Cashmere Pashmina(from here on mentioned as "Pashmina") has enticed the entire world with its fine quality and warmth. Often referred to as 'Soft Gold', pashmina wool comes from the cashmere (or pashmina) goats. The traditional home of the pashmina goats is in Changthangi plateau in Ladakh, India. The grazing pastures in Changthangi surround rugged mountains, large lake basins with little to no vegetation. The harsh climatic conditions are what make the softest wool in the undercoat of the goats. Pastoralism is the only way to survive in this rugged landscape. Pashmina is known as cashmere in most parts of the world.
Are Pashmina and Cashmere the same?
The Pashmina shawls reached Europe by the 18th century and had taken the European markets and French fashion industry by a riot. There was a massive demand for the pashmina shawls among the women in aristocratic society. Once found in the wardrobes of royals and nobles, Pashmina shawls started infiltrating local markets by the end of the 18th century, especially in Scotland and France. The high-quality Pashmina shawls were imported from Kashmir in India to Europe. Pashmina was re-christened as Cashmere (after the word Kashmir) after it reached Europe.
Image: Oil painting of a music salon with a Cashmere Pashmina shawl draped on the chair, England, 1789. Picture from Creative Commons by Auguste Garnerey (1785-1824)
Though cashmere fabric finds its origin in pashmina, today, one can find a few differences between cashmere and pashmina fabrics. Pashmina is the fabric obtained from a specific breed of goats in the Himalayas plateau. Also known as ‘Changthangi goats’ after the Changthangi plateau which was home to pashmina goats for many centuries. Today, they are reared in Tibet, Nepal, and parts of Burma along with Ladakh (India) and other surrounding cold and arid areas in India.
Due to the high demand for fine quality fabric worldwide, countries like China, Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal, Bhutan, Turkey, Australia started rearing cashmere goats. There are more than 400 million cashmere goats in the world. During the Spring season, the goats naturally shed their winter coats. Pashmina and Cashmere fibres both are combed from the undercoat (neck and underbelly) of the goat.
Like the Pashmina, Cashmere fibre also comes from a goat. Pashmina is obtained from the fibres of the Changthangi breed of goats while Cashmere comes from other breeds. The external climatic condition affects the quality of the fibre. The Changthangi goats survive at an altitude of more than 4000 m above sea level and the temperature drops to – 40º in winters. These goats have very little fat to protect them in the winter from the cold arid plains, so they develop soft fibres underneath their coats, on the underbelly. As the temperature rises the goats naturally shed their coat. The herders comb their fine hair, sort them by hand and send them for weaving after cleaning and dehairing the wool.
Image: Cashmere Pashmina Yarn (From Changthang, Ladakh)
The fine quality of Pashmina fibre has a diameter between 10 and 16 microns. While Cashmere fibre can be up to 19 microns in diameter. Cashmere wool is slightly coarse and thicker, easy to weave when compared to Pashmina from the Changthang region.
Cashmere from around the world
The demand for cashmere wool is ever increasing in the markets around the world. Cashmere is one of the fabrics which has a limitation in its production. The cashmere goats shed their wool once a year. The wool from three to four cashmere goats is required to make one sweater. Cashmere wool is collected from different breeds of goats around the world. About 70% of the world cashmere comes from China and Mongolia. Cashmere production began in China in the early 2000s. More than 60 million cashmere goats were reared in various parts of China. Zhongwei breed of cashmere goats are found in the Ghasu and Ningxia regions of China, Zalaa Jinst white cashmere goat in the southwest region of Gobi Desert whereas Wuzhumuqin cashmere goats are in the inner Mongolia region.
Due to the climate in inner Mongolia, Zalaa Jinst goats also produce one of the finest cashmere wools with a diameter of fibre between 15 and 19 microns. These Cashmere products are of good quality do not reach the quality of pashmina coming from the Himalayan plateaus. The other breeds produce a length between 32 and 42 mm which is not of good quality.
Other countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey also produce cashmere. However, the wool is dark in colour and coarse to touch. Afghan cashmere fibre has a diameter of 16.5 to 17.5 microns, Iranian cashmere has 17.5 to 19 microns and Turkey's cashmere has a diameter between 16 and 17 microns. Australian feral cashmere has a fibre diameter of 16.5 to 16.9 microns. The wool obtained from the Changthangi goats is of the finest quality with a diameter between 12 and 15 microns. The fine wool is then processed, hand woven and exported from India (Ladakh, Kashmir and other regions) and Nepal in recent years. The quality of the fabric is not only dependent on the fibre diameter but also the skills of the craftsman. Traditional craftsmen from Kashmir, India have mastered the art of hand-weaving the pashmina wool into fabrics.
Traditional Pashmina herders in India
Image: Changpa pastoral family with their herd of goats and horses in Korzok. Source: Wikimedia.org
In Ladakh's northernmost part, Changthangi plateau, for centuries pastoralism has been the way of surviving in the Changthangi plateau. Herders here are called 'Changpa' or the people of the north. The nomads move with their animals, pashmina goats, sheep, and a few yaks.
According to the Changpa nomads, there are three major communities in the nomads of Changthangi, Samand, Korzok and Kharnak. Changpas used to move with their herd all year round in search of grazing land. These communities get their name from the areas they traditionally grazed in. Pastoralist had different winter and summer pastureland. Earlier, in the 16th - 17th century, there were only two groups of nomads, Kharnak and Rupshu. Kharnak got their name as they used to graze in the Kharnak valley and Rupshu grazing land consists of Samand (which is the upper part) and Korzok (the lower area).
These communities follow Buddhism and Goba was the religious and social leader. A Goba of the Rupshu was responsible for maintaining the law and order among the nomads of Rupshu. However, a powerful Goba died in the 17th century and eventually led to the division of the Rupshus' into two communities of Samand and Korzok. The reason for the split was that Samand did not want to participate in the village activities in Korzok and wanted their own grazing unit.
Today the three communities do not follow the traditional grazing routes. The Indo-Chinese conflict in 1961-62 and a strong military presence in the area has effectively forced the herders out of the Tibetan pasture lands.
The number of people of the age-old tribes following their traditional occupation is dwindling every year. The Indian government has taken certain measures to benefit the Pashmina ecosystem.
Efforts by the Indian Government for Pashmina
The role of the government is critical in the development of pashmina produce in India. To improve the Pashmina wool industry and benefit its herders, the government started the Pashmina Wool Development Scheme. The Ministry of Textiles introduced the scheme in 2012. According to government records, in 2012, about 2400 families were rearing 2.5 lakh pashmina goats in Ladakh. The livelihood of pastoralists in Changthangi completely depends on the Pashmina industry.
The development of the Pashmina Wool scheme was launched in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir State as part of the Prime Minister's Special Package. One of the objectives of the scheme was to make meaningful interventions to improve the health care and nutritional supplement given to the pashmina goats. It would eventually enhance the quantity and quality of pashmina wool produced. Another focus area was to introduce Pashmina goats in the non-traditional areas. Pashmina goats were introduced in selected areas of Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh states. The government purchased pashmina goats from Changthangi pastoralist and gave them to the herders in areas like Leh, Kargil, Upshi, and a few in Punjab, Uttarakhand among other areas.
Image: Textile Minister of India, Santosh Kumar Gangwar inaugurating centre for wool at Korzok, district Leh, 2016. Picture Source
The herders in non-traditional areas were selected by the local government authorities and Breeders’ Associations. There was a training programme for the new herders. There are provisions of fodder banks for pashmina herders. They were also given improved combs to harvest pashmina wool. By making all the efforts, the government aims to increase pashmina production by 5% annually. As of 2019, Ladakh produced about 50 million tons of the finest grade of pashmina in the world. The Ministry of Textile, India, also decided to fund dehairing plants worth Rs. 20 crores in Leh to add impetus to the pashmina industry.
Another great initiative by the Government has been in the area of defining clear standards for Pashmina and providing Geographical Indication (GI) tagging facility for Kashmiri Pashmina to ensure the authenticity of the craft and products. In 2019, Bureau of Indian standards (BIS) published an Indian Standard for identification, marking and labelling of Pashmina products to certify its purity. The intention was to curb counterfeit or substandard products which were sold as original pashmina to people. This also protects the interests of local artisans and herders. The Pashmina shawls in Kashmir can now have Geographical Indication (GI) tags issued by the Craft Development Institute (CDI). A GI tag is provided on products that have a specific geographical origin and cannot be replicated anywhere else. The government has also decided to market genuine hallmark pashmina shawls and other products. The Handloom Marketing Assistance (HMA) organizes government handloom marketing events and expos in different states to help weavers across India.
All Pashmina is Cashmere but not all Cashmere is Pashmina
Finally, to sum all this up, Pashmina is a type of cashmere, but all cashmere cannot be called pashmina. Cashmere and Pashmina both have exceptional qualities and are known as luxurious fabrics in the world today. To an untrained eye, both pashmina and cashmere fabrics appear identical. Only a connoisseur can tell the difference between the two.
Indian government pashmina wool development scheme, document
Ministry of textile, PWD guidelines of wool production
Press release, Bureau of Indian standards
Press release, Ministry of Textile, GI indicator – Pashmina Shawls
Article ‘report and short notice: Chanpa nomadic pastoralists: Differing responses to changes in Ladakh, North-west India’ by Sarah Goodall