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The Legends of a Kashmiri Shawl

January 5th, 2023 | 356 views
The Legends of a Kashmiri Shawl

Kashmiri shawls are coveted fabrics that have a rich history of being the most valued possession. Cherished and prized by the courts of Caesar, or the French queen Mary Antoinette, Kashmiri shawls have enjoyed patronage in Royal European courts as well. However, it was after the aegis of Empress Josephine that these shawls gained immense impetus. Josephine was considered a style icon, and hence everything she wore would become a trend. The same was the case with these shawls, which the Empress owned over a hundred. Pashmina shawls come from Cashmere which is often referred to as soft gold, owing to its heavenly softness, lightweight texture and fine weave. 

The Luxurious Kashmiri Shawl

Artisan weaving Pashmina shawl on Hand Loom
Artisan weaving Pashmina shawl on Hand Loom

Conscientiously hand-woven Kashmiri shawls are synonymous with exquisiteness and class. Pashmina comes from the word ‘Pashm’, which is a Persian word for ‘Soft Gold’, and truly so. The shawls are regarded as the best of their type, and this has been the case for centuries. For this reason, Kashmiri shawls have found their eminent places in museums across the world like the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Louvre in Paris.

Kashmiri shawls are handcrafted from Cashmere wool which comes from the best goat species in the world. The goat is the Capra Hircus, which is locally known as the Changthangi goat or the Pashmina goat. It is reared by nomads at a height of over 14000 feet in the Changthang area of Ladakh. For this reason, Kashmiri shawls are used synonymously with Pashmina shawls.

Back to History

Empress Josephine in Kani pashmina Shawl
Empress Josephine in Kani Pashmina Shawl

The weaving of Cashmere to produce fine Kashmiri Pashmina shawl dates back to 3000 BC in Kashmir. Back then, it was just the affluent population that could afford and hence wear Pashmina shawls. The royal courts, hence, enjoyed the luxury of this coveted fabric in their courts. But it was only after the patronage of Empress Josephine that made Kashmiri shawls the most sought-after accessory in Europe.

In Kashmir, it was King Zain ul Abideen who has been considered the pioneer of the Pashmina industry. He ruled over Kashmir in the 15th century, and it was under his rule that Kashmiri shawls thrived. It was he who invited craftsmen from Turkistan to train the locals in weaving the yarn. Mughal emperors in general gave a boost to this art form, and hence the economy prospered much in this era. 

Pashmina art has been mentioned in literature. It was King Akbar who took a keen interest in supporting this industry, and the literature of his time (1556-1605 CE) mentions Pashmina much. In fact, the motifs over the shawls of this time were named after him. Even now motifs embroidered over Kashmiri shawls have Mughal influence. Motifs like Shah Pasand (Emperor's delight) and Buta Mohammad Shah (Mohammad Shah's flower) are a testimony to the Mughal patronage of this art form. Kashmiri Pashmina shawls find mentioned in the autobiography of Emperor Jehangir (Tuzk e Jahangiri), where the emperor mentions how Pashmina shawls were his favourite clothing piece. Hence, the Mughal era saw Pashmina art reach its zenith. So much so, that one and a half square yards of Pashmina fabric could be passed through a finger ring!

The 18th Century Pashmina

A Muslim shawl-making family shown in Cashmere shawl manufactory, 1867, chromolith., William Simpson.
A Muslim shawl-making family shown in Pashmina shawl manufactory, 1867, chromolith., William Simpson.

In the 18th century, Pashmina art travelled to Europe and gained popularity among the affluent circles there. The world-famous Emperor Napoleon gifted his wife Josephine a Kashmiri Kani shawl. She was fascinated by the same, and it is believed that she later ordered a few hundred shawls. This patronage of hers made the shawl fashion statements in Europe. 

It was Europeans who invented the term ‘Cashmere’ which was an anglicization of the word ‘Kashmir’. Kashmir, too, increased its production of Pashmina shawl due to high demand from Europe. With the ever-increasing popularity, British and French textile owners started copying Pashmina shawls. They conducted a number of experiments with the Cashmere fibre, and mixed the same with other fibres. But never could they attain a fabric as fine, soft and luxurious as a Pashmina shawl.

In Scotland, however, the best copy was finally made. It wasn't as good as a Pashmina shawl but gained a decent impetus. It was called the Paisley shawl, after its hometown Paisley - a town in Scotland. These shawls were cheaper than original Pashmina shawls and hence became famous around Europe. By the end of the 19th century, many versions of Pashmina shawls were easily available around Europe, and women invested in them for their cheap prices yet a little Pashmina-like quality. 

Types of Kashmiri shawls 

The types of Kashmiri Pashmina shawls back then were different from what they are now. There were four major types of Pashmina shawls:

  • Jamawars: Jamawar Pashmina shawls featured designs all over their base. 
  • Doshalas: Also called Shoulder Mantles, these were sewn back to back in pairs, i.e. the under surfaces of the shawl were never seen. Doshalas had varied dimensions
  • Patkas: These were like sashes, long and narrow. These too, like Doshalas, had varied dimensions
  • Rumals: Square shawls were called Rumals.

How Kashmiri Shawls looked back then?

From the 17th century to the 18th century, the body of shawls was kept plain. There would be slight vertical borders that would run along the length of the shawl. But as time passed, designs filled the entire bodies of Kashmiri shawls and made them more extravagant. Hence came Jamawar shawls, which featured embroidery motifs all over the base and many more variants. Kani shawl was one of the biggest feats that Pashmina achieved. Kani shawls were the ones that caused a furore in the European markets after Empress Jopsehine set these to a timeless fashion.

Kashmiri shawls get colourful

When Kashmiri shawl making started, these shawls were kept as such, in their natural shades. Hence only brown, grey, white and black shawls were seen. But later, organic dyestuff was used to colour these shawls, and the Cashmere base took the dyes seamlessly. As many as 60 colours were used to dye Pashmina shawls, which looked even more ethereal with new and brilliant colours.

Motifs used in Pashmina

The motifs on a Kashmiri shawl

Inspired by the Mughal era, and other influences, there are a number of popular motifs used on Kashmiri shawls:

  • Buti: Buti is a tiny singular flower. A shawl on which this motif is embroidered is called a Bootidaar shawl. 
  • Khat Rast: Khat rast is a pattern with stripes running along the length of the shawl. 
  • Cypress: Cypress designs are those where a bunch of flowers emerge from a single stem. The stem showcases its roots also that spread far across the shawl. 
  • Buta Design: Buta is a multi-floral. Butas are larger than Butis, and a shawl containing Butas looks more filled with embroidery than a bootidaar shawl.
  • Zanjeer: Zanjeer literally means chain. This design features a horizontal border which encloses other famous motifs like paisley, flowers etc. 
  • Badam, Ambe: This is the paisley motif and is called in different terms in different languages. 
  • Shikargarh: This motif features hunting scenes which was a leisure time activity for Mughals. These shawls show jungle scenes and animal figures. 
  • Hashi: A vertical border runs all around the shawl, and the four corners consist of a large singular motif inside the border.
  • Floral Bouquets: Some Pashmina Shawls feature bunches of flowers without leaves. There is a large flower in the middle, which is surrounded by smaller ones. 

Patterns on Kashmiri Shawl

sozni pashmina shawl
The warm and cool tones of Sozni hand embroidery significantly define the beauty of memories and colour

Kashmiri shawls hosted a number of patterns, the primary amongst them being embroidery. Embroidery done on these shawls was inspired by the Mughals who were the first ones to introduce these. Here are some famous embroideries done on Pashmina shawls:

  • Sozni embroidery: Sozni Kari uses fine needles and silk threads to make labyrinthine designs on a Kashmiri Pashmina shawl. This fine embroidery was well chosen to embroider Pashmina shawls as the fine base couldn't bear the thick threads of Aari embroidery or crewel Kari. Sozni embroidery patterns are different. In some shawls the embroidery runs as a floral vine around the shawl, in some, it spreads as small Booti motifs, and in some, the entire base is filled with motifs, closely packed. 
  • Tilla Embroidery: Locally known as Tilla Dozi, this type of embroidery used gold and silver threads to embroider Kashmiri shawls. These shawls were only afforded by the affluent and rich, as the price of Pashmina in addition to that of gold and silver became humongous. In the present times, Tilla is done by metal threads which are dipped in gold or silver, and the original metals aren't used anymore. 


More Patterns in Pashmina Shawls

kani pashmina shawl
Zareef - a Kani Pashmina shawl from Kashmir. This beauty has taken a year to complete and after the meticulous work of hundreds of artisans

Other than embroideries, Pashmina shawls used to be embellished in two more patterns. Kalamkari and Kani

  • Kalamkari shawls took inspiration from Iran and the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. These shawls are hand-painted shawls, over which bamboo pens are used to draw patterns out of vegetable dyes. These hand-painted motifs are sometimes bordered with sozni embroidery. 
  • Kani shawls: One of the most well-known and luxurious shawls of Kashmir has been the Kani shawl. This shawl is patterned during its weaving, and embroidery or painting is used. The warp threads are made from Cashmere, and the wefts threads are coloured ones which appear as motifs on the shawl on completion. 

Making of Kashmiri Shawls

The making of Pashmina shawls in Kashmir is a complicated process. Here is an overview of all the processes that go into the making of one shawl

spinning cashmere
Artisan spinning the cashmere on yinder

Spinning: Spinning transforms twisted fibres into fine yarn which is possible to weave. The traditional method for spinning is the use of spinning wheels called Yinder locally. The yarn obtained from the Yinder is fine and exceptionally lightweight. Its diameter is just 12 to 16 microns. This yarn is sent to weavers for weaving into fabric.

Weaving: Weaving is done by men over a handloom over which the spun yarn is mounted. This yarn is hand woven for a few days to convert it into the fabric. This fabric can be Pashmina shawls, scarves, or wraps. These are then washed with natural soaps and sent for finishing.

Finishing: The washed shawl is tweezed, foreign threads are clipped, and the surface is smoothened by brushing it with a hard brush (locally known as Kasher). Uneven threads and superficial fibres are hence removed. 

Washing: The fabric then undergoes repeated washing which is done with spring water by expert washermen. 

Dyeing: If the fabric is required to be dyed in other shades it is dyed as per the demand.

Stretching: For a few days the fabric is stretched, and then packed in plastic bags for sale. 


Threats to Pashmina 

The Pashmina industry is facing a crisis in the present times. 

  • The area of Changthang, from where Cashmere is acquired, remains cut off from the world as a result of freezing temperatures and snow. Because of this inaccessibility from November to February, middlemen lose contact with herders. The herders, too, migrate to warmer areas and those with grazing lands close to the Chinese border along with their herds. Hence this loss of communication acts as a threat to the Cashmere trade, and hence that of Pashmina shawls. 
  • Another threat to Pashmina making is the extremely cold temperature of Ladakh, which at times leads to the death of little ones amongst the herds. This has hit the nomads’ life as well as the production of Cashmere hard. 
  • Effects of the power loom are proving fatal to the original art of Pashmina making. Power loom weaving of Pashmina involves mixing pure Cashmere threads with silk or nylon and then treating the same with harsh chemicals. The shawl prepared in such a way is in no way pure or soft like the pure Pashmina shawls. But since these are cheap and quickly processed, they pose a great threat to the original art. 
  • A large number of weavers and spinners are switching to white-collar jobs for the reason of not getting enough compensation for their hard work. Owing to this, art no longer attracts the younger generation, and they opt for other means of livelihood.



We see that the glorious art of Pashmina which was once the first preference of women all over the world is losing its charm. What it needs is our love and support, for the art and its artists. For this reason, we at Pashmina.com elucubrate to bring back its lost grandeur and dignity. Working directly with artisans, paying them fair compensations in fair trade, acquiring the purest Pashmina from the original artisans for the art, and offering them to the real patrons of the art is the core function of this organisation. 


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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