As part of the original Around the World in 80 Skeins tour, stop 12 was to visit Charlene Gray, a fiber arts designer living in Casablanca, Morocco.
Hi, Charlene! Where are you from originally and where do you live now? What do you miss most about your hometown?
I live in the Kingdom of Morocco, on the Northern tip of Africa which has connected Europe, Africa and the Middle East for centuries. It is a cultural melting pot with many different languages, cultures and beautiful landscapes. Berbers, Africans, Arabs and Europeans all contribute to the vibrant colors of the fabric of Moroccan society. It’s a lively, colorful and intriguing place to live.
I’m originally from suburban Chicago, and I’ve moved to Morocco with my spouse and four children. I miss my family, the Sears Tower, Lake Michigan and the Taste of Chicago the most. I also miss visiting Six Flags Great America, an awesome theme park that was in Indiana when I was a child.
What’s the best thing about where you live?
The best thing about my current location is the fact that it is clean (apart from the souq/open market). The streets and the air are clean; it’s a nice quiet place with minimal population and noise. When my friends visit, I usually take them for a walk in the fields behind the village if it’s spring time. I may take them to the Fantasia (horse festival) if they come in September, and at other times I may take them around to see the local shops and the main mosque. But mainly, I would serve my guests a traditional Moroccan meal in the comfort of my home. If they really wanted to eat out, I would take them to the nearest city Berechid, for some fresh grilled kufta or tajine, which is served with round bread, salad and a steaming hot pot of mint tea.
How did you get started knitting and crocheting and how did it turn into designing?
I learned to knit when I was living in Australia, mainly because I wanted to make handmade clothes for my sons. My first projects were knitted jumpers, then socks and hats. I knitted up a jumper, a pair of pants and some booties for my sister in law’s newborn son. Then shortly after, I moved to Morocco where I continued to knit, but also learned to crochet because the people of North Africa crochet in the summer, and knit during the colder months.
I decided to share the designs that I learned here, at first I uploaded them for future reference, then I thought they were something worth sharing with the world when my Chunky Chic Hobo Bag became very popular.
How does where you live influence your designs?
My kufi collection is definitely inspired by Moroccan designs. Because kufis are a common male accessory here, I learned to make basic kufis at a local community college, then developed my own original designs from there. The bags I designed tend to be more European, because Moroccan women prefer Western bags to traditional ones.
I definitely get inspiration from the stunning architecture, particularly the Andalusian and African style structures. Sometimes I see a particular geometric design that really catches my eye, then I’ll stop and take a photo and get the design down on graph paper when I get home. Because of being a very busy home maker, a lot of my designs are tucked away on graph paper and haven’t taken life in a constructed or published form just yet.
Where is your favorite place to work?
My favorite place to knit/crochet is up on my terrace, sitting on my favorite rug that I bought from Chefchaouen (which is in the North of Morocco near Spain), with some pillows strewn around. I can hear the birds chirping in the mosque garden next to my home, and watch my children play. We often have tea parties there in the afternoons, then the children play their games running and jumping, while I create something useful out of a ball of yarn. It’s very relaxing for me, a type of constructive meditation.
What is your design process like?
I usually have an idea in my head before I create an actual design. I use graphs sometimes but I do a lot more mathematical work beforehand to make sure the pattern maintains the shape/dimensions that I have in mind.
Who are your favorite fiber arts designers?
At the moment I frequently admire Bonita Patterns; I love the way they are so creative with the crocodile stitch. I like to see Lily Go’s shawl designs, which are brilliant and beautiful. Doris Chan has interesting, fun designs and her writings about her designs are intriguing. I also follow Deanne Ramsay, as she has a selection of beautiful dresses and hats that I’ve enjoyed crocheting for my daughters.
Do you have a favorite local yarn store?
I only have one local yarn store in my locality. It’s owned by a lady who spins the yarn for you on site, in 1, 2, or 3 strands held together according to the ply you want.
What do you like to eat/drink while working?
I tend to start my yarn crafting in the afternoon after I’ve managed all of my household affairs, so I like to sit down with a cup of lipton tea with 2 sugars and a dash of milk, accompanied with some biscuits or sweets.
Is there a big knitting or crochet culture where you live?
The women in my area crochet more often then knit, and they’re really into home decor like doilies and kitchen accessories. Some women knit during the colder months; jumpers, blankets and hats for their children. I saw some jumpers in the North of Morocco, in the city of Chefchaouen, which were knit by the women from the mountains from hand spun wool. Also it is common for North African men to crochet fishing nets, and they also do a lot of crochet tapestry creating bags and especially kufis and hats.
Do you have a favorite design in your portfolio that was inspired by Morocco?
All of my kufi designs have been inspired by the environment I live in. Having a husband and two sons, and seeing Moroccan men walking about with a variety of kufis accessorizing their clothes, I couldn’t help but think of some neat designs that I would like to see on the heads of the beloved males in my family.
Thank you so much for sharing your home and inspirations with us!
Find Charlene and all of her designs on Ravelry: Shaadia