Business profile - The Afghan Rug Shop, Hebden Bridge

James Wilthew at The Afghan Rug Shop in Hebden Bridge

James Wilthew at The Afghan Rug Shop in Hebden Bridge - Credit: Archant

Some of the finest rugs from Afghanistan are imported direct from weavers to Yorkshire, as Martin Pilkington discovers

Intricate pattern on an Afghan rug at the Afghan Rug Shop

Intricate pattern on an Afghan rug at the Afghan Rug Shop - Credit: Archant

The Afghan Rug Shop in Hebden Bridge can call itself unique for several reasons. It’s believed to be the only rug shop outside Afghanistan itself that sells rugs solely from that country. It’s the only 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 2004 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 silk and 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. It’s like a little Knightsbridge of the north,’ says James. ‘We thought an Afghan rug shop could work here, so we took the gamble.’

The Afghan Rug shop

The Afghan Rug shop - Credit: Archant

Finding the right premises was relatively straight forward, securing stock less so. ‘It took about four months of searching on social media to track down my friend Rafi, from whom I had bought most of my rugs in 2004. I sent him some money, he sent me some rugs. We took a chance on one another, and it is working well for both of us,’ says James. ‘I’m now importing half a tonne of rugs every two months, direct from the weavers markets in Mazar-e-Sharif, Andkhoy, Maymana, Aqcha, Kholm and Kunduz.’ Rafi 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 Rafi 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, 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.’

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James’s range runs from the lighter-weight kilims, which can cost as little as £80, up to huge 6m x 4m rugs that can cost £12,000 or more. They end up in all sorts of homes. ‘If you have a small contemporary flat with plain white walls we have beautifully coloured kilims that bring a splash of colour to the decor,’ says James. ‘And the large traditional rugs have been part of country-house styling for centuries.’

Aside from rugs and kilims, he stocks doormats, floor cushions, donkey bags, hats and scarves. A local upholsterer transforms kilims into everything from doorstops to wing-backed chairs, footstools and scatter cushions. And a leather worker also makes him hand-stitched kilim/leather handbags and overnight bags. ‘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 semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli, mined in Afghanistan’s north-east for millennia – that the shop logo and colour scheme is based on.

James works with Rafi not just because of the trust between them, but because they share ethical outlooks; Rafi was recommended initially because he was known for his fair dealing when James was in the country. ‘We’re the only Label-STEP approved carpet shop in the UK. Other oriental-type rug shops buy from too many sources, too many countries for approval to be practical. The Label-STEP representatives in Afghanistan have interviewed Rafi and 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.’

James is passionate about the need for fairness in the trade, and what the work means to the economy and traditions of Afghanistan. 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.

Afghan Rug Shop, 7 Market Street, Hebden Bridge HX7 6EU

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