The Afghan Rug Shop in Hebden Bridge can call itself unique for several reasons. It’s the only rug shop outside Afghanistan that sells solely Afghan rugs. It’s also the only retail shop in Britain granted Label-STEP accreditation (guaranteeing fair and ethical trade in the worldwide rug business); but most especially for the story of how it came into being. ‘In 2003 I volunteered to work with the UK Provincial Reconstruction Team (UK PRT) in the Northern Provinces of Afghanistan, and served there for six months. We were there to provide security and to assist with the demilitarisation process, reintegrating people into work and to oversee the provision of contracts to local companies to repair their infrastructure, making sure the process was fair. It was a very worthwhile and rewarding experience,’ says shop owner James Wilthew.
Working in the Northern Provinces, the main rug-making region, he met many people involved in the wool-weaving industry, the focus of enormous investment targeted at developing the economy while maintaining traditional craft skills. ‘Whenever we had time we made a point of dropping into the rug shops, sitting with the owners to drink tea and chat. I bought a load of rugs myself, many of which I sold on to help pay for my wedding,’ he says. James thought no more about the business until 11 years later when he moved from London to the Calder Valley with his family. ‘Hebden Bridge is a beautiful tourist town, with predominantly independent shops offering lots of unique products and bespoke services.’ says James. ‘We thought an Afghan rug shop could work here, so we took the gamble.’
Finding the right premises was relatively straight forward, securing stock less so. ‘It took about three months of searching on social media to track down my Afghan friends from whom I had bought most of my rugs in 2003. I sent them some money, they sent me some rugs. We took a chance and seven years on it’s working well’ says James. ‘I’m now importing half a tonne of rugs every two months, direct from the weavers markets in Northern Provinces.’ He has the contacts that get him the finest products and, as he deals direct, there are no middlemen adding hugely to the cost. ‘I got an email recently from my friend saying I probably didn’t realise just how many families I was supporting in Mazar-e-Sharif, which is both heart-warming and daunting.’
His range provides a riot of colour not, as James is keen to point out, not just the red patterns most often associated with Afghan rug-makers. ‘I have blue and green rugs, cream rugs, pink rugs, you name it we have it – or can get it. If customers don’t mind waiting a few months they can have the exact colours, shape and size they’re after, custom made. ‘We also offer a bespoke service for businesses and brands to have their own rugs made’.
A local upholsterer transforms kilims into everything from doorstops to wing-backed chairs and footstools. ‘They’re handmade in Afghanistan and hand-finished in West Yorkshire, supporting local businesses at both ends,’ adds James. He even imports the stunning blue semiprecious stone, lapis lazuli, mined in Afghanistan’s north-east for millennia – that the shop logo and colour scheme is based on.
The Label-STEP representatives in Afghanistan conduct bi-annual inspections of the weavers, washers, dyers, spinners and cutters, including visiting their homes and workshops to ensure they are paid correctly and have ethical work practices in place. ‘Making sure our rugs are ethically produced is essential, we often get sent videos and photos of them being made too, which we always promote on our social media to give people confidence in our products.’
James is also a corporate sponsor of afghanaid.org and they make regular donations to their critical projects. ‘Afghanaid have worked in Afghanistan since the 80’s – they have large and small projects from flood prevention in towns, to providing training and materials for rural families and directly assisting the most vulnerable.’ says James ‘In the UK we are accredited Living Wage employers and donate monthly to our local food bank, it’s about helping both over in Afghanistan and here in our own local area.
But he’s just as passionate about the products themselves which, like his shop, offer customers something unique. ‘It’s really important that my customers can see how we source our rugs and how, in return, we directly support the people and producers in the Northern Provinces and here in the UK.’