The grey, Yorkshire stone exterior of The African Fabric Shop in Meltham, offers no clue at all to what lies inside. There’s not even a sign over the door.
But visitors who step across the threshold of the former post office on Holmfirth Road are dazzled by a brilliant array of fabrics in hot, earthy or gem-bright hues. Bolts of material, arranged in rainbows of colour, line the walls, along with drawers and drawers of beads.
And yet it’s probably fair to say that the little store is one of the area’s best kept secrets. Customers can only visit by appointment, although owners Magie Relph and Bob Irwin do stage monthly open days. Most of their business is conducted over the internet.
“We sell all over the world,” says Bob, “we have even sent fabrics back to Africa.”
Their unusual venture grew from Magie’s interest in textile art and their joint love of the African continent, and has grown organically. Canadian-born Bob describes it as a “genuine fair trade business” and explains: “It’s important for people to understand that fair trade is not about charity, it’s about trade and doing the best for people. It’s about paying the people who make things a correct and fair price and about us being able to sell it at a fair price, which means we can go back for more. A lot of the people we buy from are individuals.” However, the business does support African charities and is currently helping an orphanage in Kenya.
Theirs is a venture based on the personal approach. Magie and Bob spend up to 10 weeks every year in Africa, travelling to South Africa, Ghana, Gambia, Zimbabwe and other countries, visiting suppliers and seeking out new contacts. This year they have already been to Ghana and South Africa and plan to visit Gambia in December. They source both traditional textiles as well as contemporary designs.
The story of how their business came into being is the story of their lives. Magie, a Londoner by birth, was the first to fall under Africa’s spell when in 1984, as a 28-year-old, she travelled there and subsequently found a job working as a cook and courier for an overland safari company. “I loved everything about Africa, the light, the wide-open spaces, the people,” she said, “and the added bonus was discovering the textiles and fabrics, the colour and vibrancy.”
It was while accompanying travellers across Africa that Magie met Bob, a paying customer, who was similarly seduced by Africa and applied to become a safari driver. The two of them subsequently worked together and in 1989 tied the knot in Nairobi.
Deciding where to live afterwards was a problem. “At one point,” says Magie, “we essentially tossed a coin to decide between London and Canada and Canada won. But we didn’t settle in Toronto and came back here. We both got jobs pretty quickly and lived in Reading but continued our trips to Africa.”
And then in 1998 Bob, who is a technical writer, was offered a post at Huddersfield University to work on the development of engineering courses, which brought the couple North. At the same time Magie was developing her own skills as a patchworker and quilter. Fellow needleworkers began to ask where she found the fabrics she was using. She explained: “Every time we went to Africa I was bringing back fabrics so I started selling a bit here and there and that’s how it began.”
Since 2006 both Bob and Magie have worked full time for The African Fabric Shop and employ an assistant, Isobel Holland, a fellow textile artist and jewellery designer (Magie and Isobel are members of the etcetera group of internationally-exhibited textile artists). For a number of years they ran the company from home, using Bob’s technical expertise to build up their website (www.africanfabric.co.uk) . But in October last year they moved to commercial premises, having outgrown space at home.
Coming to live in an area with a rich textile heritage was a coincidence, but a happy one for Bob and Magie, who are authors of a book, African Wax Print: A Textile Journey. As Bob explains: “The North of England has a very important place in the history of African textiles. In the Industrial Revolution British industrialists wanted to copy batik textiles and were quick off the mark. When we first came here we were buying African wax printed fabrics from a factory in Hyde, Manchester, but it closed in 2007 and now we buy from the subsidiary factory in Ghana.”
As well as trading in textiles and beads, the couple also host workshops and give talks around the country. Their next open day in Meltham is on Saturday, September 19, and they will be appearing at the Women’s Institute Centennial Fair at the Harrogate International Centre from September 3 to 6.