Soft to touch, and exceptionally graceful to wear, Kashmiri shawls convey the finest skills of Kashmiri artisans as well as display the sophisticated aesthetic of their wearer. It is said about the Kashmiri shawls that none excels in colour, design, beauty, hand embroideries, and texture as the famous Kashmiri shawls do.
Types of Kashmiri Shawls
The base fabric of Kashmiri shawls is of three types - Shahtoosh, Pashmina and Raffal.
Shahtoosh (Tibetan Antelope Wool)
Shahtoosh is called the king of wool. It is often known by the name “ring Shawl” because it is so fine that it can pass through a ring. Shahtoosh wool comes from the Tibetan antelope Chiru, which is found over 14000 feet in the wilds of the Himalayas.
Making of Shahtoosh
Shahtoosh is the finest wool of all types there are. It is often called the king of wool because of its exclusivity and the challenging ways of acquiring it. The wool grows on the body of the Tibetan Antelope, which is found roaming in the high plateaus of Himalayan ranges. The antelope is a wild animal, and often a herd of these gathers at one place to feed themselves or drink water near a water body. As soon as this time occurs, hunters wait their turns to hunt them.
Soon after the Antelopes are killed, the hunters take their bodies in possession and acquire the fine shahtoosh wool growing over it. This acquisition is cruel, but the wool growing over the bodies is pricey and high in demand. It is sent to Kashmir for processing. Processing of Shahtoosh is an exceptionally challenging task, as the fibre width is an unparalleled low. The chunks of wool are hand spun and the fibre threads thus formed are just 8 to 10 microns in diameter. Further processing these threads is equally difficult.
Weavers weave the fine threads into luxury shawls, and these are the world famous Shahtoosh shawls. These are at times filled with Kashmir embroidery to make them even more luxurious. Shahtoosh shawls have been banned in the 90’s on account of animal cruelty. This is after there was a huge decline in the number of Tibetan antelopes that the local government decided to have a complete ban on the trade of Shahtoosh shawls. Soon its makers switched to the making of Pashmina shawls, as the processing of those was somewhat similar
Pashmina (Himalayan Cashmere Wool)
is another category of Kashmiri shawls, and their origin is Changthang, Ladakh. Pashmina shawls are made from Cashmere wool, which grows on the body of the Changthangi goat found in Ladakh. The goat is found over 14000 feet and is reared by nomadic herders of Ladakh.
Making of Pashmina Shawls
The changthangi goat of Ladakh produces the best and the finest Cashmere in the world. Even though Cashmere goats are found in many different areas of the world, the Ladakhi Cashmere rules them all. It is this Ladakhi goat wool which is used to make Kashmiri Pashmina shawls that one sees laden with Kashmiri embroidery, in the markets. Kashmiri Pashmina shawls are the perfect base of all kinds of Kashmiri embroidery patterns, as the other types of shawls are either too thick or too flimsy for some embroideries.
The acquisition of Pashmina wool is a challenge in itself. Over 14000 feet above sea level lies the Changthang area of Ladakh where the goats are found in temperatures below -40 degrees C. The goats, as a defence mechanism, grow a fine yet super warm wool on its body. It keeps the goat warm, and makes it possible for these animals to survive in the harshest of all temperatures. Once summer arrives, the goat undergoes some hormonal changes, which force the wool to come out on its own. Some of the portion is naturally lost while some is lost as the goat rubs itself against harsh coarse surfaces. This is the fine wool that herders wait for the entire year. It is acquired from the goats, and sent to Kashmir for processing.
Arrival in Kashmir
As the wool arrives in Kashmir, it is sent for cleaning, before it is spun by the local womenfolk. Huge chunks of Cashmere wool are converted to the finest of Cashmere threads which are later handwoven to fabric. This fabric can be shawls, scarves or wraps. Pashmina shawls became a huge hit soon after shahtoosh was banned as it was the next best alternative. Pashmina hosts various Kashmiri embroidery patterns such as Sozni, Tilla, Papier Mache or a combination of all of these
Raffal (Sheep Wool)
Raffal is the third category of Kashmiri shawls. It is spun out of Merino wool, and is the most popular in Kashmir, due to its warmth and cheap price.
Raffal shawls are the most commonly used shawls in Kashmir. These are the cheapest when it comes to pricing, as these do not account for any luxury or extravagance. One Raffal shawl can even be purchased for just over a thousand INR. As soon as winters arrive, raffal shawls can be seen in the largest quantity all around the local markets. The shawls have beautiful colours as they take up any dyes given to them. Kashmiri embroidery patterns like sozni, Aari or Tilla can be done on them, as they are stronger than Pashmina or Shahtoosh shawls
Types of Hand Embroideries for Kashmiri Shawls
A number of hand embroideries are done on Kashmiri shawls depending upon the base fabric. Fine shawls like Pashmina are delicate, and hence lighter versions of embroideries are done on them. Sturdier bases like that of a merino wool shawl do host thicker forms of Kashmiri embroideries. Let us have a look at the embroidery types done in the valley.
Pashmina is handwoven and hence fine and delicate enough to tear if dealt with harshly. Hence the best-suited embroidery for these beauties is Sozni Kari. After the shawl is woven, a Naqash uses block prints to make the outline of the design, which are usually traditional designs. These designs have emerged from Persian-inspired Paisley which the Mughals introduced, floral patterns which bloom in the valley itself in Spring and summer, and many other designs. Embroidery artisans have the choice to select colour for a particular shawl. They have decades of experience and depending upon the base colour, they select a complementing shade, which is influenced by the fashion trends in vogue.
Sozni mostly uses cotton threads, but sometimes even silk is used. Fine needles are used to embroider motifs onto the gossamer base. The amount of embroidery to be done over the shawl decides the time in which it will be completed. Jaali shawls are less heavy, while tuki Jama is laden with embroidery motifs. Tuki Jama shawls take even years to get ready.
PAPIER MACHE EMBROIDERY
Papier Mache or Paper Mache embroidery is a form of embroidery which might be considered as a bolder variant of Sozni. It consists of breathtaking motifs which are worked in a bright coloured satin thread. Motifs are outlined in black to give a protruding effect.
Paper Mache uses thicker needle and thread for a more appealing visual effect.
The most beautiful Papier Mache Pashmina shawls are often worn by brides on the day they leave their maternal homes. A white Pashmina shawl laden with colourful papier Mache embroidery looks marvellous. Papier Mache Kashmiri embroidery is so beautiful that if one does not afford a fully embroidered shawl, they just get the edges embroidered.
Papier Mache embroidery gets its name from the majestic Papier Mache craft where paper pulp is used to make objects which are later hand painted to look like art pieces. The resemblance of Papier Mache embroidery to that craft form is so much that the same name is used for both
An embroidery which makes shawls relatively expensive is Tilla embroidery. This type is so popular in the valley that every bride should have at least one phiran (a garment worn by Kashmiri women) embroidered with tilla embroidery in her trousseau. Or else a shawl ornate with Tilla embroidered is expected by the onlookers.
Tilla originated from a village called “Zari” in Iran. But when Syed Ali Hamdani, a Sufi saint travelled to Kashmir with his artisans, he introduced the same in the local community. The then ruling Mughals were fascinated by its royal demeanour, and used this embroidery in their royal courts.
In the process of Tilla Dozi, metallic threads, dipped in gold and silver are delicately tied with the help of a needle to the fabric to create mesmerizing designs. This hand embroidery, like others, needs immense skill and patience.
Tilla is done in less quantities on Pashmina, due to the delicate nature of the base. On sheep wool Raffal shawls, it can be done profusely.
Tilla embroidery was made the most popular by the Mughal kings and queens, who used Tilla embroidery even on the furnishing of their courts. Tilla embroidery was earlier done with pure gold and silver threads. But since this was totally unaffordable for the commoners, metallic threads were used as replacement. Tilla Dozi looks the best when done on Pashmina shawls, as the rendezvous of two master art forms is totally magical.
Kalamkari designs aren't embroidery as such. But later, over the hand painted motifs, sozni embroidery is done.
Kalamkari comes from two words, ‘kalam’ meaning ‘pen’ and ‘kari’ meaning ‘work’. Hence Kalamkari means the work of a pen. Pens used in Kalamkari are made from Bamboo. The colours used are natural dyes. The art of painting over shawls is fairly complicated, and uses as many as 20 steps to reach completion. The final result is intricately detailed, and breathtakingly beautiful.
Kalamkari shawls aren’t as popular in Kashmir as the other forms are, as Kalamakari is not embroidery but just spectacular hand painting. But some ardent fans of the craft get their shawls made on order and wear any anyway, irrespective of the popularity.
Aari embroidery, also known as Kashida Kari, is done on Raffal shawls, or sheep wool shawls. The threads used are thick woolen threads, which fine Pashmina cannot bear.
Aari embroidery uses a specialized crooked head hook called “aari” and not the needle for embroidering. Using a hook saves time, as the hook pulls several loops of the thread. On the contrary, the needle does the same one by one. Aari work is nowadays done with machines.
The Aari embroidery might not be the first Kashmiri embroidery that one looks for, but this variant of Kashmiri embroidery has spread it swings over and above just shawls. This embroidery can be seen on luxury sarees, cardigans, dresses, handbags and more. This particular Kashmiri embroidery has gained international fame, and designers all over the world have managed to imbibe it in their designs.
Common designs used in Kashmiri embroideries
Motifs crafted on shawls are usually those inspired from Persian culture, but have been modified with time. The most popular designs are Rose (Gulab) and Almond (Badam). Other types of motifs are Cypress (Sarav), Gul E Noor Jahan (a flower liked by Noor Jehan), Roses (GulabKan), Narcissus (Yumberzal), Chinar (Chinar Leaf), Lotus (Pamposh) and Vine (Dachh). These too are very frequently used. Calligraphy too is used in embroidery forms. The rich fauna of the valley too can also be seen in some pieces. Popular motifs are lions, deer, bulbuls, ducks. Some shawls even host human figures. The most common examples are Shikargarh (the hunting ground), or the Jangal tarah (jungle scenes)
Kashmir is the land of beauty. Be it the snow-capped mountains, mighty plains, lush greens landscapes, or the mesmerizing scenic places. But apart from these, its handicraft sector flourishes with exquisitely crafted pieces. Be it embroidery, copper making, Pashmina making, Papier Mache work, walnut wood art, and many other types, Kashmir never fails to disappoint the tourists which visit it in the largest numbers
Also read: Kashmiri Shawls during the Dogra Period
Regardless of which embroidery women choose for their shawls or apparel, Kashmiri embroidery designs are timeless and keep getting more and more graceful as time passes.