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Behind the Scenes: Who makes Pashmina shawls? (Part 1)

February 15th, 2022 | 223 views
Behind the Scenes: Who makes Pashmina shawls? (Part 1)

Pashmina shawls come from Pashm - blissfully soft and fine wool found in Ladakh. Pashm literally means soft gold, and hence has been widely used to define the exquisite nature of Pashmina shawls, which are nothing less than that. Pashmina shawls are an exaggeration of luxury, finesse, and the most wonderful experience one can have in a lifetime. It is precious, priceless, and timeless. 

Pashm wool, which is handcrafted to make Pashmina shawls, comes from a rare goat species, found in Ladakh. Surprisingly, the goat is found over 15000 feet, where it battles one of the harshest climatic conditions. As a defense mechanism, nature bestows it with the fine Pashm wool that keeps it warm and alive in the coldest days and nights. This fine wool is 8 times warmer than merino wool and is hence considered a treasure. It is later manually processed by hundreds of artisans and transformed into the world-famous Pashmina shawls. 

Pashmina Shawl making: Our Trip to Kashmir

An absolutely pleasant experience on our trip to Kashmir was meeting the makers of Pashmina shawls. Undoubtedly, we were quite excited to see the hands, which could conjure these luxury fabrics out of mere lumps of wool. How could fine wool be processed into such mesmerizing fabrics that are immensely warm, extraordinarily soft, and timeless? Our quest to know the makers took us to the Paradisiacal valley of Kashmir, where we met each artisan who is a part of this incredible process. 

The Changpa Tribe

cashmere goats in ladakh
Pashmina goats with the herder in Ladakh

The first and foremost community, who starts with gathering the wool of the goat, is the Changpa tribe. The Changthang area is a plateau located 15000 feet above sea level. It is occupied by the Changpa tribe, who rear this unique breed of goats called the Changthangi goat or the Pashmina goat. It should be mentioned that this goat is the Capra Hircus goat. The nomadic tribe of Changpa lives in the freezing conditions that this plateau has to offer. In spite of inhospitable climates, chilly winds, immensely cold nights and temperatures dropping to minus 50 degrees C, the tribesmen roam from place to place around the plateau to seek more livable conditions. Hence the tribe puts their heart and soul into taking care of these goats, and it is in search of green pastures for them that takes the nomads from place to place.

The Life in the plateaus

changthangi goat being combed
Gently combing the Changthangi goat

The Nomadic tribe of Changthang witnesses the worst living conditions. Less to zero water supply, living in tents, waking up early in the morning to find a place to live, and a constant battle to survive themselves and their animals, is life to them. Indeed, if it wasn't for these efforts, the animals would die of hunger, if not cold. Hence, the very first community that deserved our heartfelt appreciation was the Changpa tribe. 

In the Spring season when the goats begin moulting, the tribesmen help them to get rid of the wool. The goats are gently combed and this rids them of the Pashm wool, which they are not able to bear in summers. The wool is collected, and a basic cleaning is done by the tribesmen and women together. Later it is packed and sent to Kashmir for processing. And now starts the actual implementation of age-old techniques that transform chunks of fine wool into the most ethereal accessories.

Also read: Which country has the best Cashmere?

Processing Pashmina Shawls: Spinning of Pashm

Spinning of Pashm wool is maneuvered by the womenfolk of Kashmir. Not to mention, these are usually underprivileged, poverty-stricken, widowed, or divorced women whose only source of income is spinning Pashmina. This number has reduced a lot since the last two decades. 

The spinning of Pashm wool is done only after cleaning it thoroughly. Cleaning too is performed by women, who separate each thread and make it free from any impurity. Wool usually consists of dirt, dust, animal, and vegetable wastes which the goat encounters. This has to be removed along with the guard hair, and only the purest and finest threads have to be passed to the next level.

Spinning converts raw Pashm threads to fine yarn and hence makes it ready for the next processing. Spinning is done with the help of a spinning wheel which is locally known as ‘yinder’. The process is quite complicated for laymen, as women place fine wool tufts between their fingers, and spin the wheel, raising and lowering the hand perfectly rhyming with the movement. This is an immensely skillful operation and requires practice and experience. The yarn produced is as fine as just 12 to 16 microns in diameter.  

Weaving of the Spun Yarn

The making of a Pashmina shawl is a household affair. While women are responsible for cleaning and spinning, it is the duty of men to hand weave the yarn to fabric. 

After receiving fine yarn from women, men separate the threads for use as a warp or weft. At times, the yarn needs to be dyed at this stage. It is sent to another set of artisans for dying when such times arise. Usually, after separating warps and wefts, weaving starts. Before mounting the yarn on a handloom, it needs strengthening and stretching. Four to six rods are erected in the ground. Two men work together and transfer this yarn around these rods. Over a thousand threads are stretched in this way to form the warp. This is enough for around 5 shawls. 

Artisan weaving the pashmina

Now comes the actual weaving process. The loom is made up of wood and has a bench on one side. Two people can sit on this bench. Now the weaving starts and after 3 to 4 days, a shawl is ready. This shawl is sent for washing under spring water with an organic soap, which requires another set of specialists.

Also read: Kashmiri Shawl | Questions and Answers


Finishing processes toward Pashmina Shawls

The finishing processes carried out over a Pashmina shawl make sure that the end product is free from any foreign threads or extra fabric. Hence the washed fabric is sent to an artisan who tweezes the fabric and brushes out any superficial flaw on the base. This is done by holding the shawl tight between two rollers so that a proper view can be acquired and any flaw is removed. 

Next, this cleaned fabric is sent to another artisan, who rubs the shawl with a maize cob called ‘Kasher’ locally. This further makes the surface smooth. 

The next finishing process is washing the shawl. For that, it is sent to a dhobi or specialist washer who washes the fabric in running spring water and repeatedly strikes it against a hard surface or large stone. 

Dyeing follows washing. The fabric is sent to a professional dyer, who dyes it as per the demand and requirement. 

The shawls are rolled and left stretched for several days. Post this speculated time, these are ironed using specialised irons which iron the entire shawl together. Finally, it is packed and handed over to sellers for selling to the final customer. 

The process of handcrafting a Pashmina shawl finishes here, but for a solid shawl. If the shawl is to be embroidered, it needs further processing and is passed between embroidery specialists. We will get back to you with ‘Who embroiders Pashmina Shawls’ in our next blog. 

Also read: Pashmina - The Token of Ingenious Craft

We, Pashmina.com, are the largest curators of pure and handcrafted Pashmina products in the online space. We are on a mission to revive this dying art by spreading our wings throughout the world by way of our online platform. Our website serves as a window to our range of products that are luxurious and have the highest quality. We offer the widest range, certified quality, luxurious packaging and free shipping to over 150 countries.

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