who comes in touch with such wool including the end customer. If you ever wondered why Morocco’s souq and markets have a reputation for bleeding rugs or causing allergies, here’s your reason why.

What makes this even more difficult to navigate is that it is nearly impossible for anyone to find out information about the true source and make up of such materials. For example, wool dyed with formaldehyde may bleed in seemingly sporadic number of washes, not necessarily the first wash. So a wool seller or dyer can tell an artisan that the wool is safe and non-bleed, run it through a basic bleed test in front of the artisan, and then the material will bleed after the artisan already sold a product to their customer. In some cases, the stories sellers tell take on a life of their own. For example, the incredibly popular material cactus silk locally known and sold as sabra isn’t even grown and processed in Morocco. In fact, all locally available Moroccan sabra is a semi-synthetic that is imported from India. Even after months of research we cannot find any evidence that sabra is or ever was commercially grown and processed in Morocco.

Launching The Atlas Wool Supply Co

What we have learned early on in building Anou is that if you want to do something right in Morocco you just have to do it yourself. As such, since the Fall of 2016, we’ve been learning and testing ideas and processes to develop our own in house material sourcing operation for the Anou community. And after many months, we’re excited to announce the launch of the Atlas Wool Supply Co, Morocco’s only source for quality craft materials. Our vision is to revive supply chains of all traditional Moroccan materials and provide them at cost to artisans of the Anou community.

Since the majority of our artisans are weavers, the first material line we have developed is for wool. We have set up full vertically integrated, environmentally sustainable, wool sourcing operations in both the Middle Atlas and High Atlas Mountains. Anou artisans are employed via living wages to identify shepherds and sheer wool directly from sheep as well as scour and spin wool. When the wool is spun, it is shipped to our HQ where Anou’s artisan team is trained to dye wool in thousands of colors using premium non-toxic synthetics and locally sourced natural dyes. Anou artisans can now simply pick up the phone or send a Whatsapp message and place an order for any color they wish, whether it be for a new design or for a custom order, and have their requested materials shipped directly to their village. For the first time artisans who are a part of Anou can guarantee that their materials are of high quality and free of toxins that are harmful to the health of people and the environment. No one else in Morocco, middlemen or otherwise, can guarantee this simple important fact. Knowing this, why put your health and the health of artisans at risk when buying products from people who cannot guarantee where their materials came from?

Get Involved and Support Anou

We’ve received so much initial excitement from our sample materials that we’ve made our materials available for purchase at www.atlaswoolsupply.co. We plan to catalogue ever color we have ever dyed in order to create the most comprehensive collection of wool colors online. So even if you are not in the market for a rug just yet but you are a knitter or a weaver, you can now support the Anou Cooperative by purchasing materials from the Atlas Wool Supply Co. All proceeds generated from each sale goes towards Anou’s general budget to onboard and provide further training for artisans in the Anou community. Already, companies like The Citizenry and organizations such as Turquoise Mountain have already begun to source from us for their projects. And starting next month, all major yarn shops in London will be carrying our materials for sale.

With your support, we’ll never have to worry about whether artisans are getting sick from the materials they are weaving nor will materials and colors ever be a limit to the creativity of Moroccan artisans.

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Mustapha Chaouai of Association Nahda gathers wool samples from shepherds from around the Middle Atlas mountains. The samples wewre sent to labs for quality and fineness tests. 

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At Anou’s HQ, Rabha Akkaoui trials wool scouring techniques  learned from studying the processes of New Zealand wool companies. 

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Anou provides scoured wool to cooperatives from across the Middle Atlas and High Atlas, like Imelghaus,  to thread. The cooperatives use the income to supplement their income from their sales on Anou. 

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At Anou’s HQ, Kenza of Association Tithrite dyes wool that was requested by members of the Anou community. Anou ships the dyed wool directly to artisans across the country. 

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Brahim El Mansouri uses Anou’s color coding system to identify the dye mixes to create specific colors required for a custom order.