In the 80s Harriet Sandys was commissioned by Pinewood Studios to source Afghan costumes for the James Bond film ‘The Living Daylights’.
In the spring of 1989 while visiting Pakistan’s northwest frontier, Harriet discovered several families of traditional silk weavers living in a refugee camp. Harriet obtained funding from the Swedish Government to buy the weavers handlooms, dyes and silk yarn, and the men began to weave silk shawls which were sold through Save The Children.
In the 90s, Harriet was asked by UNESCO to organise and run a training programme in ikat silk weaving and natural dyes in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-I-Sharif.
Harriet now works from a beautifully restored 17th century cider barn selling oriental products which she imports directly. And her past is as colourful as the goods she displays.
As a young woman Harriet Sandys faced danger daily. She could not have worked in a more forbidding part of the world.
This petite woman operated on the North West Frontier – near the Khyber Pass which separates Afghanistan and Pakistan – when the Afghanistans were resisting the Soviet Union invasion which surprised the world on Boxing Day 1979.
Aged 18, she worked with Afghan refugees fleeing the brutality of the Soviets and the endless bombing in the war zone.
‘It was tense,’ she admits with charming understatement. ‘But the Afghans are wonderfully hospitable and I was under the protection of the warlords, who were funded by the West. They knew I was there to help their people and they showed their appreciation.‘
One of the warlords was a certain Osama Bin Laden who then was not radicalised.
Harriet now runs a successful business from a beautifully restored 17th century cider barn in West Compton near Shepton Mallet, importing high quality fabrics, clothing and carpets from the Middle and Far East using contacts gained during her humanitarian work in the 1980s.
Sandys Oriental Carpets is now back in business after 18 months closure due to lockdown.
‘It’s more difficult to import goods, but everything we sell benefits good people in that part of the world, particularly women and girls, who produce incredibly well-made products using silk, Indian cotton and their astonishingly high quality wool. Because I buy direct, I can offer high quality produce at affordable prices.
‘We read a lot of bad things about the area,’ says Harriet, ‘but the real people are lovely, kind and welcoming. It was only when fighters came in from north Africa and Saudi that the radicalisation started.’
After visiting Afghanistan’s capital Kabul many times, Soviet forces closed the airport so she resorted to flying direct to Islamabad, the Pakistan capital where she met the Aga Khan, the revered Islamic spiritual leader.
‘He wanted to see the silk weaving workshops we were introducing, under the aegis of UNESCO, to encourage Afghans to return to their own country when the Soviets pulled out in 1989.’
Harriet learned the local language, Dari, to encourage females to start their own businesses and gain a degree of confidence and financial independence. She also worked with Save The Children.
The locals couldn’t pronounce her name so she became popularly known as Arriot Jan (Jan meaning ‘dear’ or ‘lovely’).
Harriet left school at 16 with no qualifications. ‘I knew I didn’t want to work 9-5 as a secretary.’
Following a sheltered childhood in the Lake District, her parents hoped that after ‘doing the Season’, she would meet and marry a suitable young man. Instead, she learned how to restore oriental carpets, and travelled alone to Pakistan.
‘When I first came back to London from my initial travels I knew my life had changed. I fell in love with the North West Frontier.’
Dressing in the local garb with head coverings, Harriet would tour the bazaars and became a welcome figure with locals and merchants.
‘I was treated as one of the boys,’ she said, ‘we’d sit, talk and drink tea. They were wonderfully hospitable.’
Her memoir ‘Beyond That Last Blue Mountain: my Silk Road,’ was published by Medina in 2018.
Apart from her business, Harriet loves cooking and is inspired by recipes from Helen Saberi’s ‘Noshe Djan’ (noshe meaning ‘to eat’ – it is believed that British troops brought the word back to England and we now have the slang ‘nosh’ meaning food or to eat.)
‘Afghan food is tremendously healthy and tasty,’ she says, ‘they use aubergines, nan, rice, lamb, nuts and yoghurt.’
Among the oriental rugs, runners and tribal kilims from Turkey, Afghanistan and Iran at Harriet Sandys barn there are carved wood chests and tables from the mountain villages of Swat in northern Pakistan and a splendid assortment of hand-woven silk and wool scarves, block-printed tablecloths, quilted bedspreads, cushions and throws from India.
On sale too are fabulous velvet knee-length coats from Morocco (great for parties) Indian cotton kaftans; cotton dressing gowns and nightwear; table lamps and gold and silver semi-precious stone earrings made by craftsmen living in the desert villages of Rajasthan.
If you want to give a loved one a unique and attractive gift, visit Sandys Oriental Carpets.
By: Andy Palmer