Image 1: Dreamy Pashmina
The downy, feather light touch of Pashmina feels so luxurious on the skin. It evokes poetic thoughts in our minds. It's warm and comforting hug has been patronized by many nobles and the upper social strata. Collected in high altitude, Pashmina is the most opulent and oldest Cashmere variety. It gets better with age and inebriates you with it’s wispy softness. Pure Pashmina is a luxury in India as well as worldwide.
The word Pashmina has originated from two Persian words "Pashm" which means soft and "Mina" which means hair. Since antiquity, Pashmina wool is one of the most popular luxury goods transported to the Roman Empire by road. It became a coveted fashion accessory in the West in the late 1990s. However, since Napoleon’s time, Europeans have used the word Cashmere to describe the fiber whilst the term Pashmina has been used by weavers to describe the traditional shawl or stole that is made of pure cashmere and is draped around the shoulders by nobles or royalty. Luxurious Pashmina shawls were favorites of French Empress Joséphine, who was the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. It is also worth mentioning here that Pashmina is a finer variety of Cashmere and hence all Pashmina is Cashmere but not all Cashmere is of Pashmina quality.
The Pashmina industry soared in the 16th century during the reign of Emperor Akbar, who gave Pashmina the status of royal patronage. Pashmina shawls were once a privilege worn by kings and nobles. For centuries wealthy families in Kashmir, India, and Nepal have included fine Pashmina shawls as a part of their daughter’s dowry. In Kashmir, these shawls are not used by girls under 16. They are rather wrapped by women at weddings and other social occasions. The Kashmir valley was famous for weaving these beautiful shawls and they have been made in Kashmir and Nepal for thousands of years.
Image 2: Changthangi Goats (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Cashmere has been a priced material for centuries. It is one of the most sought-after fibers in the world. Pashmina variety Cashmere comes from the fleece of Changthangi goats (also known as Capra Hircus). These goats are found in the high altitude of the Changthang region of the Himalayas ranges. Changthang 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. It's not the outer hair of the goats, but the super soft and light undercoat especially found near the neck and the stomach area which is used for making Pashmina shawls. Every spring the goats shed their winter coat which is collected by the weavers known as Changpa, for the weaving procedure. This winter undercoat is combed to gather the fine, silky hair which is longer and high in quality. Because of the softness of the processed Pashmina garments, pure Pashmina is always referred to as Cashmere.
"Oh dear goat,
Give us some good Pashm, for the grass that you eat.
Oh dear goat,
Give us some good Pashm for the water that you drink.
Oh dear goat,
Sit down on the grass so that we can take out your Pashm . "
(Translated version of a song sung by Changpa nomads while combing out the Pashm wool from the goats)
Factors that make Pashmina Expensive.
1. Limited Production
Image 3: Changthangi Goat (also known as Changra goat)
While a sheep can provide on an average 4.5 kg of wool each year, an adult Changthangi Pashmina goat's annual yield is around 250 to 400 gm, after carding(removal of coarse hair) and cleaning only 150-200 gm of usable pashmina is obtained from an adult goat. Because of the small amount each goat produces the supply is very limited. With 150-200 gm fibre only one small Cashmere Pashmina scarf can be made.
A pure Cashmere Pashmina shawl creation requires wool of two to three goats.
2. Difficult to procure due to time-bound availability
Image 4: Pashmina dehairing plant in Leh, Ladakh. Artisans start working only after dehairing is done
The Cashmere wool comes from four different breeds of Cashmere goats indigenous to high altitudes of the Himalayan mountains and thus it's difficult to have access to it. These goats are rare and what’s even rarer is the quantity of the fiber they produce, which can be combed annually once.
In India, Pashmina fiber is combed from the Pashmina goats once a year (typically in the spring season) by the Changpa nomads in the Ladakh region. Owing to the temperature, altitude, other environmental factors, genetic traits of the goats, and special herbs and grasses that they graze on, Ladakh Pashmina particularly is known to be of the highest quality in the world and accounts for less than 0.1% of Global Cashmere production.
3. The intensive labour
The Pashmina making process is meticulous and requires several labour-intensive steps to achieve artistic results. Pashmina shawls have been woven on handlooms for centuries as the wool is too delicate for mechanical processing. Only a skilled craftsman can create wispy shawls with intricate work that gives Pashmina its glory and grace. The hair fibers are washed several times with rice starch before processing. It is considered an essential part of the process, as they lose half of the weight upon washing.
Image 6: Pashmina shawl weaving in handloom
The dirt and topcoat are removed manually from the collected hair. The fibers are then manually sorted and hand-spun before the weaving process. A single Pashmina takes months to complete. An authentic Pashmina is made with hands and can also be adorned with hand-made embroidery work. The process of producing a Pashmina shawl is more time-consuming as compared to other textiles. Kashmiri women, mostly spin and men weave the delicate yarn into soft, warm shawls and scarves. The amount of expert craftmanship involved in creating each shawl and the rarity of Cashmere wool contribute towards the high monetary value of a real Pashmina shawl.
4. The declining number of skilled craftsmen
The process of production of Pashmina scarf and shawls involves more labor and crafts people. Due to low income and poor facilities, the number of artisans like spinners, weavers and other craftsmen involved in Pashmina shawl making are on the decline. The Pashmina shawl industry has been overlooked by the government at times. This has added to the woes of the local weavers.
In current times, only 10% of usable Pashmina fibre is being handspun by Kashmiri women artisans and the remaining 90% is machine spun as very few women are left with this skill plus it is a laborious job. On average, a spinner spins around 3 gms per day on a spinning wheel and hence it takes almost 2 months of effort to spin yarn which would yield a scarf weighing 150 gm. After the yarn is ready, the weaver spends almost 3 weeks on the loom to weave a basic scarf and after this, there are several other steps involved to create a finished product.
5. Fiber Quality
Image 8: Dyed, Handspun yarn made of Pashmina fibre
Cashmere is one of the finest fibers found naturally. It is finer than a human hair strand, which is about 80 microns. Pure cashmere is eight times warmer than clothes made of sheep wool. It can absorb dyes and moisture easily. It's fine, soft, light, and five times more insulating than sheep wool.
Cashmere Pashmina fibre from Ladakh and Western Tibet is considered Grade A as the fibre diameter is below 14 microns. The lesser the diameter the better the grade. Pashmina from Mongolia, China usually has a diameter of 14 to 16 microns. In addition to diameter/fineness, the other factors which determine the fibre quality are length of the fibre and its colour. Pashmina fibre naturally comes in three colours - pristine white, brown beige, and grey. Usually fine, long, white fibre is more expensive.
6. The growing demand for Pashmina
Image 9: A lady wearing Cashmere Pashmina scarf
The global Pashmina shawl and scarves market has been rising, with many countries such as France, the USA, Oman, UAE, Hongkong, Switzerland, and Germany seeing a surge in demand. And this is also leading to fake products getting into the market.
How to recognize a real Pashmina
An authentic Pashmina is hand-made and hand-embroidered. It is a natural and pleasant material. However, with the centuries-old, rich tradition and a quality reputation, the word Pashmina sometimes leaves a lot of confusion in the consumer’s mind and many unscrupulous traders easily take advantage of that. They cheat their customers by selling cheap replicas in the name of Pashmina.
The fire test can help recognize a synthetic fiber from natural fiber but that can't help you fully determine if it's yak wool or sheep wool or Pashmina. If you burn a string of your shawl and it blazes quickly in a bright, large flame, giving off a smell of a burnt paper, its viscose. Synthetic fibers will even burst into hard little balls of fire. Pashmina burns easily without emitting flames and smells like burnt hair. An authentic Pashmina is hand-woven, soft, light, crease-resistant, and immediately warm to wear. It has a 100% cashmere label and will never be cheap. One needs to be very vigilant while purchasing to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
Geographical Indications - A hallmark for trust & genuine Kashmir Pashmina
Image 10: Geographical Indications Mark Pashmina (also known as GI Mark)
To fight counterfeit Pashmina products and protect the interests of artisans as well as consumers, the Government of India has introduced Geographical Indications mark as identification for Kashmir-made handspun and handwoven genuine Pashmina; this mark is given only by the Craft Development Institute (CDI) after product quality testing. The mark is non-imitable and non-removable. However, this mark is applicable for Pashmina made only in Kashmir (India) and doesn't apply to handspun, handwoven Pashmina which is also made in Ladakh and Uttarakhand. To know more about GI Mark, read this blog.
Next time you buy a genuine handmade Kashmir Pashmina, don’t ask for a bargain price, ask for GI Mark.