Wilthew with rug sellers in Mazar-e-Sharif
James Wilthew with rug sellers in Mazar-e-Sharif

Hindu Kush to Hebden Bridge: A veteran’s journey to entrepreneurial success

James Wilthew, RAF veteran runs a successful business selling Afghan rugs in Yorkshire- with the help of his Afghan friends in Mazar-e-Sharif

James is often asked just how the fairtrade handmade Afghan rugs in his shop have found their way from the Hindu Kush to Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire? The answer is intriguing.

James Wilthrew at Andkhoy Weavers Market in 2004
James Wilthew at Andkhoy Weavers Market in 2004

“We are the only company outside Afghanistan, anywhere in the world, selling purely Afghan rugs and kilims” says James Wilthew, RAF veteran of 4 operational campaigns and owner of The Afghan Rug Shop.

Wilthew spent six months serving in Afghanistan in late 2003, based in Mazar-e-Sharif in the Northern Provinces. Part of his role was to engage with local elders in the towns and villages in order to monitor the security situation. “Whenever time allowed we would drop into the rug shops, drink tea and chat to the locals. This is where my love for their rugs started,” says Wilthew.

Having bonded with one of the rug traders, his interest in the rugs and traditional methods grew, “I bought a few rugs during my 6 months thinking it would be my only chance. It was 2003, there were no smartphones and the internet was unstable, I never thought I could buy again once I’d left…”

James Wilthew, RAF veteran and owner of The Afghan Rug Shop
James Wilthew, RAF veteran and owner of The Afghan Rug Shop

I sold some to friends, but didn’t give it much thought after that, as I was still serving and busy on other operations”. About 12 years later Wilthew’s circumstances were different.

Having left the RAF, he became a civil servant and then subsequently left to move to Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire with his family, when a friend enquired about a rug in his home. “Do you think you could track down the guy you bought that from and get me one?” asked the friend. Wilthew accepted the challenge and the idea for the business was born. “It took a few months of cold-calls to Afghanistan, social media searches, emails to strangers and lots of Facebook messages, but ultimately I tracked down my old friend Rafi, the rug seller I hadn’t seen or spoken to since the spring of 2004.”

After an online reunion, Wilthew quickly acquired premises in the center of Hebden Bridge. “We had to establish imports from a very rural and remote part of the world, establish money exchanges, import tax and banking issues, but we eventually figured it all out.”

The Afghan Rug Shop in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire
The Afghan Rug Shop in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

There are no middle-men, their rugs come direct from the weavers markets and Wilthew stocks rugs that are as suitable for a modern flat as they are large country houses. “We can supply any size of rug and some of them are huge, people don’t mind waiting if it’s a bespoke order either, it’s quite special.”

It has been a long journey and his business now sells not just rugs but also kilim-covered furniture, handmade glass from Herat and pottery from Istalif town.

Now in their fifth year, they are proudly partnered with Turquoise Mountain - a non-governmental organisation established in 2006 by HRH The Prince of Wales to revive historic areas and traditional crafts, to provide jobs and skills. They are also registered Living Wage employers and corporate sponsors of Afghanaid, putting money directly into projects in the communities their rugs come from. “It’s really important for us to support the communities that support us, it’s the right thing to do.”

Having won ‘Highly Commended’ in the 2019 Soldiering On Awards for their positive impact on Afghan communities, they’re currently regional finalists in the FSB International Business of the Year Awards 2020.

Wilthew currently serves as a RAF reservist and also recently became an Ambassador for X-Forces Enterprise and is helping other veterans taking their first steps in starting businesses of their own.



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