‘They shall be like wool’

Some years ago we were travelling on pilgrimage through Turkey and took a break at a carpet warehouse. The coffee and mint tea were served and we sat on the stools around the walls of a room. There were piles of rugs in a corner and a team of men arrived who began to throw these out in front of us, rapidly, spectacularly, spinning them in the air as they fell in front of us. It was amazing, almost like a firework display, they were that brilliant. The purpose was, of course, not simply to dazzle us but to sell us some rugs and a few people succumbed to their beauty. But I shall never forget seeing them. And wherever one travels in the Middle East you find similar traders in the most beautiful rugs and kilims, with their natural colours and beautiful designs.

A rainbow flock

A rainbow flock

The Campaign for Wool has opened a week long exhibition in the Cathedral celebrating design in wool and especially the way that products made of wool can be used in interior design. The entrances to the Cathedral are guarded by some fluorescent sheep but inside the colours are more muted and natural.

One of the stars of the show must be a beautiful rug which hangs on the wall of the Queen Elizabeth Room, made in Afghanistan and showing the skill of the people who work there.

Women working in the AfghanMade project

Women working in the AfghanMade project

Afghanistan’s centuries-old carpet industry has some of the most highly skilled weavers in the world. I’m told that handknotted carpets are the country’s largest legal export, with over one million Afghans working directly or indirectly in the supply chain. Afghans have maintained their ancient traditions and continue to make carpets – from carding to spinning to weaving – entirely by hand. Until the 1980s the patterns and quality were virtually unchanged from the previous century, but as their makers have embraced contemporary colours and designs, Afghan carpets have become some of the most modern and versatile in the world.

The rug displayed at the Cathedral has been made by AfghanMade Carpets, which is an initiative established by the US Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, which has hired leading industry experts to provide Afghans with training on wool selection, spinning techniques, new coloration and design. The rug on display is stunning and the design intriguing – almost a ying-yang, contemporary yet spiritual.

The completed rug on display at the Cathedral

The completed rug on display at the Cathedral

The reason I mention all of this is not simply because of the beautiful work on display but because it has to be hoped that this kind of initiative, like AfghanMade, can help contribute to building the peace and sustainable society in communities that have been and continue to be devastated as a consequence of ongoing conlict. The rugs, in their brilliance, represent a sense of hope for a better future.

The prophet Isaiah uses the idea of wool in what he says

‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.’ (Isaiah 1.18)

The purity of wool is an image for the purity of the human heart, the human soul to which Isaiah points us, the potential that we can be as wool is. All those hearing his words will have known what he was talking about. The hills were full of sheep and goats and wool was one of the main resources that they had. The language of sheep and goats then finds it’s way all the way through the teaching of Jesus and into the book of Revelation itself, where the image of the lamb for Christ is so powerfully used. At the heart of the Eucharist as we prepare to move to the altar to receive the sacrament the Agnus Dei is said or sung.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, grant us peace.

The purity of the lamb, the purity of the wool and the desire that we may be ‘like wool’ are brought together.

If you have the chance to see the Campaign for Wool’s exhibition, you won’t be disappointed. And remember those skilled artisans in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East weaving their carpets, weaving their rugs and creating real and lasting beauty.

Jesus, Lamb of God,
may we reflect your purity,
and may all our brothers and sisters,
know that peace which is your gift
and promise.

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