History of the Ntaâ Kaftan

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n emblematic piece of Morocco, the kaftan has a history that is almost a thousand years old. It takes on an original form in every urban city in the Kingdom. This article focuses on a type of Fassi kaftan that is tending to disappear: the ntaâ kaftan, taking its name from the Moroccan embroidery of the same name.

The ntaâ kaftan maintains the traditional codes of Moroccan dress, in other words, a T-shape decorated with sfifa (braided ribbons) and aakad (buttons).

On the other hand, it is made of silk velvet, enhanced with floral patterns using gold thread. Peacocks, which make up the DNA of this kaftan, are also embroidered and often at the bottom of the outfit.

The birth of ntaâ embroidery:

Velvet in Fez

The history of this sumptuous fabric is linked to the rise of the silk industry, from which it is most often woven. You should know that the city of Fez is one of the few silk production centers where pickpocketing trades are still used, quite similar to those that were known in Andalusia from the end of the 11th or 12th century (1). When the textile industry was in full swing under the Almohads, Fez had more than 3000 weaving workshops and weavers (2). And as early as the 14th century, it is reported that there was a silk production and market (3).

The imperial city therefore enjoyed a climate favorable to velvet production.

But it was not as flourishing as in Genoa, Milan or Lyon. This is why the archives show that importing velvet was important. In the 14th century, before the Spanish occupied the city, it was by the road that went from Taza to Melilla that Venetian velvets were introduced to Fez. As for the Lyonnais velvet, called by Moroccan artisans Moubber Francis, Charles René-Leclerc, in his book on trade and industry in Fez, details this import with precision. Thus, three colors were requested: “emerald green, blood red and dark purple.” As for its use, it “is used to carve the caftans of rich women.” However, he noted that Italian velvet was beginning to compete with French velvets. This is not surprising when you compare it with the testimony of the Italian Edmondo De Amicis. Indeed, at the end of the 19th century, he reported that every year, about fifty Fassis travelled to Italy in order to re-obtain this soft fabric (4).

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The manufacture of gold thread

From time immemorial, and until the 20th century, the manufacture of gold thread in Morocco was a Jewish specialty (5). Vicaire and Le Tourneau report that it was also “one of the oldest, most renowned and most important industries in the mellah (= Jewish quarter) of Fez.” (“The gold thread industry at the mellah of Fez Vicaire Marcel and Tourneau Roger 1936 in the Economic Bulletin of Morocco”)

To appreciate its age, you have to go back to the beginning of the 11th century, when the Jews of Sijilmassa already mastered this know-how (6). Also known as the “City of Gold”, the city of Sijilmassa has in fact long been an important commercial crossroads. Gold was abundant from Sahelian Africa to the point that the Arab historian al-Yaqubi described it as a city where “gold can be found as easily as plants”.

However, the archives do not mention whether these threads were used for the ornamentation of clothing during this period. This was not until the Marinid era, during which the famous theologian Ibn Khaldoun mentioned clothes decorated with gold thread in Fez (7). The Marinid Sultan Abu al-Hassan will also offer some to the Mamluk Sultan an-Nasir Mohammed as a diplomatic gift (8).

The craft of gold thread subsequently developed and flourished especially in Morocco beginning in the 15th century due to the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. This is why the history of the ntaâ kaftan is inseparable from that of the Keswal'Kbira, the formal costume of the Moroccan Jewish city girl. This dress originated in 15th century Spain, which the Megorachim would continue to wear in Morocco. The short jacket called “Gombaiz” that composes it is embroidered with gold thread. To make it, it requires the same techniques and know-how as a ntaâ kaftan.

Chest plate of a Gombaiz/a ntaâ kaftan.
Handle of a Gombaiz/a ntaâ kaftan.

Jewish refugees from Sicily also brought with them their expertise in crafting gold thread after settling in Fez. Even today, people continue to name the golden threads in Morocco sqalli, which simply means ”Of Sicily” (9).

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Ntaâ embroidery

It was the union of these two elements, velvet and gold thread, that would thus give birth to ntaâ embroidery (tarz). Suffice to say it, one of the oldest Moroccan embroideries. It is used in the ornamentation of various pieces: women's and children's costumes, slippers, belts, selhams, wall hangings, cushions, etc.

She was wearing an embroidered black kaftan, which we call Al Ntaâ embroidery, in which she swerves around as if she were a peacock
Excerpt from “The Man” by the Moroccan novelist Driss Belmlih, 2004

Although very old, this embroidery was only recently the subject of serious research. It was a “field still unexplored”, noted Amélie-Marie Goichon in 1937. Not because it didn't fascinate or deserve attention, but because it was actually almost exclusively in women's hands and made out of sight.

Woman performing Ntaâ embroidery in Fez, 1985

The sources therefore remained silent until the beginning of the 20th century, when it was observed and cited nominally by Prosper Ricard (10). In his inventory of Moroccan embroidery, in particular gold embroidery, he reports that in Fez “it is called terz d'en-netâ; the gold threads, with a silk core, which are used to execute it, are called sqalli”.

There is also a mention of this embroidery by Marguerite Bel in the famous historical magazine Revue Africaine (11): “Apart from embroidery with metallic thread on leather or velvet, called terz d'en-netâ, which, in Fez, is executed by women, there were simultaneously at least five other types of embroidery”.

Ntaâ embroidery is also extensively documented by the renowned textile research institute in Leiden in the Netherlands (12). The director of this institute, Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, a textile archaeologist and embroidery specialist, will even use ntaâ embroidery featuring a majestic peacock, to illustrate the cover of her book on embroidery in the Arab world.

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The Peacock, DNA of the ntaâ embroidery

The peacock design and its plumage represent the emblem of this gold thread embroidery. It is frequently featured at the bottom of the kaftan or often embroidered parallel along the sfifas (braided ribbon that crosses traditional Moroccan clothing from top to bottom). In Fez, this motif takes on a pomp and aristocratic appearance.

A popular belief is that the peacock ornament is inherited from ancient trade between Morocco and the Far East, especially China (13). No wonder this majestic bird is also found on Fez porcelain, known as “taous”, whose inspiration draws on Chinese styles and Japanese Imari ceramics. This curious connection, between Moroccan taous plates and ntaâ embroidery, is also made by André Goldenberg:

Can one imagine, among birds, in Morocco an image more beautiful than that of the peacock? Its plumage makes it a symbol of magnificence, which is not without a certain vanity. [...] The peacock gives a quality image to the Fez plates and dishes that it decorates and which are called taous (peacock). Some porcelain from China, which is very popular in urban areas, is also called “peacock”, whether this bird is included or not. These porcelain dishes are one of the gifts that are given to brides in Fez. They are sometimes rented for the pastilla, when you want to honor your guests. The beneficial and aesthetic image of the peacock explains why it appears in traditional objects as well as on modern supports. But it is in sqalli (Sicilian) embroidery, once a Jewish specialty, that the ornamental effect of the peacock finds its full development. A model of cut paper placed on the velvet is entirely covered by gold thread embroidery. Velvet is thus decorated to make slippers, caftans worn by brides. This velvet embroidered with peacocks is also often used on sofas, cushions and even the border of the mida, which are used during wedding ceremonies. - Bestiary of popular Muslim and Jewish culture in Morocco
Image taken from the book by André Goldenberg

Even though the peacock motif is relatively not something new in Morocco (14), embroidery in a way that was conspicuous was considered to be a bid'a (innovation) (15) and an affront to ancestral traditions.

Since Moroccan society is conservative, sociologist Fatima Mernissi explains how difficult it was in her autobiography. Embroidering a peacock, something trivial at first glance, was thus the subject of a violent verbal brawl between the traditionalists (taqlidi reproducing the traditional motifs of Fez) and that of the modernists (the 'asri embroidering peacocks).

However, this resistance did not last long, given that in the middle of the 20th century there was a craftsman in Fez, named Es Sahqi, who only processed models inspired by birds (16). Add to this that the peacock was no longer the only bird species to be embroidered. The sparrow motif (17) called bratel in Darija was appearing and also adorned kaftan, cushions and other ornaments.

Bratel pattern
Ntaâ kaftan decorated with bratel

And towards the end of the 20th century, by being associated exclusively for wedding items (18), the peacock occupied an important (even essential) place in embroidery.

A ntaâ kaftan for sale in the medina of Fez, 1997
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The ntaâ kaftan

The supremacy of the ntaâ kaftan

This is how the ntaâ kaftan as we know it today was born. It was worn in henna during the ceremonies, as reported in this testimony by Lalla Zahra Skalli (19), a major figure in the PDI: In these new-style weddings, there was only one kaftan of ntaâ (a simpler caftan), and I also had a tiara.

Moroccan brides in ntaâ kaftan in the 20th century

This famous fassi kaftan was gradually becoming a considerable success and its use did not stop only at wedding celebrations. It was found in particular on the young girls who celebrated Laylat Al Qadr (Night of Destiny). Indeed, the Moroccan tradition requires that girls celebrate their first fast day dressed like a bride. The ntaâ kaftan, a piece that became essential during henna, was then omnipresent during this ceremony. The circumcised young boys, on the other hand, also wore jabadors and selhams decorated with ntaâ embroidery.

After settling down comfortably with Muslim women, it was the turn of the Moroccan Jewish community to welcome it. Whether during Mimouna, the holiday that marks the end of Easter, or during a wedding, it was this famous velvet kaftan that was worn. It had won the hearts of Moroccan Jewish women to the point of replacing, according to Mohammed Habib Samrakandi, the traditional Keswal'Kbira (20).

Moroccan Jewish women in ntaâ kaftan.
Moroccan Jewish women in ntaâ kaftan.

Thus, little by little, its use was expanding and the ntaâ kaftan even became a means of exporting our culture. It was an element of our international “soft power”. In 1957, Lalla Aïcha and Lalla Malika, daughters of Mohammed V, both wore a ntaâ kaftan at the New York Opera. A photo taken in 1960 can also be seen of a Moroccan woman wearing this dress at a reception in Great Britain. This was also the case in 1961 of the musician Moulay Ahmed Loukili, who for his performance in Italy, all of his female troupe wore pretty ntaâ kaftans for the occasion.

This kaftan was the garment of almost every event and there is no shortage of examples. We can also mention Safia Ziani, the great figure of Moroccan theater. She also opted for this outfit during a performance at the Mohammed V National Theater. It was with a ntaâ kaftan that Lalla Khadija Seffar Zniber received the Chinese Foreign Minister, Mr. Zhou Enlai, in 1963.

Safia Ziani
Lalla Khadija Seffar Zniber

To represent her country, Leila Gourmala wrapped herself in a ntaâ kaftan on the occasion of her participation in Miss Universe in 1964. A few years later, it was up to Miss Cerisette in Sefrou to follow suit and wear this traditional dress with dignity.

Other events throughout history reveal the importance of this costume in Moroccan society, but it would take too long to review them all.

Leila Gourmala, Miss Morocco and Souad, Miss Cerisette.
Ntaâ kaftan at various fashion shows.
Moroccan female singers wearing ntaâ kaftan (on the left Zohra al-Fassia and on the right, a woman from Tetouan appearing in the Kuwaiti magazine Al Araby in 1973).
Raise Abdellah Ben Driss and a woman in a Ntaâ kaftan; Haja Hamdaouia.
On the left, the wife of Haj Mohamed Benjelloun Touimi, founder of Wydad; on the right, the Egyptian actress Souad Hosni in Morocco.

The ntaâ kaftan internationally

The globalization of the Moroccan kaftan (21) will also allow a keen interest in this velvet caftan. As if to indicate that they found themselves in Morocco, the major international personalities did not hesitate to pose in their elegant ntaâ kaftans. This is the case, for example, of the Greek actor Takis Emmanuel, Jacques Gall in Agadir, Antonella Agnelli in Casablanca, or even the famous American jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane, the French Arnaud de Rosnay in Marrakech, but also later of Puff Daddy, on his birthday in the ochre city.

Takis Emmanuel; Jacques Gall; Antonella Agnelli.
Arnaud de Rosnay.
Kenneth Jay Lane; Puff Daddy.

This Moroccan outfit is thus continuing its rise and has continued to become popular. It was a thriving industry and the main export product at the beginning of the 20th century (22), so much so that it entered the dressing rooms of Algerian women.

This is not a new phenomenon. Interest in Moroccan culture in Algeria is an open secret. The French colonial administration had something to do with it. In the wake of the conquest of Algeria, it in fact put in place a cultural policy aimed at repairing and enriching ruined handicrafts (23). In the field of embroidery, this policy is reflected in the identical patterning of Moroccan embroidery, in particular those from Fez:

“Neighboring countries were finally asked for Oriental or Arab-Berber themes that are easy to acclimatize and develop in Algeria. [...] For embroidery, in order to invigorate the original formula of Algerian art [...], judicious borrowings have also been made from Moroccan art.”

In addition, Morocco's geographical proximity and commercial ties with Western Algeria also played a significant role.

In 1905, Charles René-Leclerc noted a large number of Moroccan shops and warehouses in Algeria, especially in Maghnia, Tlemcen, Oran, and even as far as Algiers, etc. Other managers, in Constantine or Annaba, also had associates sitting down in order to facilitate Moroccan exports. (24)

It was therefore first through Oran, a region more permeable to Moroccan influence, that Algerian women adopted the clothing habits of the neighboring country (25), before them propagating throughout the country.

The work of the historian Lucien Govlin on “the legacy of the Ottomans in the artistic field in North Africa” confirms this to us:

In Orania, and more precisely in Tlemcen, fashion came more from Fez

It was in this context that the Algerian researcher Ougouag-Kezzal deplored the disappearance of the Ottoman kaftan in Algeria in 1970, short and knee-deep, in favor of the Moroccan ntaâ kaftan (26).

Recently, the kaftan has been contaminated by the technique of long and wide Moroccan kaftans entirely and heavily embroidered with madjbûd (embroidery with gold thread). The Moroccan kaftan seems to be gaining ground
Two Algerian women wearing a kaftan, one from Tlemcen (of Ottoman origin), the second is a ntaâ kaftan worn by a woman from Constantine.

The fact that she uses the word “contamination” is not insignificant. On the one hand, it is indicative of an invasion of traditional Moroccan clothing in Algeria. And on the other hand, a tendency to want to abandon the outfits inherited by the Turks, which Ougouag-Kezzal seems to regret.

Lucien Golvin, again in the same book, adopted the same conclusion:

It would be useless to deny the importance of the Ottoman legacy, but fashion trends, which are accelerating, are increasingly rejecting the memory of the presence of these Orientals.” (“The legacy of the Ottomans in the artistic field in North Africa”)

Euphemistically, or to better hide its origin, the ntaâ kaftan is called nowadays in Algeria Caftan el Qadi.

Its manufacturing technique and its decline

Unfortunately, its manufacturing technique had the reputation of making kaftan heavier (27) and this is what led, in part, to its disappearance.

In addition, its manufacture, entirely handmade, took months, even years, because it required the intervention of several artisans.

“For the occasion, she was wearing her elegant tarz ntaâ kaftan, in black velvet embroidered with gold, which she usually kept carefully folded in the cedar chest [...]. It was Aunt Habiba who embroidered this velvet kaftan encrusted with pearls herself. [...] She had spent three years there! (“Women's dreams: childhood tales in the harem by Fatima Mernissi · 1997")

Some steps are carried out by men in the medina, while women embroider at home. First, the patterns are cut out of paper. The pattern is then glued to the velvet. The embroiderers, for their part, cover them entirely with gold threads.

Working from home, it is impossible to assess their exact numbers. However, we know that in 1937, there were between 2,000 and 2,500 gold thread embroiderers scattered throughout the streets of the Medina (28). Unable to follow or continue their studies, embroidery has in fact been a refuge for Moroccan women for a long time (29). Despite the various initiatives taken by the government and associations to professionalize this profession and preserve its know-how, the progress made in improving access to education has naturally caused the practice of ntaâ embroidery to decline.

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The future of the ntaâ kaftan today

In an era during which the use of the tarz ghorza kaftans, more commonly known as kaftan b tarz el fassi, dominates henna ceremonies, what is left of this gold thread dress? Our museums are full of them, testifying to the importance of this outfit in Moroccan culture. A true source of inspiration, the ntaâ kaftan is immortalized under the brush of Moroccan painters. Thus, everything leads us to believe that this dress remains confined to a relic of the past. A piece of clothing from the past that can only be admired nostalgically through museum exhibitions, paintings and photographs.

Representation of a ntaâ kaftan by the painters Abdelilah Rahmini (top); Alvaro Robles Yanez, Chilean painter (center); and Rachid Echlaih (bottom).

This couldn’t be farther from the truth as it's now standing the test of time. Moroccan designers indeed want to bring it up to date, without altering it. This is the bet that Myriam Bouafi has taken with her new collection. ”Splendor and Diversity ” or Houda Benmlih and her elegant kaftan in fuchsia pink.

By helping to breathe new life into this magnificent traditional outfit, a new page in its history is currently being written. As the old saying goes, fashion is a constant renewal. We only have to hope that the ntaâ kaftan returns to its former place in the wardrobe of Moroccan women.

As such, an inscription as an intangible cultural heritage requiring urgent safeguarding by UNESCO would be more than welcome.

Photo gallery

Takchita revisited with ntaâ embroidery.
The ntaâ kaftan worn during a henna.
More photos of the ntaâ kaftan during a henna.
Ntaâ kaftans exhibited in Riads (Fez and Marrakech).
Ntaâ kaftans worn by TV presenter Nouhade Senhaji, journalist Fawzia Talout Meknassi and French designer Eric Tibusch.
Moroccan singer Amina Bensouda in a ntaâ kaftan.
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Références :

1. Silks and other textiles from antiquity to the 16th century: catalog; Sophie Desrosiers 2004

2. Fez before the protectorate Roger Le Tourneau 1949

3. Rawd al-Qirtas

4. Fez, historical and toponymic approach by Hassane Sqalli, 2014 and Morocco by Edmondo de Amicis 1882

5. For centuries, in Morocco, Muslims were forbidden to work with gold and silver for religious reasons. The Moroccan rulers therefore entrusted this task to the Jews: “Most goldsmiths are Jews who carry out their work in Fas Jdid and carry it to the old town to sell it. There, a market was assigned to them near the drug dealers. Indeed, neither gold nor silver can be worked in the old town (...), because it is said that selling silver or gold objects at a price higher than their weight is worth is usury. But the monarchs give the Jews permission to do so.” Leo the African in the 16th century/Jewish Society in Fez 1450-1700, Studies in Communal and Economic Life by Jane S. Gerber · 1980

6. “In Morocco at the beginning of the second millennium, Jews already made gold thread (for example, in Sijilmassa)” by Shai Srougo • The social history of the Jews of Fez in crafts made from gold thread between the Middle Ages and the French colonialist period (16th to 20th centuries)

7. Fez: jewel of Islamic civilization Attilio Gaudio 1982

8. Relations between the Merinids and the Mamluks in the 16th century by Marius Canard1 939

9. Two thousand years of Jewish life in Morocco by Haim Zafrani 1998

10. Embroidery by Prosper Ricard · 1918

11. Revue Africaine, bulletin of the work of the Algerian Historical Society, Volumes 87-88 1943


13. Best Of L'Intégrale Caftan, Volume 1 by Official Morocco

14. Presence of birds in fragments of placemats from Fez dating from the 18th century.Hesperis 1967

15. Women's Dreams, Childhood Stories in the Harem by Fatima Mernissi · 1997

16. Golden thread embroidery in Fez, its relationship with silk embroidery, its accessories and trimmings by Amélie-Marie Goichon · 1939

17. Ibid.

18. “Embroidery In The Everyday Life Of Artisans, Merchants, And Consumers In Fez, Morocco, In The 1980s.” UNL digital commons.Textile Society of America.

19. Voices of Resistance, Oral Histories of Moroccan Women by Alison Baker · 1998

20. Horizons Maghreb N° 45/2001 - Landscapes And Gardens Of The Mediterranean - Mohammed-Habib Samrakandi.


22. “Embroidery In The Everyday Life Of Artisans, Merchants, And Consumers In Fez, Morocco, In The 1980s.” UNL digital commons.Textile Society of America

23. France and indigenous works in Algeria by Jean Mirante 1930

24. Commerce and industry in Fez by Charles René Leclerc

25. Nédroma, The Evolution of a Medina by Gilbert GrandGuillaume · 2022

26. OUGOUAG- KEZZAL (Ch.). The costume and ornament of the bride in Tlemcen. Lybica, volume XVIII, 1970

27. “there is Tarz Nâa which had the reputation of making the caftan heavier.” +

“There was also another outfit, thick and rich, worn in one piece: the velvet caftan with Ntae embroidery.” Fabrics so dense that the seamstresses worked to make the cut slightly flared in order to give all their brilliance to the floral patterns >> (“The Caftan, a whole story (1/3) — femmes du Maroc”) .

28. According to a census by the syndic of saddler traders, Haj Mohamed Sebti. Via Golden Thread Embroidery in Fez, its relationships with silk embroidery, its accessories and trimmings by Amélie-Marie Goichon · 1939