The Longer Story by Adam Gilchrist
(A ten minute read)
As a youth (almost another life) I was lucky to work for both advisors and valuers, Sotheby's and Gurr Johns & Angier Bird; the former, where I was fortunate to come across a certain Jack Frances and the dashing Alidad Mahloudji. Jack was a characterful carpet expert extraordinaire and a good teacher if you got on. Luckily, we did and so my obsession with antique carpets was born.
Previously at school I had been a certified dyslexic which in those days branded you as 'thick'. Fortunately school gave me the opportunity of sailing during the summer months and rugger in the winter - obviously interspersed by lessons, which to me were not really that relevant.
Jack gave me the chance and inspiration to learn and I absorbed carpet designs and weave like a sponge. In the late 1970's many carpets were arriving for appraisal or auction after the disposition of the Shah of Iran. Many fantastic pieces arrived at Sotheby's door. What joy, what luck.
In the early 1980's, I Ieft Sotheby's to buy and sell antique carpets and rugs in my own right (us dyslexics are seldom other than self-employed) and this continued for better or worse for at least a decade. Time spent buying and selling was also fun as by the by, knowledge of antique oriental rugs was held by relatively few people and fewer still within the sphere of the many antique shops and provincial auction house.
The ever standing problem of antique carpets eventually falling to pieces or wearing out was something which needed to be addressed but I was totally put off by modern production due to the fact that in days gone by and definitely in the late 1980's early 1990's child labour was the norm. People didn't seem to think twice about it. The general economics of production then insisted that cheap wool, mass production, (minimum order 20 pieces) less than adequate dyes and of course child labour were the normal ways in which the carpet industry was run to increase the profits and please the accountants.
Remember that in many of the countries where hand made carpets are produced, regard for health and safety and really ethics on the whole, as far as human conditions, were concerned, were very different to how we see things in the West today. This situation with modern production, I found abhorrent.
It is fair to say that modern production wasn't my bag anyway. Lost, as I was, with the romance of tribal weavings made in the open and mainly originally for dowry pieces for the families of the original weavers. I was both too young and immature and also sadly not wealthy enough to be in a position to make a difference, the difference that needed to be made to change the way people felt about and actually carried out contemporary hand made carpet manufacture in the late 20th Century.
In the late 1980's I had reached a point in my life where there was a chance to start ethical contemporary production and considerable time and effort was employed in finding where my foray into this may take place. The world of modern production was, as mentioned, a long way away from my realm of experience in antique carpets, which was really another world, but I felt if I did not use my positive energy to change the system, alas things would never change. A brave call and the sort of thing it takes a dyslexic to be foolhardy enough to try.
Pakistan, India, China, Morocco and Turkey were all 'uncontrollable' where workforce was involved and beloved Persia was in those days out of the question. So where could I found ethically based looms? Who could I trust to be operations manager overseas and what would be my USP to give the 'business' a kick start and generate some much needed cash flow?
My time at Sotheby's held me in good stead. I intuitively knew what I did not want to produce. Also I learnt what could be a suitable quality knot count (number of knots per square inch) so that children's small hands would not need to be used; the yarn (naturally, wool) and best quality dyes needed to be used to produce a quality which could be sold at a premium price so that the business Veedon Fleece could pay for the weavers' children's education. With education, these children would have the opportunity of not having to work long hours hand knotting carpets. In fact, from it's very beginning, no person under the age of 15 has been allowed to work in our workshops. This change from the then norm was culturally difficult to instigate.
In 1990 my attention turned to the then independent Kingdom of Nepal, a country which had a good natural supply of fine Tibetan wool and a busy carpet industry, partly started in the 1960's as a foreign aid programme to help Tibetan refugees then flooding into the country from China.
Impressively, the carpet industry was listed as one of the top five foreign currency earners for the country. All well and good, but the products were not of a good quality, but I could see that the possibility to do better was there, so how to go about it?
In 1990/91 amazingly things started to go my way. A friend, the artist David Shepherd, Britain's most famous wildlife artist, agreed in principle to paint a semi-abstract tiger for me to use as a template for a Tibetan style tiger rug. The proceeds of the exercise would be split between our company, David, his wildlife charity and my choice, aid for the displaced Tibetan refugees and their families. All well and good, but at that point I had no workshop to build looms in and more importantly had not found anyone that I could trust to go head to head with regarding the then culture within the carpet industry and educate rather than exploit children.
I had identified Nepal as the most appropriate place to start production due to the fact that the raw ingredients were all there, things just needed to be made to a finer quality using imported dyes, a much finer yarn and higher knot count than before. Of course, all parts of the process had to be ethically run.
1992, it's January and horribly early in the morning, -20C and I am standing with a few characters waiting to be the first few cannon fodder to take their toboggan head first to the charming village at the base of the Cresta Run. At such times, as a bit of a beginner, words generally don't come too naturally, as all of those gathered are either somewhat hung over from the previous night's revelry or in the case of the sane, scared or to say the least, a little apprehensive as to what the first ride of the day would bring. I turned to the young ex-army officer who was standing beside me and in precedence to grapple with the leviathan that is the Cresta Run, 'what do you do for a living' fell out of my mouth. 'Oh, I have just finished co-writing His Holiness, the Dalai Lama's autobiography and I am currently working on a book on His Consciousness' was the almost too good to be true reply. We arranged that if we both made it to the bottom of the run we would talk further as I had a cunning plan.
Alex had co-written the book with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and a Geshe named Thupten Jinpa. It transpired that on listening to my plan to start ethical weaving in Nepal, to lead by example and to demonstrate that it was possible to make something better and most importantly without the use of child labour, that could be sold at a premium price so that the weavers and their children's education could be provided by the workshop's income, was listened to, considered and well received. The fact that I had an arrangement with David Shepherd for the first project and that that would give us something credible to produce and sell from day one with funds to aid the tigers and the Tibetans was also considered and welcomed.
The Geshe, Thupten Jinpa had left Tibet with another monk as young children and whereas Jinpa had gone on to greater things within the monastic world, his childhood friend, later progressing through the monastic system and after becoming a monk, fell in love with a woman. This meant that he could no longer be a monk and he and his wife were running a carpet workshop attached to a monastery in India.
Fortunately for Veedon Fleece it was decided that this wonderful man would be released from any remaining monastic duties and that he would be the right person to run a trail blazing ethical business for Veedon Fleece in Nepal. He already had family there and wanted to leave India. So, on the condition that I looked after him and his family for life, I had my ethical managing director with the most superb credentials. By the end of 1992 the first Veedon Fleece workshops had been formed and looms established.
Our first weavers were employed and this was difficult as they had to be groups who wanted a better future for their children. We paid them what the children would be earning if weaving carpets and then paid for their school expenses and fees. At this time we were told by the industry as a whole that what we were doing was dangerous and that attention should not be bought to child labour within the industry. Of course, this made me even more determined to succeed and to even broadcast literature to state that our looms were conscientious and child labour free. On the whole this did not make me very popular in the industry.
Our dedicated workforce worked hard to raise the quality of yarn and to increase the fastness of dyes and to importantly raise the knot count from what was called 60 knots per inch (the norm being 50 for this quality) to produce a minimum quality of 80 knots to the inch with a greater number of strands of wool in the yarn to make a product which was capable of basic design and hard wearing durability.
Then we developed 100 knots per square inch and we had it! At the time this was a world beating quality, beautiful wool, a knot count that could produce relatively complex designs, importantly without the use of child labour.
By 1994 we had the first design from David Shepherd and after a fantastic launch party at Debenham House, the next day the Rwanda story broke in the press. No one was interested in a good news trail blazing company weaving rugs in Nepal that was trying to do so much; stop child labour, aid Tibetan refugees, save the tigers. I lost my shirt on that one as they say, however, I still had an ethical weaving company and a product that I believed had, as a bespoke offering was second to none.
Believe it or not back in 1994 I had clients who said that they did not care about child labour and that if I could knock £1000 off a large carpet's end price by using children, they wouldn't mind and they were serious!! We made a beautiful carpet for them and they refused to pay the last £1000. Hay ho, we needed the work and stuck to our principles.
Since then, the company has gone from strength to strength. We did not really make any money for the first four years and this was to my own personal loss but I stuck to my guns and kept on paying for all the education etc.
The great defining point is that after four years the industry as a whole looked at our strange little company and saw that we were doing well. They were clever enough to notice that we were doing well as we were producing a fantastic quality product (then 120 knots per square inch) and that was possible as we were looking after our people and they in turn, were looking after us.
Things were starting to change in the culture and I really think in many respects we were leading the way certainly when it came to how we treated our people. Success.
As time went on, keeping our heads down and a low profile during the 10 years of Maoist insurgence, we re-emerged into the new Nepal with many different qualities to offer. Time had been well spent on developing pashmina yarns, a quality almost forgotten since India's Mughul period; a fine silk with an even higher knot count and what is now a quality used for some of England's great and majestic country houses, our veedon yarn. Constructed from carded silk and best wool and when dyed and woven it gives a luster akin to those great carpets from antiquity that I used to be so fortunate to catalogue at Sotheby's. It also has the added benefit of being extremely durable and we predict that in normal country house use, it should last for anything up to four generations. Our silk carpets are a great success with contemporary design and I would describe them as capital city chic, whereas the veedon, giving a more subtle luster, works extremely well with classical designs. The subtle elegance that the pashmina gives to a room is really quite remarkable.
Still succeeding to produce carpets successfully today in Nepal and continuing to manufacture on a purely bespoke basis to well advised people around the world is a tremendously positive thing to do and when looking through our archive both Clare and I are proud of the diversity of our production and that our rugs and carpets sit quietly but confidently in many beautiful homes around the world.