Pashmina refers to the exquisite art of handcrafting warm luxury wraps and apparel from Cashmere wool. The word Pashmina originates from 'Pashm' which translates to soft gold. Cashmere wool is processed in a series of steps, and each of them is painstaking and meticulous enough to make Pashmina scarves expensive. But those who back traditional art and heritage craft do not concern themselves with the prices but focus attention on the processing part of it. For those who don't know much about the processing, here is a detailed beginner's guide to Pashmina scarves.
Origin of Pashmina scarves
Pashmina comes from processing Cashmere. Cashmere comes from a goat which is found in the high mountain ranges of Ladakh. It is a place called Changthang which lies over 14000 feet above sea level and houses this rare goat, reared by herders. It is this goat whose wool has been long utilized to craft luxury shawls, scarves, and other accessories. The goat grows Cashmere as an undercoat over its underbelly, throat, and more sensitive areas. It is this wool that is painstakingly combed off gently by professionals and herders together. The process is completely ethical and no animal is hurt during the entire process. This hair is sent all the way to Kashmir, as Ladakhis do not have the expertise to process raw wool.
In Changthang, the temperature goes down to -40 degrees C. To survive such a bitter temperature condition, the goats naturally grow Cashmere which is so warm that they freely roam around. It grows as a down coat in the Winter season and sheds naturally in Spring.
Pashmina scarves: In Kashmir
As soon as raw wool arrives in Kashmir, it is handed over to experienced women who begin with cleaning the raw hair. Pure Cashmere is separated from dirt, vegetable remains guard hair or any other foreign material attached to it. The wool consists of impurities because goats roam all over the Changthang region. This includes places like hilly mountains, rough dusty roads, in addition to their own food materials getting attached to them at times. Cleaning the wool gives us pure threads of Cashmere which are soaked in rice water for three days to lend them extra strength and make them smoother than before.
Spinning of Raw Wool
To start with, Cashmere threads are removed from the rice powder mixture and cleaned again to get rid of the same. Raw Cashmere is in lumps and needs to be processed to refine it. This is done over a wooden Spinning wheel known as "yinder" locally. Lumps of wool are transformed into the yarn over this spinning wheel. Note that the yarn so produced is delicate, fine, and extremely soft. The diameter of this yarn is just 12-16 microns and sometimes barely visible.
It is the decades of experience and an extraordinary skill that makes these women the only ones to spin such fine yarn. Kashmiri women, who belong to the underprivileged sections of the society have been associated with spinning yarn for centuries. In fact, this has been the case ever since Pashmina was discovered. Since then it remains a bequeathed profession, and women consider art as a form of worship.
Weaving the Yarn
The yarn produced after spinning is mounted onto a handloom. This process has to be taken exceptional care of, as the raw material is the finest threads of Cashmere. If proper care of Cashmere yarn is not taken, it might break or tear, jeopardizing the quality. Handlooms are native to Kashmir. A traditional handloom is made of wood and the maximum amount of work is done manually. Cashmere yarn is processed for 3-4 days over this handloom and that is how the fabric is produced.
Two men sit on the opposite sides of this handloom. They then work according to a series of steps, which is crucial to the weaving of the fabric. This fabric is later transformed into Pashmina shawls, stoles, scarves, apparel, accessories, and more. Like spinning, weaving is also a centuries-old tradition. While the womenfolk from a family would be associated with spinning, it would always be the men who would choose weaving Cashmere.
Embroidering Pashmina scarves
Embellishing a plain Pashmina started at the time of Mughal rule. There are motifs, designs, and patterns that have been named after Mughal rulers, and inspired by their architecture. Embroidery remains the first embellishment which rules the world of Pashmina shawls.
If embroidery is required to be done over a Pashmina, it takes more artisans, more time, and more meticulous efforts. A fully embroidered Pashmina (known as a Jamawar shawl) takes 4-5 years to complete. Needles are thin, threads are exceptionally delicate and intricate, and the area to be embroidered is large. There are artisans who have weakened their eyesight in the process of embroidering. Others have backaches, neck pains, and more health issues. This is especially common in embroidery and spinning. Nevertheless, embroidery done on Pashmina scarves is also an age-old tradition and has been fascinating ever since.
Washing, Drying, Ironing
Pashmina scarves can't be washed in washing machines or by hand. These are sent for washing to an expert Pashmina washer. He washes the scarves in running spring water by continuously striking them with a hard surface. Cemented structures or simply large stones, which are nearby available can be used
For drying, the scarves are either wrung in a hand-operated spinner or simply spread and left stretched for days together in the sun.
The shawl is finally sent for calendaring. Here it is stretched, ironed, and packed into plastic packets. Later, it is sent to the final retailers who sell the shawls to the final customer
Are Pashmina scarves expensive?
While patrons never look at price tags, there are still buyers who believe that Pashmina scarves are expensive, and moreover, they shouldn't be so. But as we go through this article, or for that matter any write up on Pashmina scarves, and their making, we believe they are not overpriced at all. In fact, the way Pashmina scarves are crafted, they deserve every bit of it. Let us summarize a few points which prove the unparalleled techniques and ways that Pashmina scarves are made, because of which they seem overpriced or expensive.
- The Raw material for Pashmina scarves comes from the special breed of goats, which are indigenous to the high altitudes of the Himalayas - North India. These goats are not found anywhere else in the world, and as such their fibre is the softest, warm and smooth as compared to its counterparts. This is the reason that Kashmiri Pashmina scarves are better than every other Cashmere scarf in the world.
- The time, energy, and labour it takes to process raw Cashmere are noteworthy. From collecting the raw material to the completion of a solid scarf, the process may even stretch to a year. And if the scarf is to be embroidered in jamawar pattern, or a Kani weave, then 3-4 years are spent on one piece
- Yarn is hand-spun on a wooden wheel called Yinder. The process is painstaking and thorough, and it takes a lot of time and serious effort to spin a raw yarn. Had it not been a regular practice of local womenfolk, no one would dare to spin Cashmere on the wooden spinning wheel, especially in the times when machines are available for doing it
- The same goes for weaving Cashmere. Cashmere is handwoven on traditional wooden looms. It is a process that requires patience and hard work besides taking a very long time to get completed.
- Based on the design and intricacy, the embroidery of a Pashmina scarf might take a few years to complete. Some shawls take 5 years, while others may never finish if the main artisan passes away or becomes unable to work in any way
- Pashmina scarves are airy light, yet they produce such an exceptional amount of heat that no other wrap can beat. A large women's Pashmina scarf weighs around just 300 grams, yet keeps one such warm that you might not even need a sweater in fall and spring.
- Sustainability has recently gained more weight when it comes to modern times. It is crucial in today's world, when fast fashion is on a ramp, that we shop responsibly and invest in ethically produced goods. Pashmina scarves are one of them. Raw wool which is a natural fibre, is acquired ethically; it is combed off the body of the goat by professionals, and not plucked or sheared. Then it is handmade all through the making, without the use of machines and minimum waste generated. Pashmina scarf making employs underprivileged artisans, hence helping small businesses grow.
In addition to this, Pashmina scarves support slow fashion, in the way that they last for over 20 years as opposed to fast fashion, where apparel may last for just one season or 2 years at the most. Pashmina scarf makers care about the environment and the future of the planet. And hence pricing is no hurdle for the real admirers of these artfully handmade pieces.