The paradisaical valley of Kashmir has an invincible heritage in the possession of High altitude goats which are found in the Himalayan region. The cold and arid Changthang area of Ladakh owns an exotic species of goats, which are known as Changthang goats. A soft and fine fibre is grown over their bodies which is called Cashmere wool. It is this Cashmere wool that undergoes several processes to produce the world-famous Pashmina shawls. Hence we can say that it is the Changthang goat of Ladakh which gives Pashmina wool (Cashmere). That is in turn used to make shawls, scarves, and wraps of the finest quality.
The word Pashmina comes from the Persian word 'Pashm' which means 'soft gold'. And indeed, the experience of wearing a luxury Pashmina shawl or scarf is the same. But, what animal is pashmina wool from? While there are many more types of goats found all over the Himalayan region, it is the Changthangi goat of Ladakh which produces the finest fibre or cashmere, also called pashmina wool. And in turn, it is Kashmir, where the best quality Pashmina shawls are found.
Pashmina comes from an animal fibre Cashmere, derived from the Changthangi goat of Ladakh. It is well known for its warmth, lightweight, and softness in addition to its characteristic dye absorbing property. Pashmina has been accredited by the Guinness Book of World Records for being the costliest cloth in the world (after a ban imposed on Shahtoosh - the fibre produced by the Tibetan Antelope). The reason for being world-renowned is the diameter of each Cashmere thread, which is just 12-16 microns. Note that the human hair has an average diameter of 50 microns, and that makes Cashmere fibre equal to one-fourth of a human hair!
The Pashmina Goat
A mammal belonging to the Bovidae family, the Pashmina goat belongs to the Capra hircus species. It produces fine, gossamer raw wool which has been named Cashmere by Europeans who used to visit the valley to buy Pashmina shawls. These goats are neither too large nor of small stature, and their height ranges from 60 to 80 cm. The average weight of a male Pashmina goat is about 45 kgs, and that of a female Pashmina goat is around 35 kg.
The goats have wide horns and a compact build. These can be found in a few colours with white dominating the breed and black, brown, red, cream, ash being the other variants. Pashmina goats are quite alert and active and this trait has been considered to be due to their feral ancestry.
The whole body of a Pashmina goat is covered with an undercoat of Cashmere as well as long hair. It is just the face and muzzle which are without hair. The ears of Changthangi goats are small in size and erect while the horns are typically curved.
Types of Pashmina goats
Based on a number of physical features, Pashmina goats can be classified into four main groups; western, eastern, feral, and northern goats, Pashmina-Mohair crossbred
The western (Kirgiz) type Pashmina goat
The western type of Pashmina goats produces a huge quantity of Cashmere than their other counterparts. This might be because of their more bodyweight which is approximately 55-60 kg. The fibre diameter of the wool they give is around 18–20 μm
The eastern (Mongolian) type
The eastern type of Pashmina goats has finer and shorter undercoats than the western type. Their undercoat fibre diameter is the same as the Kirgiz type of Pashmina goat, but they are just longer.
Feral and Northern goats
Feral goats are relatively new in the world of cashmere production. Their population is heterogeneous and undeveloped. These goats produce lesser undercoat than the quantity required.
Pashmina-Mohair crossbred goats
Crossbreeding of Pashmina goats with mohair goats has lead to an increase in their fibre length, weight, and diameter.
Pashmina goats and the Changthang
The nimble Changthangi goat has gotten well adapted to the harsh conditions that the Changthang region has to offer. The herder tribes are known as Changpa. These are nomadic communities that are a sub-sect of the larger Buddhist community in the northern Indian union territory of Ladakh. Changpa inhabits the Changthang plateau which has the lowest altitude of 14000 feet above sea level and winter temperature can drop to −40-degree Celsius. For this reason, they rear sheep in these harsh climates for meat, and Pashmina goats for wool primarily.
Changpa tribe resides in tents that are small and circular, with a central heating arrangement. These herders let the animals graze throughout the day, and are returned to the village at night. The grazing areas for summers and winters are differentiated. The climatic conditions induce in the goats the ability to produce warm undercoats so that they survive the harsh climate outside. The Changthangi goats have even adapted to the scarce variety of foods available in the region. As such, they prefer shrubs to richer grasses.
The Pashmina goat moults at the beginning of summer, and by the end of winter combing is done using specialized combs to obtain the maximum out of their bodies.
Also read: The Trail of India's Cashmere Goat Men
Properties of Cashmere fibre
The fineness of Cashmere fibre is the most important quality parameter when it comes to Pashmina shawls and scarves. As a matter of fact, fineness is the very parameter that differentiates it from the sheep wool. The average fibre fineness of Cashmere wool fibre is 12-16 microns. It takes the wool from three to four goats to produce one Pashmina shawl of measurements 200*100 cm. One goat produces about 150 grams of Pashmina per year.
From the Animal to your Wardrobe
For centuries the processing of Pashmina has been taken care of in Kashmir. This is because the people of Ladakh might be rich in the acquisition of the Pashmina goat, but the expertise of processing the fibre lies in the heart of Kashmir.
When the moulting period of the goat is complete, the raw wool is combed off the goat's body and sent to Kashmir for processing. In Kashmir, it is received and straight away sent to artisans who begin by cleaning and sorting the wool which is full of impurities. When the wool is clean, it is spun over a wooden spinning wheel called 'Yinder'. This technique is indigenous to Kashmir and has been so for centuries now. Post spinning the actual Cashmere yarn is produced which is just 12-16 microns in diameter. It is just the meticulous effort and sheer hard work of women who can produce such fine yarn by hand.
After the spinning process, the yarn enters handloom factories where wooden handlooms, traditional to Kashmir, are found. Two or sometimes three men sit over the loom and begin the weaving of fine yarn handed over to them. It is only after three or four days that a Pashmina shawl is produced over the handloom. the shawl is still in its solid form, yet ready to take on any embellishment as the consumer requires. Common embellishments are embroidery which tops the list, followed by prints, patterns, laces, studs and more.
Pashmina and Slow Fashion
While most of the fashion followers today follow fast fashion trends which come and go, besides causing tremendous harm to the environment, Pashmina is different. Firstly it is acquired from an animal which makes it a natural fibre, acquired without any use of the machine. Secondly, it is acquired ethically, without harming the animal, and without using any cruel or hurting methods. And third, Pashmina follows slow fashion trends in the way that a Pashmina shawl lasts for decades together. In ancient Kashmir, a bride used to receive a Pashmina shawl as a gift from her mother, which would be thirty years old. But not a tad in its grace would be lost for such a long time. In fact, it would look more traditional and exquisite in its demeanor
The Question of Purity
As beautiful and graceful as your Pashmina shawl is, there is a chance that it cannot be 100% pure. A Pure Pashmina shawl is one that is only made up of pure Cashmere fibre. with no mixtures. But several dishonest traders and manufacturers have started weaving Pashmina on machines (power looms) to increase production, instead of traditional wooden handlooms. As such, to make the fibre tolerate the strength of the machine, for which pure Cashmere is too weak, some strong fibre like silk or nylon is mixed with the Cashmere, thus making it strong. This mixed fibre is handwoven to shawls and these are sold as pure Pashmina shawls.
The best option for the admirers of Pure Pashmina is to invest in the purest of shawls. Checking for the GI Tag, asking the seller for a certificate that shows the purity of Pashmina, and always buying from authentic sellers are some ways to buy only pure Pashmina.
If it ever becomes possible, visit Ladakh for once and check for yourself how beautiful and graceful is the animal from which the fibre comes. The region it lives in is so pure, fresh, and free from the pollution-filled environment which is found in the cities. And this purity is clearly visible on its coat, which wraps its buyers in the coziest warmth they have ever experienced.