The paradise on Earth, Kashmir, apart from being abundant in natural picturesque scenic beauty spots, is abundant in the most beautiful handicrafts. The rich and exquisite handicrafts are another feather in the hat when one talks or writes about why Kashmir is world famous. And it's not a thing of pride for just Kashmir, but the entire nation (India), as handicraft accounts for a significant income of the country. It plays a vital role in improving the economic setup of a nation, besides playing the role of a helping hand for local artisans.
Pashmina and the Artisans:
The art of Pashmina has always been the biggest support and a boost for the livelihood of artisans. The art was introduced by a Persian Saint in the valley, and since then artisans have been closely associated with the same. The art form earned the artisans their livelihood and improved their lifestyle drastically. Pashmina shawls soon became world famous and so did the artisans. When the shawls were sold at high prices, the artisans got good returns for their work. So much so that this community, which was a few years ago one of the most downtrodden, was suddenly the most famous!
Pashmina artisans received fame as well as strong incomes in just a few years. Hence the maximum population of locals joined the Pashmina team, and started their careers in Pashmina making. Women took up spinning of the Cashmere fibre, as it was possible to do the same from the comforts of their home.. This made household work as well as earning money easy and simultaneously for them. Some women excelled in hand embroidery as well. Men, on the other hand, took hand weaving and embroidery. Weaving would be done on large handlooms which were to be installed in factories. Large handlooms couldn't be installed at homes, and hence men left their homes for the factories early morning. A few men artisans took up embroidery and excelled in the same, with some flawless pieces to flaunt.
What does Pashmina mean (Pashmina Definition)
Pashmina refers to the art of handcrafting exquisite pieces of wearable apparel or wraps with fine Cashmere found in Ladakh, India. The term gained prominence when it was discovered for the first time in the 15th century, and since then has been the first priority of the royals, members of the noble courts, the affluent, and some patrons of classic art. Pashmina shawls from Kashmir are well known all over the world for their finesse, gossamer touch, and exceptional warmth that they lend to their wearer
What does Pashmina mean literally?
The word pashm comes from the Persian language and literally translates to "soft gold". The term comes after the visible smoothness, warmth, softness, and aesthetic attributes related to the final products which are crafted using raw Cashmere. It is coined in Persian as it was Shah I Hamdan, who discovered Pashmina for the first time in Kashmir. Let us go deep into the history of Pashmina, and know everything about what this luxury is.
History of Pashmina
Pashmina has a rich history. The existence of Pashmina has been there since around 2500 BC. At that time, it was only the kings, queens, and other royals and elites who wore Pashmina shawls. Gradually, commoners, who became ardent fans of the art form, started purchasing Pashmina shawls, even if it meant saving a lifetime of savings. When it was released by the producers of Pashmina, they started handcrafting Pashmina products at lower prices. These products included small scarves, or shawls which included sheep wool with Pashmina (semi-Pashmina shawls). This way commoners could afford to wear Pashmina.
Not just local Kashmiris, many popular figures all over the world were in love with Kashmiri Pashmina shawls. King Akbar, Jahangir, and Empress Josephine (wife of Napoleon) area few examples. In Europe, Pashmina shawls gained prominence when Empress Josephine set these into a timeless fashion. It was Napoleon who gifted her a Kashmiri Kani Pashmina shawl; it impressed her so much that she ordered a few hundreds of the same. Many centuries later, Princess Dianna was spotted wearing Pashmina scarves. Nowadays Celebrities around the world prefer Pashmina to other categories of wool for its delicate texture, smooth finish, and exclusive warmth it lends.
Because Pashmina enjoyed a glorious reputation all over the world, the artisans too benefited from it. This community of exceptionally skilled people got a boost in their personal lives and saw an immense growth as far as their earnings were concerned. They were invited by countries all over the world, and requested to train the local artisans in the same. This grew their confidence, and they were empowered in performing much better, even though the tasks were tiring. Hence the rich history of Pashmina can be attributed to the unending efforts that artisans put into it, as well as the purity and finesse of Ladakhi Cashmere, that was unmatched.
Pashmina in Kashmir (Pashmina Definition)
It is essential that we know the history of Pashmina in Kashmir. Pashmina definition in Kashmir was the luxury shawls that artisans produced in years. But very few individuals saw the great efforts that were hidden behind the shawls. Pure Cashmere from Ladakh was manually acquired and then processed for months or years together to produce luxury shawls. Note that this technique was indigenous to Kashmir, and no nation around the world could process Cashmere like Kashmiri artisans did. It all started when Syed Ali Hamdani arrived.
It was the 15th century when Kashmir's economy was in great trouble. People didn't have jobs to do and earning was much harder than it is today. And then came the day when a Persian Saint by the name of Shah I Hamdan decided to visit the valley. He did this numerous times, and on one tour to Kashmir, he brought with himself 700 skilled craftsmen, who were masters of a number of crafts. These included wood carving, silverwork, Papier Mache, Copper work, and many other crafts that Kashmir is well known for today. But one of the crafts gained more attention than the others. That was Pashmina making.
A large number of local craftsmen chose Pashmina for the way it was acquired, processed, embellished, and later worn, and the way even a small bit of the fabric fetched a lot. And ever since it has been the backbone of the Kashmiri economy. Those artisans learned, and then their offspring learned the same. That is how Pashmina traveled generations together. Till now, there are artisans, with decades of experience, who are associated with the same art of Pashmina making that Shah I Hamdan taught five centuries back. Yet the art hasn't lost a tad in its grace, quality, and warmth.
The Coming of a Saint
Even though Syed Ali Hamdani was arrived in the valley to teach the locals the religion of islam, he brought with himself a group of skilled craftsmen. Along with religious teachings, the craftsmen trained locals in a number of art forms. This included papier mache, carpet making, walnut wood craft, wicker willow craft, and more. But the one that almost all of the locals chose was the art of Pashmina shawl making. The reason for this was the popularity of Pashmina art, and how women as well as men swooned over the final products. The income of Pashmina artisans was handsome, and many were able to tour foreign countries with the help of this art.
Even though the making of Pashmina is a meticulous task, which includes a number of complex processes, artisans never stopped. Since the 15th century, till now, artisans continuously follow every single step in the making of Pashmina shawls. The reason for this is their love for the work. Making Pashmina shawls is a passion for the artisans, and hence it never tires them physically or mentally.
Making of a Pashmina Shawl
Processing Raw cashmere to luxury Pashmina shawls is a wondrous process. It takes days, months, or years together and the efforts of hundreds of craftsmen to craft one Pashmina shawl. Here is a series of the processes that one has to follow to arrive at a beautiful Pashmina shawl.
Step 1: Fibre Harvesting
Raw Cashmere grows on the body of a Cashmere goat which is found in Ladakh. The goat grows it as a defense mechanism against the harsh cold that the region experiences. It is during the spring season when the goat sheds this undercoat. It starts to rub itself against coarse surfaces (stones, bushes, and walls) to get rid of the hair naturally. Some of the hair is lost in the process which is collected later by its herders. The rest of the portion is removed by the process of combing. It is done by professionals who bring along specialized combs and tools and make sure the animals aren't hurt in the entire process of combing off their undercoat.
When the entire hair is gathered, it is then cleaned as it contains impurities like dust, sand, vegetable wastes and other types of contamination that are attached to it. It is then sorted according to certain parameters, the first one is the colour. Cashmere fibre can also be sorted on the basis of fibre length and finesse. Finer, longer and white Cashmere fibre generates more return than rough, short and coloured fibre.
Step 2: Dehairing the Fibre
Pashmina goats produce double fleece. This means the raw wool we get after combing is a mix of fine hair (which is Cashmere) and guard hair. Using special equipment, the two of these are separated from each other. The guard hair should be absolutely absent before processing. If the presence of guard hair is more than 5%, it affects the quality of the final product.
Step 3: Spinning the Fibre
The collected fibre is sent to Kashmir, as Ladakh does not have Pashmina artisans available locally. As soon as it reaches Kashmir, it is spun by hand, which is locally known as Yinder. Before spinning, the fibres are placed in containers filled with rice powder, which adds more strength, shine, and softness to it. Hand spinning is a painstaking and time-consuming process. It requires a lot of skill, patience, and immense dedication to the work.
Step 4: Weaving the spun Yarn
We all know now how delicate Pashmina yarn is. Hence no machine in the world can process it without damaging it. There might be shawls that have been woven on power looms, but they are a mix of silk and Cashmere, hence impure. Weaving pure 100% Cashmere shawls are done on handlooms. Two people sit across the handloom, and in a few days, a shawl is handwoven completely. Weaving is considered an art in itself, and for centuries, craftsmen have passed on the art to their younger generations.
Step 5: Dyeing and Embroidery
After the fibre is handwoven and it is a complete shawl, scarf, or a luxury wrap, it is to be dyed in desired colors or patterns. People might like their shawls in the natural colors that Cashmere has, and indeed the basic colors are really graceful, but Pashmina is flexible enough to hold any other dye. Pashminas shawls are dyed manually. Most of the time vegetable dyes are used which are azo-free and metal-free, but that is not always the case. chemical dyes are used as well.
After dyeing Pashmina shawls, they are sun-dried and sold in handicrafts markets. Or else they are sent for embroidery
Embroideries on Pashmina Shawls
Pashmina is a delicate fibre, and therefore the embroidery to be done over it must be delicate as well to protect the underlying gentle base. There are specialist artisans who have decades-old experience in the embroideries they are associated with. Usually, three kinds of embroidery patterns are limited for Pashmina. Sozni embroidery is preferred the most as it consists of thin needles and fine threads which the embroidery artisan moves in and out the wrap as he embroiders his masterpiece. This kind of embroidery is the lightest and hence can be done all over the shawl without damaging the base.
Another type of thread and needle embroidery is the Papier Mache embroidery. It uses thicker threads and protruding motifs to give a deeper, colourful and more artistic effect to the base. These type of shawls are mostly used on special occasions like weddings.
The last type is Tilla Dozi, which is the most elite and royal manifestation of any embroidery indigenous to Kashmir. this embroidery was once reserved for the royals only as it used real gold and silver threads to be passed through Pashmina shawls. However, as time passed, it was made affordable for the general public by using metallic wires coated in gold or silver. Tilla shawls are special and are hence used as gifts for bridal accessories.
This is the end of the journey of a Pashmina. After embroidery, it is passed on to dealers who sell them to the admirers of these classic wrap accessories. People from all over the world have been patrons of this traditional art and have wanted to own at least one piece. Pashmina shawls are considered a social status, as these are heirloom pieces with a huge value.
Popularity of Pashmina Shawls all over the world
Kashmiri Pashmina shawls hold great eminence when it comes to Europe and The United States of America. A number of shawls have been preserved in world-famous museums in these places. Some of them are:
- Map Shawl: The exquisite Map Shawl of Srinagar which was handcrafted in the late eighteenth century is considered one of the most amazing pieces of art on fabric to ever exist. This shawl took 30 years in the making. It is presently at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This was gifted to them by Mrs. Estelle Fuller in 1970 and the specimen as per the Museum was made in 1870
- Another Kashmiri Pashmina Shawl belonging to the 19th century is present at-the-Guimet-Museum-Paris.
- A small piece of a Kashmiri Pashmina Shawl from the late 18th century on display at Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. the shawl features the ever cherished Buta (paisley) motif.
The Decline of Pashmina
What goes up must come down. When it comes to Pashmina, this expression is absolutely correct. In around the late 1990s, the glory of Pashmina saw a gradual decline, owing to changing preferences, high prices and the usual new styles introduced by locals. Another large decline in the shawl industry was the making of fake shawls. A number of shawl traders started selling pashmina shawls which wouldn't be made from pure Cashmere. They would mix sheep wool, or nylon with Cashmere, yet sell these shawls at the price of Pashmina shawls. Another large factor for people switching to other shawls was the introduction of machines. The power loom, which was introduced as a competition to traditional handlooms, produced shawls in a few hours, as compared to a few days taken by artisans on a handloom. This would have been a welcome step, hadn't the producers mixed Cashmere with the strengthening fibre to make Cashmere bear the strain of the machine. These shawls, even though produced in less time, were poor quality. A Pashmina shawl lasts for a lifetime, but these shawls couldn't last for 3 or 4 years. This was a blow to local artisans as well as the industry itself. So much so that a time came when already handcrafted products had no buyers.
Soon the world famous Pashmina shawls had almost no buyers, as it lost the reputation of being timeless and having a long life. Women switched to other alternatives like sheep wool shawls, silk shawls, polyester shawls and more. These were much cheaper as well as stylish. This led to a sharp decline in the economic growth of the nation, and Kashmir suffered as a whole. Women were left unemployed, and men were forced to look for other options.
Pashmina - Present Scenario
The present scenario isn't very favourable for the Pashmina industry. A large number of artisans who decided to quit the art form had no successors. Hence a meagre amount of artisans are left, but they are immensely skillful. Realising their skill and unmatched love and reverence for this art form, young individuals re-introduced the art of Pashmina by directly contacting these sellers. Some of them are as old as 80 years, while others, who have learnt from these octogenarians are still in their 40’s. This is the community of artisans left, who are trying to revive the art.
Pashmina.com is one such platform which directly gets in contact with producers of Pashmina shawls, and does not, hence, require the interference of traders, wholesalers or retailers. The best thing about this model is that the returns earned from the shawls go directly in the pockets of these, now underprivileged artisans, who are in desperate need of it. We have managed to sell the shawls at international levels, and hence tried to give the same respect to the artisans
Pashmina and Pashmina.com
A young man in his 30’s noticed the agony of the local Kashmiri artisans and hence decided to give them a helping hand. Varun hails from Delhi, and it was during a religious trip to Kashmir that he realised the art of Pashmina deserves to be revived in the best way. He started Pashmina.com, and sold some luxury pieces online. Soon men and women all over the world followed the same and hence the website as well the industry got a new boost. It has been just 5 years into the business, Pashmina.com has managed to help more than 100 artisans which includes taking care of their families as well. Varun supports the education of the artisans’ children, as well as employs their wives, who help with spinning or embroidery of shawls, scarves and wraps. The organisation is a proud assembly of artisans, weavers, embroidery artisans, spinners and labourers. All of these members are respected members of the organisation and together make the art of Pashmina better each day. As such, products that the organisation sells are always hand woven and hand embroidered. The designs are modern as well as conventional. The best part of the products is their quality, and the certificate of authenticity attached to each batch of products that come from Kashmir after a stringent quality check at the Craft Development Institute (CDI), Srinagar.