Pashmina is considered the finest craftsmanship in the world which transforms the exceptionally warm and delicate Cashmere threads into opulent accessories. The fleece of Changthangi Goat, the most exotic cashmere goat, is known as Pashm which is an Urdu word & has origins in Farsi. This goat is exotic and is only found there, 14000 feet above sea level in Ladakh - Jammu and Kashmir, making the art of Pashmina even rarer and revered all over the world. Pashmina has fascinated kings, royals, and people all over the world with its magical allure and traditional grace. Perhaps this was the reason why we chose to showcase the exquisiteness and regal demeanor of this centuries-old art to the world.
Royal Admirers of Pashmina
It's not just today that Pashmina has patronage from around the world. There were times when this art was favoured with royal patronage. Kings, queens, royal families, and nobles all over the world knew Pashmina. In fact, they owned a large number of shawls and scarves.
It was in the 16th century when the birthplace of Pashmina - Kashmir - was under the Mughal rule, that Pashmina was discovered. And the then Mughal kings were swooned by the mere looks of it. Later the aesthetics of this art spread more and French monarch Napoleon Bonaparte gifted his wife, Josephine, a Pashmina shawl. She is believed to have owned a few hundred shawls at that time. In Iran, rulers wore as well as gifted Pashminas within their political practices. Here in India Maharaja Ranjit decorated his court with hand-embroidered Pashmina shawls and Fabric. The present scenario isn't too favourable for Kashmiri Pashmina. Yet Cashmere is even now considered the king of all fabrics which makes it timeless and a heritage.
Also read: What is so special about Pashmina shawls?
Pashmina - From the Nomadic Land of Changthang
The dramatic beauty and the ornamental allure we see on a luxurious Pashmina shawl has a very humble beginning.
Changthang is the land of the nomads, located east of Leh, about 14600 m above sea level. The area is untouched, unusual, and rare. It seems as if the noise and grit of the city fade till it reaches Changthang's top. Perhaps what makes it so is extreme climate, high altitude, and remoteness. And since these properties made Changthang unsuitable for agriculture, the local nomads started rearing goats - the Changthangi goats. For the goats, these conditions are perfect. It is these goats that grow Cashmere - the same Cashmere which is processed in Kashmir to conceive Pashmina shawls.
Also read: The Trail of India’s Cashmere Goat Men
First developments in handmade Pashmina shawls
In the 18th century, as the demand for the Kani shawls increased, so did the intricacy of the designs. To weave an intricate Kani shawl, it would take two weavers over three years to make, blocking up a huge capital for a long period of time in turn.
To counter this problem, the Kani shawls were woven as per panel designs. Then the different parts of the design were stitched together to form a cohesive shawl.
The 'rafugars' stitched the panels together with such precision that it was hard to tell where the seams were.
This decreased the time taken for an intricate Kani shawl to be made from three years to 6-8 months. But it significantly increased the number of looms used & the Kani weavers working on them.
One rafugar in particular, known as Ali Baba, had the idea of touching up the design & pattern of the Kani with thread & needle using the chain stitch. He was much pleased with the result & proceeded to develop the entire design by embroidery.
Later, he modified it further by using Pashmina thread for embroidery. This improved the final result of both, the Kani & the chain stitch.
Introduction of embroidered shawl
Initially, the embroidery replicated the twill tapestry & required very minute observation to tell the difference between the two.
An embroidered shawl took a quarter of the time to be ready compared to the Kani shawls having a similar body of work. It was hence priced much lower than Kani shawls. As far as looks were concerned, the embroidered shawls were spectacular. The decreased time to make an embroidered shawl resulted in considerably less taxation than the Kani shawls.
With the trend witnessing more elaborate designs for Kani shawls, thereby increasing its cost, the embroidered shawls, with comparatively lower prices started gaining popularity. These embroidered shawls were known as 'amlikar shawls' & originated in the 18th century.
For embroidering the shawls, the design to be embroidered on the shawl is traced out with perforated lines. It is then imprinted onto the shawl using a fine powder in a contrasting colour through the perforations. Once the tracing was removed, the outlines would be visible on the shawl for the embroiderer to start working on. These days, however, the embroiderers may also use wooden blocks with carved-out designs to make the tracings on the shawl.
Embroidery gains fame
The pinnacle of embroidery was seen in the mid-19th century. It was when embroiderers developed a new technique, using which the shawl would have two different colours on either side of the shawl. These were called 'do-runga' shawls meaning two-coloured.
The technique implied imitating the Kani weave on the wrong side of the embroidered shawl. This was done by interlacing a different colored thread through the fabric along the motif to mimic Kani weave.
The making of the do runga shawls is still practiced, however; the do runga embroideries done with Cashmere yarn have ceased to exist in Kashmir after the middle of the 19th century. In fact, this term is not recognized in Kashmir in the present day.
Also read: Empowering Pashmina Artisans