Over an altitude of 15000 feet above sea level, in the rough mountainous terrains of Ladakh, the Changpa goats are found. Evident and unmistakable they are. Fresh as if just born, white, like the snow-covered mountains surrounding them, and soft as velvet and silk, in fact, even more, the Changpa goats have long adapted to the rough terrain and the beautifully cruel and rough landscapes do not affect their splendor a tad. Their unmatched beauty is a hint enough for the visitors to understand where a Pashmina shawl comes from.
The Nomadic Tribe of Changpa
The high living species of goats belong to a Buddhist Nomad tribe of Ladakh, the Changpa tribe. Their main occupation remains to rear a small herd of the purebred Capra-Hircus/Changthangi/Changpa goats for 500 years. The Changpa tribe cares for their goats in the best way possible. And it's not for their meat or milk primarily, but the “soft gold” that they grow naturally over their underbelly. The Pashm - whose softness and preciousness even left the 16th century Mughals royals smitten.
The Changpa goats and the people who invest their lives in them, both live on this relatively disconnected paradise, over the top of the hills. This lifestyle of theirs remains relatively unchanged for over 400 years now. Even if traditions and fashions have drastically changed in the lower part of the world, the Changpa tribe remains clung to their own lifestyle, religion, and beliefs.
The plateau, which carries the nomads, their goats, and the birthplace of Pashmina isn't quite luxurious as one may imagine. It stretches across 1600 kilometers from the west to the east, and just one-third of it lies in India. There are days when the area freezes at -40 degrees. It leaves the area cut off from the entire world for even 9 months at times. Even after such difficulties and hardships, the Changpa tribe masters the art of surviving with their pedigreed goats.
Changpa and Pashmina
Pashmina, or what they call it in the west - Cashmere - was introduced to the world in 1664. It was when Francois Bernier visited Kashmir and discovered the beauty of Cashmere. He somehow managed to get a Pashmina shawl which inspired awe in the Europeans, especially the affluent ones. They were fascinated by the fact that this shawl had been woven out of Pashm. And by the looks of Pashm, it seemed impossible to collect, clean, weave, and embroider.
What actually happens over an altitude of more than 14000 feet, is so divine. The Changpa goat grows a unique and extremely soft inner coat called “Pashm”. Pashm literally translates to soft gold. It grows over the underbelly of the goat to protect it from harsh cold and freezing temperatures. As soon as summer arrives, the Changpa goat rubs itself against rocks or some shrubs. Hence it leaves behind the ever cherished fleece - the Pashm. This fleece called ‘Asli Tus’. It is collected manually and sold to the patrons who are well aware of its value and exquisiteness.
This raw Pashm is 6 times finer than a human hair. Its average fibre length is 40 mm, average fibre diameter being just 14 microns. Even then, Pashm is considered the warmest natural fiber. Hence used to make the coziest Pashmina shawls, stoles, wraps, or sweaters.
Even with such a growing demand, especially for the Pashmina shawl, the people of Changpa have never compromised on quality. The fibre, therefore, obtained from this tribe is the purest. It is also superior to the one obtained from the same breed of goats from other parts of the world like China, Nepal, Tibet, etc.
Where is Pashmina Shawl made? | Pashmina and Kashmir
The story of Pashmina and Kashmir begins as soon as raw Pashm reaches the valley. The weaving of raw Pashm starts here, in this picturesque valley nestled in the grand Himalayas. It is said that this tradition of Pashm weaving was started by Sultan Zain ul Abideen, with the help of a Turkish weaver Naghz Geg. Geg who was famous for his skill and expertise in the same, Kashmiri locals were trained.
After the Pashm yarn is woven over handlooms, the downy shawls so obtained are washed over the Jhelum river. It is for this exquisiteness and regality, Pashmina shawls became famous in 18th century Britain. It is believed that the shawls were exported from Kashmir through the East India Company at outrageously high prices.
From Birth to Maturity: Lifecycle of a Pashmina Shawl
From its birth when it is just raw Pashm threads to an opulent and colourful shawl, Pashmina treads a complicated journey of 4 processes:
Pre Spinning processes
Embroidery and Finishing
Pre Spinning Processes
These processes start when the Changpa goat naturally sheds the Pashm. It is later dehaired manually to free the useful material from the guard hair. The fibre is combed to separate impurities from it which includes dust or some vegetable matter. Later pounded rice is glued to the fibre to make it a bit strong and soft. This raw fibre concoction is to be combed again after two or three days.
Spinning of Pashmina
Spinning is the process when the cleaned Pashm is converted into the required yarn count. It's the yarn that is further processed over looms. Spinning is usually done over a wooden Charkha locally known as Yinder. It is women from remote areas who are mostly associated with it.
Weaving a Pashmina Shawl
Mounting the material over large wooden stands, making the warps manually, fixing the warps over a wooden handloom and a few more steps in this process lead to the woven material, which still is not complete
Finishing a Pashmina Shawl
This step consists of clipping extra hairs, washing, dyeing, ironing and embroidering the Pashmina shawl (which has its own set of processes). This marks the end of the process, and a beautifully designed Pashmina shawl, now complete, ruffles in sheer grace and grandeur.
Let us discuss the processes in detail
The first process in Pashmina making involves pre-spinning processes which include activities responsible for converting raw Pashm into one which is easier and less complicated to manage further. Let's study the processes in detail:
It is believed that in the making of Pashmina shawl, sometimes as many as 200 men are employed. And why not so. The number of processes and the masterly skill it needs to be completed wouldn't require any less. The pre-spinning process starts with the initial harvesting of the Pashm.
The very first phase in Pashmina making is harvesting. Changpa goats usually shed or molt the fleece (which it no longer needs as the winter season has gone) in the spring season - from mid-March to May - and hence the Pashm fleece is collected during the same period. It is calculated that each Changpa goat produces 80 to 450 grams of Pashmina per year. And hence, for one Pashmina shawl, it would take the fleece of three goats. The male goat (buck) sheds more fleece than the female one (doe).
Before combing the goat to acquire Pashm, the experts note if the goats are combing their own selves naturally. Sometimes the goats run around in the bushes and shrubs, sometimes they rub themselves against rocks and rough fences, thereby leaving the soft Pashm over these natural surfaces. But since this natural process does not clear the goats of all the burden they have been carrying for months, the experts switch to professional tools like combs and brushes to acquire the fleece. Natural Shedding is not enough for the making of Pashmina
Combing off the dust and debris over the fleece, the Combing experts use a combination of a pin brush, a slicker brush, and a natural bristle brush to comb the backbone, across the ribs to the belly of the animal which loosens the Pashm fibre and it naturally separates from the goat’s body. The expert works in this way, all over the goat's body, one side at a time and it takes not less than 30 minutes for the most skilled person to complete combing one goat.
The Pashmina fibre so acquired is full of impurities like dust, vegetable remains, sand particles, and much more which needs to be separated from the fibre in the next processes to come.
Dusting and Combing
Before sorting the fibre according to the quality, the raw Pashm goes through dusting. Dusting is a process that makes sure that sand and dust separate from the actual material. It is believed that sometimes there is a loss of 20% of Pashm in this process. That is because, with the impurities, fine particles of Pashm also tend to be lost. And since their size is nanoscopic, they never come back. Hence a loss is tolerated in the making of Pashmina, but impurities are not
If the impurities are too many, then a metal comb upright over a wooden stand is used. Over it, Pashm fibre is continuously impaled three to four times until the tuft seems cleaner. The process is also known as carding - as the fibres get separated and straightened. Nowadays carding is done through machines and wooden combs are the least used.
Sorting and Dehairing
Sorting and dehairing is a manual process in the making of Pashmina. It includes sorting the fleece according to the quality and length of the Pashm fiber and then separating the guard hair from the useful one. Raw Pashm consists of 50-60% guard hair. And since the guard is much rough and coarse, it needs to be carefully eliminated from the actual Pashm fleece. This is either done manually by the womenfolk or with the help of specialized machines which consume less time for the dehairing process to complete. It is said that this rough guard is also stored by the tribes for personal use.
This is a crucial step in Pashmina making where the fibre is mixed with natural glue to lend more strength to the fibres. Usually pounded rice mixed with water is added to the fibre tufts and kept stable for 2-3 days. This gives it strength, moisture and extra softness (rice water is used because it is water-soluble and can be easily washed away later. This Pashm is then cleaned again to get rid of the rice particles in it. The resulting clean and strong Pashm is given a round or square shape known as Thumb.
This Thumb is the part of the Pashm which is taken to handspun over Yinder - the classic charkha. This is the next step to the completion of the ever loved and ever cherished Kashmiri Pashmina shawl. The spinning of the Yarn is the most meticulous and sensitive activity to do. But since Kashmiris have mastered this art from times immemorial now, it seems effortless and easy for the womenfolk. Note that it is the womenfolk, who come from the remotest areas of the Kashmir valley to collect the thumb from the sellers. And spinning this thumb into fine yarn becomes an everyday activity for them.
Spinning fibres of a Pashmina shawl
The process of spinning Pashmina starts with the Thumb, which is the end result of pre-spinning activities. This thumb is handed over to women, who convert these downy puffs of Raw fibre into required yarn count over a traditional wooden charkha locally known as Yinder, to make it suitable for further use.
In the hand spinning method, a small portion from the tuft of fibre is held between two fingers and thumb. The spinner turns the charkha wheel with her right hand, raising and lowering the left hand which carries the fibre, in perfect sequence and rhythm. This part of spinning is the most crucial because if the spinning of charkha is not in line with the movement of the hand, the fibre will break. Next, the resulting yarn is spun over a light holder called Phumblet or a grass straw. The spun yarn is transferred from two of these light holders to a wooden reeler and hence the thread is doubled. At last, this doubled yarn is transformed into hanks, over a wooden reeler locally known as Yarandol and sent to the next batch of craftsmen who weave it into a shawl over looms.
In modern times, Pashmina's making has gone through some changes. Spinning the Raw Pashm in a machine is the modern alternative to hand spinning over Yinder. To enhance the production and lessen manual errors in spinning, Pashm is sometimes spun over a semi-automated spinning machine. The spinners add a component fibre (usually nylon) with the Pashm so that it can bear the harshness of the machine. Later, when a shawl is complete, the processors remove the added component fibres by treating it with commercial grade hydrochloric acid, and the resulting shawl is just pure.
Hand vs Machine
It is Hand spinning that is preferred over machine spinning when it comes to the making of Pashmina. Hand spinning makes the Pashmina shawl softer, more lustrous, and carries the tag of being handmade, which in itself is a luxury. Also, when the machine-spun shawl is treated with acid, it weakens the fibre and the overall process becomes less cost-efficient. Hand spinning, on the other hand, is quite a painstaking task that ensures no additions. It requires immense endurance, perfect know-how, and focus to deal with threads that are 14 times thinner than a human hair. However, for the onlookers, this process is an absolute delight to watch.
The Journey of Handmade Pashmina shawl
While the world glorifies the end product, we went in-depth into each step of the journey. It starts from the underbelly of a Changtangi goat and ends being the crown of a woman’s wardrobe. Starting from the acquisition of the Pashm, and then spinning, the next path that the fibre has to pass through is its weaving. While women are associated with the spinning part of it, it is the men of the family who undertake the weaving part. And hence all members of a family here in Kashmir get involved in the making of a Pashmina.
Why does weaving of Pashmina shawl take so long?
Weaving the fine Cashmere to produce Pashmina shawls is not an easy task. It is a labor-intensive process that takes 5-7 days to complete. Artisans sit for 8-10 hours manually weaving the delicate yarn together to form luxury wraps. Weaving is not just one activity. It consists of a number of steps, the end result of which are opulent Pashmina shawls. Following are the steps of weaving a shawl, which showcase the meticulous efforts and skill of artisans. These steps answer the question "Why weaving Pashmina takes so long"!
Pre Loom Stage
We all know that weaving starts over a loom and that's where the fibres of Pashm finally become a shawl. But before getting to the loom, the fibre, which is right now in the shape of hanks after getting spun over yinder, goes through a number of pre loom activities thereby associating more labour and more hard work with itself. Here is a detailed description of what happens to the fibre, before it reaches the loom, in the making of a handwoven Pashmina
Opening the hanks is the first and foremost activity which is done after the spinners of Pashm handover the Pashmina yarn to weavers. The thread is stretched over thanjoor, large wooden stands comprising of two straight wooden rods and a base. When the yarn gets perfectly stretched as if required, it is next passed on to a prech, which again is a wooden structure around which the yarn is spun. If the yarn needs to be dyed, it is dyed at this stage and is hence is sent to a dyer (rangrez) who uses natural dyes for it. After dying, the Pashmina yarn is again wound on the prech and this process is locally known as Tulun. So now what we have are a number of prech over which the Pashmina yarn is wound.
Yarun: Stretching the Pashmina Yarn
A few of these prech are next, taken outside of the room where four to six rods are driven into the ground in a straight line, at regular intervals. Two men work together by moving back and forth to wind the yarn from the prech around these iron rods by using thin sticks called yarun wej. This process is known as yarun. In this process, the crossing of yarn at each turn is crucial as it can easily get tangled if not properly turned. Over a thousand threads are in this way wrapped around these rods to form warp (locally called yaen) which is considered enough for 4-6 handwoven Pashmina shawls.
Over the Loom: Birth of a Handwoven Pashmina shawl
It's time for Pashmina yarn to meet the loom now. From the iron rods, the yarn is again collected and handed over to the wrap dresser locally known as Bharangorr, who starts fixing it onto the heddles of the Pashmina handloom. Even this process is so complex that it takes more than 5 days for each thread in the saaz (heddles) of the handloom.
The handloom is made of wood, with a bench on which two people (one who passes threads from behind and the other who pulls it through the loop) can comfortably sit. The threads have to follow a specific order according to the weave(diamond, herringbone, or twill). And thus the weaving of Pashmina threads into a shawl starts with the clanking of the handloom. It so happens sometimes that the delicate threads of Pashmina break during the process of weaving. But that is not a problem since the weaver has a veil of threads hung in front of him. He quickly picks another longer thread and uses it instead. During the weaving process, a 10% wastage is completely acceptable.
In the making of handwoven Pashmina, a shawl has been woven but still incomplete. It is known as thaan. Owing to the sumptuousness and gossamer texture of the thaan, it is washed in cold water and a herbal soap or reetha is used.
Finishing of the thaan
The thaan we get after weaving of the threads over the loom is still not complete. Some superfluous flaws, attached threads, or other imperfections need to be corrected before the shawl is sent for embroidery. Hence, it is sent to a purzgar, who clips, tweezes, and brushes off any waste material attached to it. He does this with the help of a wooden frame which consists of two rollers above and below. The shawl is tightly attached over the rollers so that the base is clearly and closely visible. This makes its finishing easy and flawless. This handmade shawl can be finalized by following the below steps
Use of Kasher over the smooth base
Rubbing the thaan with the rough core of gourd, bitter gourd, or a maize cob known as Kasher, makes the surface smoother. It also frees the fabric from surplus threads.
Washing the Handmade Pashmina
The thaan is sent for washing to an expert Pashmina washer. He washes the thaan in running spring water by continuously striking it with a hard surface. Cemented structures or simply stones can be used
Drying the luxurious fabric
The fabric is either wrung in a hand-operated spinner or simply spread 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 ready to meet its seller.
Dyeing and Embroidering Handwoven Pashmina
If the shawl needs further processing like dyeing or being embroidered, then it is again sent to dhobis. They use less harmful natural dyes for a safe and beautiful final piece. Embroiderers embroider the shawl with hands because the base is delicate and cannot bear the stress caused by machine embroidery.