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  • Robbin Yager

How to Buy a Carpet

Tips for haggling, bartering and bargaining. How to shop smart in Morocco.




As a visitor to Morocco, after traveling Morocco's Sahara, endless coastlines and ancient cities, next on the bucket list is shopping for a handmade tribal carpet. And for those gifted in the art of bartering, their price might match what a Moroccan might pay. Knowing the difference is a challenge. So to help, I've included what I've learned about shopping in Morocco here in this blog, and want to share those secrets with you. Every recommendation below has successfully been tried and tested at least once.

As the saying goes:

If a buyer is happy with the price then it's a fair price to pay.


While this idea is a little intimidating for travelers who prefer fixed prices, you'll begin to think differently after a few days of looking around with advice about how to buy a carpet under your belt. Arm yourself with knowledge and haggling techniques, then finding that perfect carpet might be the most fun you've ever had shopping... (and your room at home will look astounding).



ESSAOUIRA CARPET SHOP



But First - do your homework!


Number one: Always shop around before buying anything. Before leaving home you can research the multitude of sites and blogs online if you intend to buy anything of value. There's wonderful shopping in markets all over Morocco, but unfortunately some fake synthetic machine made carpets have found their way into Marrakech souks, asking sky high prices and touted as genuine hand made Berber carpets. That ceramic pot might be glazed in Morocco but it might be imported from China or Italy. And those pretty shiny lanterns aren't silver, they're polished tin.

Look around and take your time to learn.


Number two: Don't be shy about asking questions from the sellers, and closely inspect what interests you.


Number three: Never buy anything of high value on your first visit to the souks.



ROADSIDE CARPET SHOP


Where to Buy Carpets


Carpets are big business in Morocco and the men who sell them come from a long tradition of using whatever works to achieve the highest price. There are many kinds of sellers, and not all carpet shops are housed in Sultan's palaces. Some will be street vendors, or small shops, some will be in a country souk, and sometimes they will sell carpets from the back of a car.


Women's cooperatives mean the weavers are involved in the pricing and selling process, but not necessarily receiving much of the profits. Cooperatives have set prices. These shops are good if you're interested in buying a carpet that's not unique. Cooperatives tend to manufacture with the focus on making money for the Association by creating the most popular designs over and over to increase sales.

Who Are the Weavers?


Moroccan women and men have sat at looms for centuries, and amazingly, have created the fifth-largest economic source in Morocco. Despite being weavers of high artistic skill and expertise, weavers are not highly paid by carpet dealers.



WEAVERS WORKING AT HOME IN OUAD ZEM


10 Things to Look for in a Well Made Carpet.

Ideally a carpet should display certain qualities, but you may want to buy a lesser carpet simply because it's gorgeous. You can use the excuse that it's not that well made because it has any of the following flaws, and barter for a lower price.


1. Wonky shape?

Not a problem. A carpet made on a non commercial hand loom will not be a perfect square or rectangle. It will often be a skewed shape, even wider at the top and narrower at the bottom but not so much that it's a loose weave.



WOVEN PILLOW


2. Wonky edges? But you do want a carpet to have relatively straight sides - not too wavy. It means the loom was strung properly with weft threads (see below) that haven't stretched and that the carpet has a good tight evenly knotted weave throughout.


3. Lay it flat. Again a sign the weft hasn't stretched or is too tight if it doesn't have bumpy sections or curl up at the corners or edges. It should be relaxed and lay flat as a board on the floor.


4. Finished top and bottom. Not always done in cheaper carpets but the end threads at the top and the bottom should be tightly fringe knotted to prevent fraying.


5. Imperfections. Also a sign it's made by hand. A perfect handmade carpet does not exist. Unless it's antique or you actually love it and must have it, know that some of the most valuable carpets in the world have holes in them!


6. How many knots per inch (cm)? Flip over a corner. Are the knots nice and tight and even? Or can you work your finger between the loose weave? On the other hand, a machine-made rug will have many tight and uniform knots and a hard edge where the machine has "finished" the carpet. Carpets with hundreds of knots per inch are not found in Morocco and tribal carpets are not incredibly "fine" and are not knotted by hand by children. They are woven by highly creative women and men of all ages who are passionate about working with their ancient traditions.



A FRAGILE BUT NEAT END FINISH FROM THE BACKSIDE


7. Is it wool? Cotton? Silk? Synthetic fibers will melt. Natural fibers will smolder. Ask to burn a snippet of fringe to determine what material was used to make the carpet. Smell it. Does it smell like burning hair? If so you have a genuine wool carpet in your hands. Silk in Morocco does not come from the fiber of the silk worm. Moroccan silk is a natural plant fiber made from the large grey-green yucca plants you'll see everywhere in the country side. This fiber dyes into beautiful bright colors and is tough as nails when woven into a bomb proof kilim flat weave carpet. Great for heavy traffic areas in your home!



NATURAL SILK PLANT FIBER KILIMS ARE FLAT WEAVE AND VERY STRONG


8. Know your weft from your warp. Warp fibers are strung vertically onto the loom first, creating the back bone of the carpet. To make the design on the face of the carpet, threads called weft are then woven horizontally in and out of the warp threads, and pounded down with a tool called a beater. Warp threads can sometimes be cotton fiber, and the weft fibers that make the design, of wool. Buy a 100% wool warp made carpet for durability because a cotton warp will likely start to fall apart after a few years of wear.



VERTICAL WARP THREADS ARE THE STRUCTURE OF A WEAVING



9. Colors and Dyes Color is important in Moroccan tribal weaving and certain tribes favor certain colors. Natural dyes are only found in items over 70-80 years old – almond leaves, cochineal, indigo, iron sulfate and cow urine were used. Both synthetic and natural dyes fade - with older rugs you can be sure that most of the fading has already occurred. Properly used, synthetic dyes can produce just as wonderful results as natural pigments.


Colors that change from one end of the carpet to the other add interest and value to the piece. It means the wool was hand died in small batches. Especially in larger pieces colors will shift throughout if the wool has not been commercially dyed. New carpets may appear bright and illustrious but their colors will mellow over time – something that actually adds to the piece.


You'll probably be told your carpet colors come from mint green, or saffron yellow, or indigo blue. Mint does not produce green, nor would the valuable saffron ever be used to dye wool. Both natural and commercial dyes are used all over Morocco and bright commercially dyed skeins of wool are found for sale in markets everywhere.


Carpets made from natural colors of sheep wool are sought after and priced according. These carpets are called shoedwi and are very soft underfoot, with a high pile, whereas a kilim is a flat weave.



SHOEDWI PILE USES UNDYED WOOL FROM BOTH WHITE AND BLACK SHEEP


10. Antique or Well Used? A carpet more than 50 years old might be deemed more valuable especially if it's in good shape and well made. With this in mind, sometimes new carpets are artificially aged by hanging them in the sun. When they've weathered thoroughly they'll be brought into the shop to be sold as a more valuable antique. The design is usually the give away and the back will still display bright color. If the design is echoing the newer carpets in the shop then it's probably not antique. But if the design is original and the colors are natural it could be the real thing.



ANTIQUE CARPET ON DISPLAY AT THE ESSAOUIRA MUSEUM


Preparation Tips before Shopping You've likely heard the term location, location, location. With haggling it's attitude, attitude, attitude. There are many techniques to effectively haggle over prices, but wow... what a smile can do!


Before shopping, you'd be wise to create a conversion chart with two columns. From 1 to 10 dirhams in the first column, and the second column will have the conversion value in your own currency (based upon the current rates posted at the local banks (not from the internet). You'll refer to this list as you make a counter offer when haggling for a price, and know quickly what it closely equals in your own currency by adding zeros to the amounts on your list, (you will be haggling in hundreds of dirhams). It's much quicker than using a calculator and avoids errors.


On a personal note, I've always paid for my carpets in cash dirhams. The savings a seller can gain by not having to pay the bank's foreign currency conversion rate can be a real advantage.



KILIMS AND PILLOWS FOR SALE IN THE MARRAKECH SOUK

Keep in mind that collectors will have the first go at any genuine antique quality carpet. The chance that any tourist walking in the door will find one right away is probably very rare. But if you're after something really special you'll have to ask specifically for that. Only then will they tentatively show you something from the back rooms. It may also be a few streets away in a back alley house, but do go and investigate. Do your homework and be prepared to do some serious haggling - even over a number of days - if you want to go home with something worth what you paid.



TWO SIDED (WINTER AND SUMMER) CARPET IN ESSAOUIRA



Stepping in the Door


There is a formality to the process. When you walk in the door they will assume you know nothing about carpets. First you'll be welcomed to Morocco and asked where you come from. This allows them to size you up and find out which currency you will be paying in. Then you'll be asked if this is your first time in Morocco. This allows them to learn how much haggling experience you have.


You'll next be offered a seat and served mint tea. Do drink the tea. It's good for energy! But take your time to look around the shop before settling in for his presentation. He'll summon his staff to roll out the carpets one by one and tell you everything about them. You'll be dizzy after viewing 10 - 15 - 20 carpets of all sizes and colors. Then they'll whittle it down to the one you should buy.



DETAIL OF A WOVEN PILLOW COVER


If you're truly not interested or just having a look, don't pretend you are. It's time to leave. If he won't let you out of the shop and blocks your way, you can say you want to think about it, and will return tomorrow. Leave with a polite farewell.


On the other hand you may see one or two that look great, but it's best to not show too much interest when the one that catches your eye. He's watching your reactions, and knows he can push for a higher price when it comes down to the one you like most. Ask to have them put aside a few more so you can view them separately off the pile. Get up and have a close look. Take your time over the quality as outlined above, and check them out, front and back for wonky shapes, loose weaves, finished edges. Bring your lighter to do a burn test for wool or cotton. Ask questions, is it natural plant fiber silk? Wool?

Take your time. Never hurry.


At this point a group of tourists may have entered the shop with their guide, and your seller will suddenly be on their trail making you feel abandoned. But if you've found the one you want, leave and come back later when they are not so busy. Don't wait a few days because if your carpet was truly unique and gorgeous, by then it might have sold.



WOVEN LANTERNS, CARPETS AND BED COVERS ON DISPLAY - ESSAOUIRA


Closing the Deal


OK so now you're ready to take the plunge and make an offer. Remember don't hurry. It's a process.


1. First make it clear you want to bargain (and possibly pay) in dirhams. Avoid bargaining in euros, or American dollars, or any foreign currency values. The price could be higher.


2. They will start the bargaining process by presenting a number. It may be in writing. If his price is not too ridiculous, counter offer that amount by 1/2 to 2/3rds. Don't sound too eager. Think of what you would pay for this carpet back home, keep that in mind and start with 2/3rd of that number converted to equivalent dirhams of course.


If the price is astronomical, you can always say you're no longer interested, that you've seen a similar carpet at another shop down the road, or in another town that was much less.


3. He might say "You must be joking, it cost us more than that…", great! You've gone in at the right price and now you're under way.


4. If he refuses to counter offer, you might ask for 2 carpets for his asking price, if you had 2 in mind. Or if you are settled at a price more than half the original asking price, the seller might agree to do add another carpet for the full asking price. You might get more for your money this way, or you might be pushing your luck.


5. Make them laugh while going through the process. If you can entertain your dealer, he may be more amiable to your suggested price. Moroccans love jokes.


6. Take your time. Don't appear too eager. Don't be pushy. And don't offer up in large amounts, keep your price increases low but not so much as to make him frustrated. He might call you a Twareg (nomad from the Mauritanian Sahara) if your haggling is effective. Smile like it's a great compliment!


7. If he plays the 'poor me' card as in: my family is ten people and the weavers mother is sick and their father dead, and so on... remember chances are he's got a new Mercedes parked out back. But don't let him know you know. You can always sympathize but it's preferable to remain indifferent. Life has its ups and downs, using these excuses to charge more doesn't belong in the market place.


8. To take command of a situation you don't want, smiling and pretending you don't have a clue sometimes works well.


9. Don't drool over the beauty before your eyes. Never let them know how much you want this. Look doubtfully around the shop, as if changing your mind.



PILE WEAVE CARPET IN A RURAL VILLAGE HOUSE



10. Tell him you're not sure you like it enough to pay a lot of money. The last shop had something similar for less.


11. Tell him it's got flaws (use our 10 point list above) and offer a price to match. But never refer to it as a cheap carpet.


12. If he becomes intimidating, or worse, angry, remember don't be afraid to walk out if it's getting ridiculous, and don't think leaving will "hurt" his feelings. It's your money! Any abuse is not necessary.


13. Never ever reveal how much money you actually have. When he's getting stuck on not lowering the price, waiving a fistful of cash dirhams around might make him want to close the sale! You might also plead your final price is all the money you have.


14. Finally, if its something you must have, don't back down. It can take several days to buy a carpet you really hanker for. Keep coming back if you don't arrive at a price the first time - keep trying. (I once spent three days haggling for a carpet I really wanted. Everyday I walked past the shop, I dropped in to have a friendly chat.) They'll soften to know you really like their carpet, especially if it's low tourist season.


If it's a beauty you simply must have, buy it because you probably won't find the exact same thing anywhere else - if you've previously looked around that is.


15. If making the final payment by credit card make sure they convert the final amount from dirhams and use your conversion chart! Otherwise you might find your credit card bill at home has 1800 dollars on it instead of the proper conversion from your final agreed upon price of 1800 dirhams!


16. And finally, make sure the name, telephone and address of the shop is on the receipt. They should ink stamp and sign over the stamp to make it valid.

Congratulations!


Achieving that really good deal will boost your confidence and the satisfaction you feel is not just about the money, it's about proving something to yourself. You've come through as a winner with memories of a unique challenge, and have something beautiful to show for it when you get home.

WELL DONE.

Thank you for reading and safe travels from

Robbin Yager,

Morocco Explored Tours.




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