Cashmere from Kashmir

November 18, 2007


Ivory Jamavar and Black Pashmina with gold thread embroidery

It is late fall. Can pashmina be far behind? Nothing like a warm soft shawl though women seem to really enjoy the feeling more than men. Hmm. As you enjoy your shawls, may I share something with you? 

The other day, perusing one of the most well known newsmagazines in the country I saw yet another full-page advertisement for so-called pashmina shawls. Tall columns of rainbow colors, red, blue, green, yellow, orange, going all the way from pale to vibrant hues in a seemingly endless supply. The price, $19.99, brought a smug smile to my face. The must-have fashion accessory had fallen all the way from $150 (and above) to under twenty dollars, so there was something called divine justice after all!  

I should explain my reaction to the advertisement. I am from Kashmir, the Himalayan valley in the northmost part of India, acknowledged by many to be the birthplace of the shawl industry. For us pashmina is almost a sacred word; it is currency, it is equivalent to gold.  In a region where winter is serious enough to have three seasons of its own, wool is critical survival kit, and pashmina, the warmest, softest, lightest wool known to man is the textile of choice if you can afford it. 

Traditionally handspun and hand woven, pashmina was incarnated by 19th century Scotland as cashmere, a superior machine made wool which the world immediately took to its bosom. The pseudo pashmina advertised by the above mentioned magazine was not even a distant relation of cashmere, or real pashmina, whose rarity, value, and consequently price, has only increased with time.

Kashmiri pashmina wool is made from the silky winter undercoat of the capra hircus, a mountain goat that lives 12000 feet above sea level. It is a measure of how warm the under fleece is that, come bone chilling Himalayan springtime, the goats are too warm because of it and cool off by rubbing their bodies against brush and rock. The fluffy products of this molting season, assiduously collected from Ladakh and Tibet, have gone to the valley of Kashmir since antiquity. For reasons no one has been quite able to understand the art of spinning and weaving this gossamer fragile wool has flourished only in Kashmir, particularly in the hands of its women. Unsuccessful attempts in other parts of the world testify to this fact.  The French tried to start their own pashmina industry, initially by importing capra hircus in numbers. When the beasts perished they brought home pashmina wool and when no one could make head or tail of that they considered importing Kashmiris, but had to give up in the end. They might have got the women and the wool but they could not transport the climate, nor the waters, nor the rice fields of Kashmir, all of which are integral to processing pashmina. Almost every Kashmiri household had a spindle, rather like knitting needles in Ireland; pashmina was and is a cottage industry. My grandmothers and great grandmothers also spun their own pashmina, if only to ensure the superiority of the skein. Kashmiri poetry and language is replete with symbols and metaphors from the pashmina trade. In The Tiger Ladies- A Memoir of Kashmir(Beacon Press 2003) I have gone into some detail about the cultural and sentimental importance of pashmina for Kashmiris. 

Around the fifteenth century master craftsmen in Kashmir started weaving small lengths of kani or twill tapestry from pashmina using wooden spools or bobbins called tujji in Kashmiri; I have often wondered if this is not the source of the English word toggle. Pieces of painstakingly produced kani were then stitched together for grand Jamas or dresses (hence the popular name jamavar for the antique fabric) so artfully that none but the trained eye could see the joinery or rafu as it is called. The beauty of the tapestry lay equally in the inimitable weave and the trompe l’oeil seams which united separately woven tapestries into one stunning whole. The process took so much time and craftsmanship that only the nobility could afford it. Incidentally, today rafu is the word used for darning which is still done so subtly in Kashmir that it boggles the mind. Even as a child I learned and executed, albeit crudely, basic rafu, it was considered an essential skill and all of us learned it. By the 17th century Kani shawls were prized as garments and gifts by the Mughal court.  When Kashmir became a part of the Sikh empire, a kani shawl became a de riguer dress item for Sikh royalty and then at courts all over India; Kashmiri weavers were moved or migrated to the northwest of India in or around the Punjab to cater to the demand. By the 19th century, thanks perhaps to French travelers or via the Egypt campaign, Napoleon was presented with a Cashmere Shawl, which he is said to have presented to Empress Josephine, and voila! pashmina became an international fashion icon.

But it was only when Gros painted the Empress Josephine wearing her stunning gift that it rocketed to stardom; overnight everyone who was anyone in Europe had to have one. Portraitures and wedding trousseaus for European aristocracy began to be considered incomplete without the now ubiquitous Cashmere shawl. David, Ingres and others also began to feature the visually unrivalled weave prominently in their art, soon Cashmere shawls became the ultimate status symbol. No wonder then that demand far outstripped the supply of what was essentially wearable art which artisans took months to create. When the fashion filtered down to the middle class, the market grew exponentially, demand outstripped supply to the extent that it spun off affordable French imitations. Britain, most notably the Scottish village of Paisley, now associated indelibly with the motif better known in the east as an almond or a mango, followed suit. With the evolution of the Jacquard loom in France, kani shawls coveted for the artfulness of the joinery, were replicated in entirety as one piece. Machines churned out thousands of imitations in a fraction of the time it took the weavers in Kashmir to put together even one kani shawl.  

Whilst the weavers in Europe experienced renaissance and prosperity, the shawl makers of Kashmir collapsed. Not surprising, considering that far from being treated as a heritage the weavers were were paid a pittance, most of it in food grains. As if this was not bad enough crushing taxes made terminal debtors of artisans; it was not long before the entire industry was consumed by this vicious circle. The decline of the shawl as a fashion accessory in Europe rang the final knell for the art of jamavar and it was lost, never to be revived in its glory. 

The weavers took their art with them, no meaningful guides or archives of kani techniques survived and no one has been able to make anything remotely as breathtaking as the antiques that are extant today. The Government of Jammu and Kashmir is trying to revive twill tapestry in the villages of Kanihama, but even the uninitiated can tell from a distance that it just is not the same thing. In one square inch the detail of a motif in an antique kani weave is about twenty times more intricate. 

In a final irony, a nineteenth century European compliment has been returned in kind by India today. Factory looms in the Punjab churn out affordable stunning replicas of antique Parisian or Scottish jacquard loom imitations, bringing the wheel full circle. These present day imitations of imitations (some “created” by famous haute couture designers) are touted by sellers on and offline as antique jamavars or antique pashminas, without the clarification that they are modern day mill made copies, made of merino wool and or silk.

So much for jamavar.

On the other hand the pashmina shawl, plain and embroidered, endured, and is alive and well today, mainly because it is less time consuming in production and unlike tapestry does not require master designers/weavers. Handspinning and handweaving impossibly soft wool has always been a part of Kashmiri households, those who could afford it and those who earned their bread from it. 

However, I fear that real pashmina is in danger of being wiped out as well. Fooled by retailers falsely and nonchalantly calling wool and silk blends “100% pure pashmina” women buy pseudo pashmina as the real thing. This is akin to buying brass as gold. Pseudo-pashmina is made by blending wool with silk to make a soft textile, but of course it is not pashmina. Fortunately one thing that no disinformation can alter is the truth; wearing real pashmina will immediately remove or confirm doubts about what you own. As far as warmth and lightness is concerned there is no contest. The minute you put on a real pashmina shawl you will know it. Unfortunately very few people around the world have had the good fortune to experience real pashmina and this has been taken advantage of by unscrupulous businesses.

Price is a good indicator, you get what you pay for; a real plain pashmina shawl costs about $200 even in Kashmir depending on the quality, it can under no circumstances sell for $19.99. At the height of the craze I found stores who shall remain nameless selling pseudo pashmina for twice the price of what the genuine article would cost in India. That has definitely got to be a first in textile history.    The astronomical mark up of pseudo pashmina has arguably made millions for stores who could not care less about authenticity; why bother with the real thing if you can sell a fake for as much or more money? When Scottish mills manufactured cashmere by the yard and by the minute the trade labelled the fabric “cashmere” even though it came very close to pashmina in weight and warmth, They did not pass it off as Kashmiri pashmina. No such scruples exist today, and no law exists to prevent textile forgery, particularly when only a handful of people really care about this issue.  

Retailers prefer pseudo pashmina because warehousing pashmina is not easy. The 17th century traveler and writer Bernier informed Europe, after gushing over his first encounter with pashmina, it is a pity that it is so susceptible to worms, i.e., moths. In Kashmir we lovingly used bitter herbs and flowers indigenous to the valley, and though cedar flakes or moth repellent work fine it is still too much trouble for the mass market. But it is worth the trouble, as generations of connoiseurs addicted to real pashmina have proven.

This is a free country and you can do as you please, wear what you like but caveat emptor.  Please enjoy your shawls, pashmina or pashmina-like, buy as many of them as you can, India has always been the home of textiles that have been taken to heart by the world. My only quibble is, please do not call pseudo- pashmina Real 100% Pashmina; it hurts my Kashmiri sensibilities. After you buy a pashmina for nineteen dollars, look up the definition of pashmina in the Encylcopaedia Brittanica. You will find that though enveloped by a luxurious fabric, it does not resemble pashmina even in a minor way. Have a look at the catalogs that sell pashmina in the millions. There simply are not that many mountain goats. 

I fear the day is near when, in the face of world wide demand the purity of pashmina even in Kashmir may be more a matter of faith than reality, and history may repeat itself. Handspun and handwoven real pashmina may die becasue of quickie pseudo pashmina shawls, just as European looms killed the kani industry.  

Meanwhile, self appointed crusaders like myself can only try to tell the story of real pashmina. And, now that the word pashmina has become part of international lexicon, we in Kashmir may have to find another name for the real thing. 

How about Cashmere from Kashmir?

2 Responses to “Cashmere from Kashmir”

  1. memsaab Says:

    Lovely article 🙂 Thanks!

  2. ghaiman Says:

    Very nice article,may i ask you a Q please??

    i have been looking for that “Black Pashmina with gold thread embroidery” for long time and i couldn’t find where to buy it..would you please tell me where can i buy the same one from??

    please if you can help reply to

    thank you in advance

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