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Pashmina: Soft gold of Himalayas

Pashmina is a kind of fine cashmere wool known for its softness, warmth, and durability. It is obtained from the undercoat of the Himalayan goat, also known as the Changthangi or Pashmina goat, which lives at high altitudes in Nepal, India, and Pakistan. Pashmina is derived from the Persian word pashm, which means “wool“.

Pashmina is a luxurious fabric that demands painstaking artistry and talent to create. This finely crafted and buttery soft woolen fabric is sometimes considered the symbol of timelessness, meticulous craftsmanship, and cultural aristocracy. From heirlooms to luxury attires, this fabric is often found in a part of the luxury wedding trousseau.

Figure: Pashmina; a symbol of aristocracy Source: Times of India

An ancient story of the craftsmanship

The name of Mir Sayed Ali Hamdani was found in ancient history he was a sage from the Middle East, who came to Kashmir with 700 craftsmanship to adorn the Kashmiri beauty and spread holy messages. While traveling Changthangi mountains in Ladakh, he was awestruck by the amazing wool of the goats for its fineness. He made a pair of socks from the wool to give to the Kashmir’s Sultan then. Thus the practice of this craftsmanship commenced from there which reigned in Kashmir since 13th century.

After years, the people of the craftsmanship got scattered around the world including Armenian merchants and European aristocrats and this legacy proved itself. For centuries, Europe was the largest owner of Pashmina accessories. French empress Josephine owned more than 400 Kani Shawls from Kashmir to supplicate her beauty with luxury. The Mughals from India had a great affinity with the Craft. Emperor Akbar had such a fondness for the Pashmina shawl that he gave it an admirable nickname, “parm-narm” meaning “supremely soft”.

Extracting the art of legacy from the Valley

The original pashmina wool is extracted from Changra goats, a rare breed of goats living below zero temperature in the valley. They develop thick wool on their bodies to combat the harsh winter. When summer comes, these goats shed off the thick wool against rocks and trees due to the heat in the air. Also manually combed out by the herders. The herders of the Changpa tribe manually combed out the wool. The wool is called ‘Cashmere Wool’. Then the wool is taken for the next procedure.

The first step is cleaning the Cashmere wool. There is a thorough cleaning of the wool to get all sorts of dirt out. After the process of cleaning, the next step is the procedure of Spinning. The womenfolk of the valley mainly spin Cashmere wool. The process is done on the wooden wheel/charkha called tinder in the local language. Here, the finest types of yarns are produced.

Figure: Goats from Chanthangi Valley at Leh Ladakh Source:

The spun Cashmere yarn is taken to the local workshops/karkhanas to move ahead in the Pashmina Art. The next process is the weaving process. The weaving is the conversion of Cashmere yarn to fine Cashmere fabric. Traditionally, spinning and weaving were done by hand, today fast looms are replacing that place. The intricate warps and wefts create the beautiful woven Cashmere fabric. Therefore, the most common pattern in weave is Chashm_e_Bulbul or the diamond weave. The weave is exclusively a masterpiece in itself.

The magic behind the aristocracy of weaving

Pashmina weaving is a complex and labor-intensive technique that involves numerous phases, each requiring a significant amount of talent and devotion. From harvesting the Changthangi goats’ fleece to the final delicate stitching, the entire route takes an incredible amount of man-hours.

The first stage is combing the fleece from the whole Changthangi goat herd over a few months. This fleece, which consists of fine fibers, filth, coarse outer hair, and other organic components like perspiration and dandruff, is meticulously separated. Hand detailing the Pashm fiber is very time-consuming, with 50 grams requiring up to 8 hours to separate. After cleaning, natural oils and impurities are removed from the Pashm wool, which is then straightened. The spinning method uses a spinning wheel to turn Pashm into Pashmina yarn. The spun yarn is doubled, twisted again using the spinning wheel and wrapped on a big reel. These reels, with the coiled yarn, are used to make hanks from wooden blocks with huge dowels embedded in them. The hanks are then sent to the weavers.

Figure: Weaving of pashminas Source: Fashion stories

Weavers lay the warp with continuous strands of yarn. After determining the appropriate number of warp threads, they are raised, spread, and smoothed before being fitted to the warp beam. Each of these procedures necessitates the skills of professional artisans since any error might affect the final product’s fineness and delicate feel. The attention and accuracy required in each stage of Pashmina weaving help to create these stunning, sumptuous shawls.

This process unfolds across 12-15 stages, commencing with the collection of Pashm fiber and culminating in the creation of hand-woven Pashmina shawls. Once the Cashmere fabric is woven, it undergoes the delicate art of hand-dyeing. Subsequently, skilled embroiderers employ their expertise to elevate the plain shawl into a mesmerizing piece of delicate beauty, captivating all who behold it. It is the adeptness of craftsmen in these specific stages that imparts superior quality to hand-woven Pashmina shawls.

The best grade yarn is made from longer and finer Pashm fibers, with a desired fiber length of more than 5 cm for hand-spinning Pashm into Pashmina yarns. Yarn spun from longer strands is less prone to pilling, making it very desirable for weaving elegant Pashmina fabrics. Skilled artisans pay great attention to every stage of the process, resulting in Pashmina shawls known for their extraordinary quality and timeless elegance. Delve further into Pashmina’s creativity and workmanship, as well as its significance in the luxury textile industry.

Why does a shawl require wool from 3 goats?

The extraction of the highest-grade Pashmina fiber typically yields approximately 35% of the total wool weight. For instance, if a goat produces 100 grams of pashm wool, only 35 grams of it can be utilized for spinning the exceptionally fine-quality yarn.

The shorter fibers, constituting roughly 50% of the total weight of the original wool, are categorized as second quality. These shorter fibers are employed in spinning slightly coarser yarns, which are subsequently dyed and utilized in the creation of intricate patterns on the shawls. This meticulous utilization of different fiber qualities contributes to the diverse textures and patterns found in exquisite Pashmina shawls.

Investing in design, adding contemporary touch to traditional designs, and incorporating motifs that resonate with today’s generation is the way to push pashmina ahead as a craft. The process of making a GI pashmina shawl is local, slow, and sustainable – it’s a luxury.

Varun Kumar

Pashmina’s most exquisite embroideries

Pashmina, known for its beautiful embroidery, has a variety of decorations that add to its elegance and value. Sozni stitching is the defining art of Kashmir and Pashmina, with other prominent embroideries including Tilla, Papier Mache, and Kantha.

  1. Sozni Embroidery: To make complex floral or paisley designs on Pashmina shawls and stoles, fine needles, silk threads, or a “staple” yarn is used. It takes two to three years to make a single shawl, therefore patience and hard labor are required.
  2. Papier Mache Embroidery: Shares techniques with Sozni, using thicker and brighter threads. Satin threads form bright motifs, which can be outlined with black thread to provide a protruding effect.
  3. Tilla Embroidery: Involves golden thread (Tilla) to embroider paisleys and florets along the borders of a Pashmina shawl. Creates a luxurious and regal appearance, resembling a precious jewel. The process is executed with needles as thin as size 28.
  4. Kalamkari Embroidery: Originates from Najibabadi craftsmen and rafoogars, imitating antique woven designs of do-rukha Kashmir Jamawar shawls from the 1860s. Combines hand-painted art with innovative decoration, outlining beautiful floral patterns on Pashminas.

I feel the responsibility to find and sell authentic products lies with the independent and big labels. Every pashmina shawl, kani shawl, or shawl with sozni, tilla, or kalamkari embroidery takes months and in some cases years to make by hand, so it is important to buy from the right source and look for certified products.

Apart from shawls and wraps, there is pashmina wall art too, so there is an evolving design philosophy to make a handcrafted luxury product that can last for generations.

Zubair Kirmani

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