Portland-based carpet expert in Afghanistan
Afghanistan is a beautiful country. It is in a state of war ever since most of us can remember. However, in this article, I focus on the Afghan carpet tradition. The production of carpets is nowadays as diverse as ever before: there are traditional Mauri, Ghondoz, Baluch and, for some years now, Ziegler, Chobbi, Kazak as well as modern and designer carpets. 

In the exploration of the current Afghan carpet tradition, I followed the story of Randy Hyde, an Oregon-based oriental carpet expert that worked in Afghanistan with the Kabul Carpet Export Center (KCEC). The KCEC is funded through ACEBA (Afghan Competitiveness Export Oriented- Business Activity) which is a US aid program. Randy traveled to Afghanistan in December 2020, as a carpet consultant, to help improve Afghan carpet production. 

Randy’s story started on Facebook where a rug/carpet dyer Chris Howel contacted him with the question of training Afghans in color matching and spot dyeing. That led to some Skype meetings with the KCEC in April 2020. Although, it was not easy to arrange, since Covid-19 was emerging at that time. The trip to Afghanistan was ultimately pushed back to late November 2020. 

It was Randy’s first trip to Afghanistan, but not his first in the middle-east, as he has spent time in Turkey and Iran. He was occupied with dyeing and other aspects of his job. Randy had hoped to be back in Istanbul for a rug conference in November but Covid-19 changed that. Most of his previous consulting work has been for local rug dealers. Some of that work he did in cooperation with the likes of James Opie and his Afghan rug production. James had experience with some of the issues wholesalers had been dealing with Afghan rugs; specifically colors, the workmanship of finished rugs.

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I asked Randy some questions about his work: 

  • You are a technical consultant at KCEC. What does that entail? And what would a working day look like amidst the current security situation in the country?

I worked in a team with another much more seasoned consultant whose background was in wool and cashmere processing. He has an excellent technical background, and I had a rug background. A sort of Batman and Robin of the rug world. We visited rug producers, dyers, and wool processors around Kabul to see what they did and still do. We would assess capability, skill level, and what they need to take their businesses to the next level.

 We took what we learned and organized information into digestible information for the management elements of KCEC and ACEBA. This isn’t too different from what I do in my business in Portland, Oregon uses my experience to distill down important salient points so my clients can make informed intelligent decisions. 

  • The KCEC improves the Afghan carpet industry so that it generates new employment opportunities for women, young people, and both returning refugees and internally displaced Afghans who have carpet-making skills, whether they are in urban, peri-urban, or rural areas. Where in Afghanistan approximately is the project active? How does the project improve the lives of these people?

KECE works with rug producers throughout Afghanistan, mostly in Kabul and north of there. if functions as a bridge for afghans to the international market. Many large rug producers don’t need KCEC’s help; they are doing just fine. However, there are several small, some very small, rug producers including several women-owned businesses. These tiny producers lack access to the outside market, language is a barrier and their rugs are often sold to Pakistan traders at meager prices, a kind of hand-to-mouth existence. Unlike India or Nepal, Afghanistan isn’t the kind of place the average American rug dealer hopes on a plane and visits. This is the concept for KCEC to help connect these producers with the outside rug world. 

ACEBA has other areas of involvement such as Cashmere, Saffron, livestock, gemstones rugs are just another part of a much larger afghan “value chain” development program. 

Part of my work for KCEC and ACEBA was to suggest where grant money might best be allocated to increase capacity and add labor-saving equipment and improve rug quality and the overall rug value chain. Many afghans lack a basic understanding of the chemistry they use to dye wool and wash rugs and how to safely handle them. My work continues at home, building training curriculum dyes/ dyeing, chemistry, finish washing, and safe handling of chemicals for workers. 

In some of the workshops, I visited chemicals that were stored improperly, unlabeled in old food containers next to foodstuff, eating and drinking utensils next to open containers of powdered synthetic dyes stuff. Part of the education is safety but also a better scientific understanding leads to mastery and improved product.

  • The duration of the project is until June 2021. How do you think the project has succeeded in improving the Afghan carpet industry? 

The ACEBA existing funding and contract with KCEC ends in June However, KCEC, with new management and funding and programs will continue. The next step is improving dyeing specifically custom color matching, rug finishing better access, and communication with dealers outside of Afghanistan. 

  • How can people purchase rugs from KCEC, or from any other project that you have contributed to?

KCEC sells rugs from their website directly to consumers however many of the rug producers sell wholesale to the trade only so one would need to visit a local rug retailer and ask for afghan rugs.

Website Randy: https://www.renaissancerugportland.com/about

Website KCEC: https://afghanrugs.us/about-kcec

Felix van den Belt

Felix van den Belt

Give Felix an assignment about carpets and he will go for it. He listens and asks questions. What is the history and what makes certain rugs unique? What can be said about social life around the carpets? Felix's passion for carpets prompts him to discover these questions like no other.