Pashmina (also known as " Cashmere Pashmina") is one of the finest fabrics in the world. It was once popular mainly among royalty and affluent segments of the society. The fabric is renowned in the world as one of the luxury products. The knowledge of weaving a Pashmina by hand is passed down for centuries in Kashmir, India. Pashmina fabric (especially shawls) has timeless grace and this traditional handwoven craft requires the finest craftsmanship.
The word Pashmina originates from the Persian word ‘Pashm’, which means wool. Pashmina is made from one of the softest animal fibres used in the textile industry. It is unbelievably delicate and warm at the same time and has inspired folklores like; a Pashmina cloth is warm enough to hatch an egg. Pashmina fabric is one of a kind as it is made from goat wool and not sheep. The wool is obtained from the undercoat of a specific breed of goats found in the high altitude of the Changthang region of the Himalaya ranges. Changthang is in the region is in eastern Ladakh, newly formed Union territory in India, and an extension of the Tibetan Plateau to the west. Often referred to as the rooftop of the world, Changthang is an altitude of about 4600 m above sea level. It has harsh climatic conditions with the temperature dropping to – 40º celsius.
The Journey from Pashmina to Cashmere
Since 1st century CE, soft Pashmina shawls from Kashmir were famous in the courts of Roman Caesars. Pashmina shawls were woven in Kashmir for centuries, but it was only in the 15th century that Pashmina fabric for shawls gained popularity. During that time, Kashmiri Emperor Zain-ul-Abidin ascended the throne and founded the weaving industry in Kashmir. He encouraged weavers to try new techniques. During this time, exquisite floral, faunal, and geometric designs started appearing on the plain shawls.
By the 16th century, the Mughal Empire flourished in India and so did the Pashmina shawl industry in Kashmir. King Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, started giving Khilat (robes of honor, made with expensive fabrics) to his allies, governors, and officers to acknowledge their great service. The Khilat typically included turban, shirt, coat, shawls, scarves, with at least one piece made of Pashmina with gold embroidery. Sometimes all the clothes were made of Pashmina. It had become a craze among the nobility of India to own a fine pashmina fabric. It was considered a symbol of prestige. Due to the patronage given by kings, the Pashmina shawl weaving reached its artistic excellence. Intricate embroidery started appearing on the plain Pashmina shawls. The slow and laborious process of weaving and embroidering a pashmina shawl to perfection took months and sometimes even years. It is estimated that the shawl industry in Kashmir during its booming days had 40,000 people working.
By the 18th century, the Pashmina shawls had completely taken over the European markets and the French fashion industry. It began when a governor of Kashmir sent an orange-colored Pashmina shawl to a noble in Iran. After exchanging many hands, it finally reached the French Emperor Napolean Bonaparte during his Egyptian campaign. Napoleon passed it on to his beloved Joséphine. She initially thought of it as an ugly piece of cloth. However, after wearing she was extremely impressed by the delicate yet warm fabric. It is said that she owned 300 - 400 Pashmina shawls; and spent over 20,000 gold francs on them.
The Pashmina shawl first appeared in a French fashion magazine in 1790 and soon gained importance as a fashion icon in Paris. Empress Josephine is credited with the popularity of Pashmina shawls in Europe. Although these shawls came to be worn exclusively by women, they were originally worn exclusively by men in Indian practice. It is interesting to note that Kashmiri shawls were being copied in Europe. Europeans named the fabric after the land it came from Cashmere (Kashmir). The fondness of Pashmina was as such that there was a clause (in 1846) stating that the princely state of Kashmir (under the British government) must annually send three Pashmina shawls to Queen Victoria.
As the popularity of Pashmina increased in Europe so did the imitations and cheap replicas. Numerous efforts were made by the British to develop the raw material of pashmina, including the transport of the Changthangi goats to England and using substitute raw materials like Australian Merino wool and silk. However, they couldn't achieve the same finesse as a Pashmina shawl.
The hand-woven shawls were copied on the machine in Paisley, Scotland. The shawls were no match to the original but were cheaper and gained popularity in Europe. So much that people started asking for the imitation shawls rather than the original. The common Indian tear-drop design on the Pashmina shawls hence came to be known as Paisley (after the place it was manufactured).
Pashmina Goats and their herders
The Changthangi goats are found in Changthang Plateau and are raised by Changpa nomadic pastoralists. Changthang is located at an altitude of 4,500 meters above sea level; the high altitude and extreme climatic conditions do not allow any agricultural produce to grow in the area. The nomadic community of the Changthangi region depends on the Pashmina goats, sheep, and a few yaks for their survival. Rearing these animals is the only way of surviving in the high elevation mountain ranges and is the traditional occupation of the Changpa community. Long and harsh winters make living conditions even more difficult. Changpas never settle in one place as they keep moving in search of pasture land for their animals.
Untouched by the hustles of cities, in the Changpa community, the wealth is defined by the number of animals they own. Every family would own at least 80-100 animals, while some even herd more than 300 animals. They usually have an equal number of goats and sheep and 5-10 yaks. Changpas take their goats out for grazing across difficult stretches of open land in Changthang. The day's grazing lasts for about 6-8 hours, depending on the availability of grass. Changpa people hold goats in high regard and consider them a symbol of economic prosperity.
In winters, the goats develop thick, furry undercoats that keep them warm. During the Spring season, the thick furry undercoats are combed to get Pashmina fibre. Getting Pashmina fibre from the goats does not involve animal harm or killing. Changpas comb goats to get naturally shed hair. It is the wool from the inner part of the neck which is used to make Pashmina. The wool of the Changthangi goat is par excellence. One goat can give about 300 grams of raw pashmina wool in a year. The wool from three goats is required to weave one Pashmina shawl.
After combing, the raw wool is dusted by hand to remove impurities like sand, dust, etc. There are in all several stages, starting from collecting the wool to weaving it into the finished Pashmina fabric.
The weavers buy this raw wool to convert it into a fabric (usually shawls).They remove the impurities like sand and dust and clean the grubby raw fibers. Then it is combed and segregated according to the fineness.
The best quality yarn is made using the longer, finer pashmina fiber. The raw wool is then hand-spun into yarn. Different regions have different traditions of spinning this wool. In Kashmir, the spinning is done on a wooden wheel locally called "Yender". Whereas in Ladakh, the spinning is done using a Phang, a whorl less, supported spindle carved from willow wood. The Phang is supported in the Phang-kor, a cup made from apricot seed pulp, or a large metal spoon while spinning. Traditionally it was a women's work to acquire the skill of spinning wool. Hand-spinning of yarn is slowly bowing down to the power looms. The traditional spinning wheels are competing with time and cost-effective spinning machines.
Image: Pashmina Yarn; ready to go to the loom.
The yarn is then set up on wooden looms and weaved into Pashmina fabric using ancestral techniques. One of the most popular woven patterns, and for making the finest shawls, is the diamond pattern. The wool used is naturally of beige brown or cream white colour. After the Pashmina fabric is woven, it is hand-dyed. The luxurious Pashmina shawls in solid colours are ready. Though the Pashmina shawls and scarves are the most famous products. Pashmina fabric (for centuries) is also used for making different products like blankets, gloves, hats, outer coats, and more.
For Shawl making, the next optional step is adorning it with generations-old needlework. A shawl can also be woven in different colours, with patterned stripes, squares, or arabesques directly inserted into the frame. This is a long, meticulous work done with exquisite craftsmanship. Different types of embroidery styles such as Sozni embroidery, Aari embroidery, Kantha embroidery are then done by master craftsmen to turn a shawl into a piece of art.
The craft of weaving pashmina thrived in Kashmir for centuries but in the present time, there are also other important centres for Pashmina weaving. Basholi in Kathua District of Jammu was on the ancient route of merchants travelling from Tibet and it developed as a hub of weaving. In 1955 the State Handloom Corporation started a small project for pashmina weaving in Basholi with about 500 spinners to revive the old traditions. Weaving is one of the traditional crafts of the Bhotiya community in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh. Every year, the nomadic Bhotiya weavers, mostly women, spend the winter months weaving their clothes while in summers they take up other occupations such as farming. The pashmina shawls made in Munsyari, Uttarakhand by Bhotiya weavers are widely acclaimed. Munsyari produces some of the finest Pashmina in the world. Pashmina is also woven in Ladakh has a different texture as the spindle used is different. Ladakhi Pashmina is slightly thicker than the Kashmiri Pashmina, but it does not miss to lose its charm.
A hand-crafted Pashmina is an epitome of artistic excellence. Though it has a humble beginning in the nomadic hills of Changthang, it has made its way to the narrow alleys of Indian markets as well as in the luxury stores across the world.