In the early 19th century, William Moorcroft traversed the length and breadth of the Himalayas. He never really revealed his zeal for adventure and went about just because “the mountains were there.” As a veterinary surgeon and superintendent of East India Company’s military regiment, he first made the trip to these soaring hills in pursuance of Turkman horses. While he failed there, he gathered tons of knowledge and geographical data as well as fifty mountain goats. The fleece of this variety of goat that resided in parts of Tibet and Central Asia were exported to Kashmir from which the fibre was extracted, which came to be known as Cashmere. These were later made into the finest Kashmiri shawls, famously known as Pashmina Shawls or Cashmere Wraps.
These pashmina shawls were in great demand by the English and later by the French, who both tried to make copies of the product. Moorcroft was unable to import the cashmere wool because of Kashmiri monopoly. Later, they tried to naturalize the goat. He sent his goats – males on one ship, females on the other. Unfortunately, there were no female survivors. Similarly, the French too experimented at their end, but it also resulted in failure. By now, Moorcroft understood that England and India could reap commercial benefits from further trade with Asia. He tried his best to convince the Britishers. They gave him a reluctant nod.
Also read: 7 Reasons to love Cashmere
Discovering evidence of Kashmiri Shawls through travels
Once again, he set out on his travels to Asia. He had planned to travel via Yarkand, but since he couldn’t get permission, he turned towards Kashmir. In October 1822, he reached the beautiful slopes of Kashmir and was stationed there for ten months. He closely observed the manufacture of these pashmina shawls and employed tens of thousands of people.
He was really obsessed with the shawls and could do anything to make British shawls supreme all over the world. Moorcroft consistently tried to persuade Kashmiri shawl manufacturers to move to Norwich and Paisley. He also went to the extent of commissioning a native painter from his country. This man was to imitate the characteristic motifs from the executed Pashmina shawls.
These cashmere shawls with motifs became popular in the West during this stage. Documents suggest that these shawls were already made in Kashmir before the Mughal conquest. Emperor Akbar was so in awe of these shawls. He introduced the fashion of wearing two of these shawls, stitched back to back. They were also presented as gifts to the nobles as well as other stately people. It is also believed that the sultan at Constantinople accepted a large number of Pashmina shawls in 1739 from Nadir Shah, the Persian invader of India.
Also read: Kashmiri Shawls during the Dogra Period
Design Sensibilities: Rich Motifs in Shawls
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the first design that was observed on Kashmiri shawls was a single flowering plant. This had roots and drew inspiration from English herbals. It was prevalent in the Mughal court in the 1600s By 1800, it evolved into a cone-shaped motif, popularly known as ‘boteh’. It is also called the paisley pine.
Several theories exist around this motif. It is believed that it first originated in ancient Babylon when it was shaped like a drop. It was used as a symbol to represent the growing shoot of a date palm. The palm was symbolic of food, shelter, clothing and came to be known as the ‘Tree of Life’. It had branches extending and later being considered a symbol of fertility.
With the growing demand for Kashmiri shawls in Europe, several men weavers in Kashmir worked together to create a shawl. It would take anywhere between one and a half months to several years to create it. The British officials observed this rising trend and imitated these shawls both in Norwich as well as Paisley.
The Buti - Much in Favour
There is also the buti, a similar motif that is smaller in size but is often seen in Indian and Iranian shawls. It might be solitary or be accompanied by several leaves but doesn’t have a root structure. They sometimes appear in staggered rows, on the palla of a doshala. It was a favourite during the 1700s and in the 1800s.
There is certainly a lot more to shawl design other than paisley. This was the predominant motif. The buti is versatile in nature and found application in several textiles. Sometimes, it was scaled down. It is often termed as “semi-naturalistic” in historical accounts and some say it comes from a characteristic tree in Kashmir. Another possibility is the Iran connection, and since Pashmina shawls were being exported there, the influence can’t be ruled out.
There were several innovations that were introduced. This coincided with the rise in demand in the Western market. It was also matched up by the creativity of the artisans. It was further accentuated with a stunning border, which also had elements of the floral meander.
Embroidery does permit a greater field of design and these have distinct affinities. In fact, some of these motifs were also incorporated in floor spreads, wall hangings, or coverings of some kind.
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