Kashmiri Pashmina Shawl

Pashmina: The Luxurious Fabric of Kashmir

Pashmina is a type of wool that is extremely fine but durable. It is extracted from a specific type of cashmere goat and processed to produce a luxurious material, used to make warm articles of clothing such as shawls, scarves, stoles and more. Pashmina could refer to both the material and the products made with the fabric. It is one of the rarest, most expensive and delicate materials in the world. It is so thin that it is compared to human hair. Pashmina happens to be 15 times finer than human hair.

Cashmere vs Pashmina. What is the difference?

There is a lot of confusion between the two and they are often used interchangeably. Many vendors sell Cashmere in the name of Pashmina, often not knowing the difference. Especially if they are sold in states other than Jammu and Kashmir and the Union Territory of Ladakh. Some vendors deceive tourists and sell knockoffs of Pashmina for profit.

Pashmina is a Persian word whereas Cashmere is simply the anglicized word for Kashmir.  However,  what I understand after extensive research is that Pashmina is a finer variety of Cashmere wool. Cashmere is available in other countries, such as China and Mongolia; obtained from their own native breeds of the Cashmere goat.

Mongolian Cashmere Goats
Mongolian Cashmere Goat Breed. Credit: GOBI Cashmere

Similarly, the Himalayan region has its own breed of the Cashmere goat, known as the Changthangi or the Pashmina goat, more commonly. Indian-administered Kashmir, Nepal and Tibet are located in this region and are home to goats. The wool obtained from this goat is finer, superior in quality and rarer than Cashmere. Pashmina is approximately 10-15 microns thick whereas common Cashmere is 15-19 microns thick.

Changthangi Goat
Changthangi Goat. Credit: Angad Creations

Though Pashmina is also produced in Nepal, the history of the fabric is what is associated more with Kashmir. As such, this post will also focus on Pashmina from Kashmir.

About Kashmir

It is a mountainous region located in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent in the Himalayan region, sharing borders with Pakistan, China, and Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Punjab.

It is known for its gorgeous landscapes, climate, culture, architecture, handicrafts, including the world-renowned Pashmina, making it a popular tourist destination for domestic travellers. It has always been a conflicted area. However, it still attracts visitors.

Jammu Kashmir
Hills at Jammu & Kashmir. Photo by Renzo D’souza on Unsplash

The people are called Kashmiris and speak many languages, including Hindi, Kashmiri, Dogri, Urdu, Pahari, Ladakhi, etc. Kashmir is home to a large population of Muslims and has a large community of Hindus and Buddhists too. The local culture, lifestyle and language change depending on where these communities live.

Earlier, when one spoke of Kashmir, they usually referred to the Kashmir Valley. Now, because of conflicts with Pakistan and China over administrational rights to Kashmir, it refers to a larger area. This area includes the Indian-administered Union Territories of Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir; Pakistan occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin, part of Ladakh under Chinese administration.

Kashmir mentioned in the post refers to the Indian-administered part of Kashmir.

Brief History of Pashmina

The Persian Sufi saint Mir Syed Ali Hamdani discovered Pashmina in Ladakh in the 14th century. He observed that the wool was extremely light yet it provided warmth, even in the harsh climate of Ladakh. He realized the value of the material and ordered the production of socks using wool. This was then gifted to the local ruler, Sultan Qutubuddin. He was incredibly content and invited Persian craftsmen to the region to work with the newly discovered material. The Sufi saint then suggested shawls be produced with it, as shawls were and still are used to wrap around the shoulders for protection against cold weather.

Due to the Persian influence, the material was called Pashm, meaning wool in Persian. Furthermore, the patterns on the weaved products are detailed and contain floral motifs. This is a classic Persian design.

In the 18th century, Napoléon, during his Egyptian campaign, encountered a person owning a Pashmina shawl from Kashmir. He was so fascinated by it that he gifted one to his wife, Empress Joséphine. She instantly loved it and began collecting more, notably Kani shawls. Being a fashion icon in France at the time, she inspired other nobles to get a hold of this luxurious material.

Demand increased and to maintain supply, Napoléon approved European manufacturers to produce it in France. However, unable to source real Pashmina wool, they began producing replicas with inferior materials such as sheep wool or with wool from other breeds of Cashmere goats from Northern and Central Asia.

As the product was associated with Kashmir, the Europeans soon anglicized to Cashmere and started calling the imitations Cashmere too. At the time, it was a sign of wealth and status and was a popular item to gift to important people.

Natural Habitat of the Changthangi Goats

Ladakh is located on the northeastern side of Indian-administered Kashmir, just below the Trans-Himalayan range. It is sparsely populated by Tibetan Buddhists and nomadic people.

The Changthangi goats are herded by the nomadic people and are found in that region. The goats grow 2 layers of fleece, a coarser outercoat and a dense but soft fine fibrous undercoat. This is because they have minimal body fat for insulation. Therefore, their coats protect them from the harsh winter, where temperatures can drop between -20 to -40 degrees Celsius. Just before summer, the coat is shed off and thus, collected by the herders to produce raw Pashmina wool.

The climate of Kashmir varies from subtropical in the lowlands to alpine at higher altitudes. Ladakh is located at a higher altitude, 3000 metres above sea level, thus, experiencing an alpine climate, especially during the winter.

The even higher areas of Ladakh are dry, with practically no rainfall. The goats graze on sparse vegetation that is rich in nutrients and minerals as narrow streams from the mountains irrigate the land. These make up the ideal conditions for the goats to thrive in.

Sourcing Pashmina

Pashmina is made of wool extracted from the underlayer of the Changthangi goat. As mentioned earlier, the goat grows 2 layers of fleece. Pashmina wool is extracted from the inner layer of the coat, under the coarse guard hairs. Traditionally, the shorter and finer fibres of the undercoat from the belly or neck area were considered Pashmina.

The goats naturally shed their coats during late spring or early summer. That is when the herders comb out the loose hair, extracting Pashmina. If they don’t wait till they shed naturally, combing or brushing puts the goats under a lot of stress and pain. Pashmina is so delicate that using mechanical shears would tear the fibres. Therefore, the coats are brushed by hand. Though more taxing and time-consuming, it is a less cruel method of handling the animal and maintaining the structure of the fibres.

Pashmina Comb
Combs used to collect the fibres from the goats. Credit: House of Nimo

Do note that the goats are not killed in the process of harvesting wool.

The Changpa people, or the nomadic people of Ladakh, collect the wool then sell it to middlemen who in turn sell the raw wool to craftsmen and women in the Kashmir Valley.

Making Pashmina

To make Pashmina, the knowledge and mastery of generational craftsmanship are required. It is often made by families involved in the handicraft sector for generations and whose traditional professions are making Pashmina garments. Most processing and weaving units are located in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu & Kashmir.

Each family member is responsible for one step of manufacturing.

Cashmere fibres are hand combed by herders in spring or summer. If they use shears, the material would tear and can no longer be spun into yarn. The local women first segregated them based on their quality and colour. Then they remove impurities and any and hairs stuck to the soft material and separate the fibres, traditionally combed by hand, more recently, with machines.

Raw Pashmina Wool
Raw Pashmina wool is ready to be turned into yarn. Credit: The Textile School

The raw fibres are then “glued” by either dipping them in rice water and letting them dry or by adding pounded rice in powder form and left for a day or two. The rice is then combed out or rinsed to remove traces of rice. The starch from the rice adds strength to the fibres, making them more durable.

This wool then reaches processing and weaving units in Srinagar and it is first, spun into yarn by expert craftswomen.
A spinning wheel or a charkha wheel is used for this and the yarn is collected in a spindle-like object. This process is done with a lot of care as to not tear the fibres. It requires patience and years of expertise.

The yarn is then washed again in starch water. At this point, the fabric can be left as is, retaining its natural white or brown colour or they can be dyed. The rangur, or the person who dyes the fabric, uses natural dyes and boils the fabric with the dye in copper pots over a wood-fire. Then, they are dried and are ready for the next step.

The yarn is then coiled around another wheel called the Pritz to form manageable bundles of yarn.

Pritz
Image of a Pritz. Credit: Kashmir Loom

From there, the yarn is then prepared for weaving by the Bharanguror, who prepares the warp and weft. Warp is the longitudinal yarn while the weft is the transverse yarn. These are dressed around a traditional wooden handloom. Then, the garments are weaved by the weaver. The purzgar fixes any strand pieces of fibre or damages damage while weaving and, finally, andgour makes the fringes on the shawls.

The weaving process is traditionally done by men.

Later, intricate patterns are either embroidered or block printed. The motifs are extremely traditional and passed on to future generations. New designs are made but the traditional ones are more valued for their heritage. Depending on the type of technique to design the clothing, it could take up to months or even years to finish the artwork.

Kani art is a design technique used to decorate Pashmina shawls. It is in high demand all over the world. Floral designs are woven using around 150 wooden sticks the size of a pencil. These sticks are called Kani, hence Kani art. The sticks have different coloured Pashmina yarn coiled around them and are used to draw thread during the weaving process. This technique is extremely precise and detailed. They could easily take over 6 months to make.

Kani technique
Kani Shawls made with Kani sticks. The dyed yarn is coiled around the sticks. Credit: Kashmir Box

The final step is to wash the garment in a river flowing directly from the mountains in the region. The minerals deposited in the riverbed dissolved in the water, adding lustre to the clothing.

They are then dried, and streamed pressed into a roller, after which they are ready to be sold to the markets.

Impact of Pashmina Processing on People and the Economy

People

According to custom, only Kashmiri women have the expertise to spin wool into yarn as their delicate hands would be perfect to maintain the structural integrity of the Pashmina. This is an ancient skill passed on from one generation to the other and is a well-respected profession in Kashmiri society. A form of empowerment to women in a patriarchal society and a society where it is highly militarized due to border-conflicts.

Economy

Wool is a major commodity in Ladakh. The goat wool is more profitable locally, called Lena. Lena was and still is mostly exported to Srinagar, in the Kashmir Valley, either directly from Ladakh or sometimes, indirectly. If the supply of goat fibres is limited in Ladakh, wool would be imported from smaller towns and areas close to Ladakh, which would then be exported to Kashmir. These transactions would help vendors in more remote areas generate income too.

Tourism

Tourism is an important source of revenue and generator of employment in Kashmir. Tourists love going there to participate in adventure sports in the mountains, to get away from the hotter climates of other Indian states, to enjoy the scenery and for its cultural heritage.

Tourists usually spend hefty amounts on handicraft items, which include Pashmina. However, the handicraft and the tourism industry are vulnerable due to cross-border terrorism and militarization in the area and are the worst affected as conflicts hamper their production.

The fear of a sudden conflict often discourages many tourists from visiting. However, many return to the area, once relatively peaceful. This is because the demand for Kashmir as a destination is high and because it has plenty of tourist products to offer.

It is best to check travel guidelines provided by your country prior to visiting Kashmir.

Cultural Identification

Pashmina is a certified Geographic Indication product of Kashmir under Handicraft goods, having been certified in 2008.

This guarantees that the products are of high quality, handmade and originating from Kashmir. It also establishes the fact that the Pashmina products are originally from Kashmir and that means that only products from certified producers will be considered authentic.

Additionally, it attempts to help support the livelihood of local artisans, ensuring they directly profit from the sales.

To be certified, the Pashmina fabric must be from Ladakh and less than 16 microns thick. It must be processed by hand and woven using traditional handlooms. A label designed by the Crafts Development Institute, the Tahafuz society of handicraft artists, and the Government of India.

GI label
Geographic Indication Label. Credit: KashmirPashminagi

Mechanical Production Techniques and Knock-offs

High demand and limited supply have forced the production of counterfeit Pashmina and production using mechanical looms, which are equally gorgeous and consistent but lack soul.

The material is easy to mix with other materials, often done to make fabrics lighter and soft. It is often mixed with wool or silk to achieve specific characteristics or to lower the price of Pashmina products. These are sold as knock-off Pashmina in many shops, taking advantage of the lack of knowledge of visitors.

Identifying True Pashmina

Real Pashmina is expensive, costing around an average of USD250 for shawls, but this will depend on the vendor and platform used to sell the products. Assuming it is real Pashmina because of higher prices, it is not the best way to identify authenticity. Hence, you may also look out for shine. Pashmina is not as lustrous as often described; it is a more matte shine than a bright shine. If it does shine bright, it is because a certain percentage of silk is mixed with it. Moreover, if you find any stickers glued to the shawls, it indicates that it is not real Pashmina. Any labels on Pashmina are usually stitched as they cannot support common adhesives.

Iconic places to see in Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh

Leh, Ladakh: Capital of Ladakh Union Territory, popular for its scenic beauty, Changthangi goats, rugged mountainous roads, adventure sports and Tibetan Buddhist culture.

Shalimar Bagh Mughal Garden, Srinagar: a beautiful garden built by the Mughals in the early 17th century.

Dal Lake, Srinagar: Stay in a houseboat on the lake or opt to go for a boat ride. Find the floating market, where vendors sell vegetables on boats floating on the lake.

Dal Lake
Houseboats on Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir Valley. Photo by Raisa Nastukova on Unsplash

Places to visit relating to Kashmiri handicrafts

JK Government Emporium, Srinagar: Find authentic Pashmina shawls at fixed rates here.

Craft Development Institute, Srinagar:  Responsible body to certify Pashmina as GI products. It is also responsible for the education of traditional art forms and for facilitating the exchange of ideas and knowledge in the domain. It holds various workshops and offers courses to teach the public about Kashmiri handicrafts. Click here here for updates on events hosted by them.

Kanihama, Budgam: District famous for Kani work

Ganderbal District: A small district known for its scenic landscape and for weaving Pashmina.

Honourable Mentions

As much as I would recommend you to personally visit Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, to enjoy the scenery, appreciate the rich culture and art forms of the region, travel restrictions due to cross-border conflicts may not render it possible in the present situation. However, if you are interested in purchasing authentic Pashmina from the comfort of your home, here are 2 websites that I would recommend:

Kashmir Treasuries: Sells Kashmiri handicraft items made in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir. The owner, Ijjaz Ahmed of this site guarantees the authenticity and high quality of the products. Click here to visit the online shop.

Kashmir Box: Sells traditional Kashmiri handicrafts and food items. It started with the aim of improving the standard of living of local Kashmiri artisans by making them available to a larger audience and by promoting Kashmiri culture and heritage. Click here to visit the online shop.

To sum up, Pashmina is an incredibly valuable material integrated with Kashmiri culture and identity. The efforts of the skilled artists behind the detailed yet stunning works on Pashmina are impossible to compare with anything. Though it can be compared to a piece of yarn holding the weave together, as that is the role of the handicrafts industry supporting Kashmir in spite of the continuous regional conflicts.

Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts on this post in the comments below. Click here for more articles like this.

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