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What is Cashmere?

April 28th, 2021 | 59 views
What is Cashmere?

In the 16th century, the great Saint Mir Syed Ali Hamdani visited Kashmir, along with a team of skillful craftsmen. He trained the locals in many crafts such as Paper Mache, carpet weaving, wood carving, and more. But the one thing that most people chose was indeed remarkable. This craft was the one that swaggered in the world of art. It was the making of Pashmina shawls. Pashmina was and is the art of handcrafting luxury shawls from Cashmere wool. What is Cashmere? And how was it discovered? We demystify.

The word Cashmere is an anglicization of the word Kashmir. When Europeans heard about a super soft, fine, and exceptionally warm variety of wool, which had been discovered in Kashmir, they visited the valley to see it for themselves. The heavenly soft and fine wool caught their attention at once, and they called it Cashmere (since they couldn't pronounce Kashmir in the local accent).

Cashmere is a variety of wool that is obtained from Pashmina goats found in Ladakh. This fine, delicate, and lightweight wool type is used to make luxury textiles for centuries now. The best and the most famous use of Cashmere is the making of Kashmiri Pashmina shawl which crossed all boundaries of the world to be owned by royal families in Europe, Asia, Australia, and America. The reason was the softness, smoothness, and finesse of this fiber which was one-fourth of the human hair in diameter. It began to be used as shawls, apparel, and upholstery items for the royals and their courts.

Also read: The Trail of India's Cashmere Goat Men

Where does Cashmere come from?

90% of the total produce of Cashmere comes from China and Mongolia. Iran, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Turkey and Kashmir produce the rest of the 10%. The best quality and the finest Cashmere comes from Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir. It is used to make the world famous Kashmiri Pashmina shawls

The nomadic tribal population which resides in the Ladakh, in the Changthang region rears a special rare goat species. The Capra Hircus also knows as Pashmina/Cashmere goat grows a fine fleece over its body over its underbelly, behind its ears, and over its neck. This wool is Cashmere. It keeps the goat warm and comfortable during the harsh winter that the region experiences. Raw wool is combed off the body of the Pashmina goat and is thoroughly processed to get rid of impurities and the guard hair. Guard hair needs to be separated for 100% pure Cashmere fibre. Dehaired Cashmere is later processed again, converted to yarn, and later to textile, apparel, or wrap accessories

How is Cashmere collected?

Cashmere wool is collected during mid-spring when goats tend to shed it naturally. It starts from March end to May. During this time, hormonal changes in the animal as well as the intense heat of the altitudes force it to shed the wool. Now the goat rubs itself with rough surfaces to get rid of some portion of this warm fleece. Besides, it is the summer season now, and warm fleece has started to make the animal uneasy.

cashmere goat
The Chandthang goats in the snow-capped Ladakh

This is noted by its herders who call for professional help. The animal is ethically treated and wool is combed off its body with specialized tools and combs by these professionals. Note that the wool is not sheared off its body, but gently combed off. When the entire wool is collected, it is sorted as per finesse. The goats now roam free. Pure Cashmere is later separated from guard hair and processed further.

Processing of the fine wool

Raw Cashmere wool is sent to Kashmir for further processing where women again clean it. They check for any foreign material or guard hair and send it for spinning only when they are sure about the purity of the wool. Pure wool is placed in a container filled with powdered rice for a few days. This makes the raw fibre more strong and more smooth. After the cleaning process, the wool is sent for spinning. Women spin the raw fibre on a wooden spinning wheel called 'yinder'. The spinning wheel helps to create long threads of Cashmere yarn out of the lump of cleaned wool. The threads are strung together and sent to the factory where large wooden handlooms await

Processing of Cashmere Wool
Weaving of Cashmere into a Pashmina shawl over a traditional handloom

Handloom is used to weave Cashmere yarn and produce fabric. The handloom too is made of wood and is more traditional, than modern, and more manual than mechanical. Manual work is done by 2 to 3 men. As soon as threads of raw wool arrive, they are mounted on the loom heddles and two or more workers start with weaving it. One wrap of 100 cm breadth and 200 cm length is done in three to four days, and this is the world-famous Pashmina shawl. It is sent for finishing, embroidery, washing, and ironing, and hence the entire shawl gets ready from early summer to starting winter. It is late September when the sale of these Pashmina starts.

Embroidering a Pashmina shawl

Hand embroidery on Pashmina
A Kashmiri Artisan hand embroidering a Jamawar Pashmina Shawl

Embroidery artisans are a different group of craftsmen, who work in an exceptionally meticulous fashion. Embroidery to be done on a Pashmina shawl takes a few months to years together, depending upon the design and quantity. Jamawar shawls usually take 3 to 4 years, while a Kani Jamawar might even take 5 years to complete. For this reason, Kashmiri Pashmina shawls are considered the best, and higher on the price scale. It is pure manual labour, which goes into making every single piece. From start to end, there is no mechanical help from any sort of machine, and hence the end result is pure and magical.

Also read: 5 types of hand-embroideries for Kashmiri Shawls

What is 100% Cashmere scarf?

When the popularity of Cashmere rose to its zenith in the 19th century, many fraudulent traders started making cheap copies. This led to a downfall in the making of pure Cashmere wraps as cheap copies were sold for less. Hence customers got lured to them. No foreign strengthening material would be used in it. After the advent of power looms, Cashmere wool would be mixed with strengthening nylon or silk to make it eligible for the wear and tear of the machine. The scarves, hence, would be an amalgam of a number of materials and not pure. 100% Cashmere scarf is 100% pure scarf, which is handmade and there is no interference of machine.

Is this luxury wool from Kashmir?

Cashmere production is the largest in China, which is followed by Mongolia. But the quality of Cashmere coming from these areas is nowhere close to the Cashmere from Kashmir. Kashmiri Cashmere is rare, finest, and hence expensive than the others. One Pashmina goat of Ladakh produced around 150 grams of this wool per year, and hence it takes 3 to 4 goats to make a Pashmina shawl. The Changthang area and its atmospheric conditions are ideal for Cashmere growth. It is said that if the goat is shifted to an area just some kilometres away from Changthang, it wouldn't grow Cashmere as fine as it grows the same in Changthang. The perfect conditions for the growth of exceptionally smooth, fine, and warm wool is the area itself.

The History of Cashmere

Cashmere has a long history when it comes to its discovery and usage. It is today is produced in a number of parts of the world, especially those where the mighty Himalayas lie. But this hasn't always been the case. Pashm, the term used for Cashmere wool which literally means soft gold, has been in use since the 15th century in Kashmir. It was the then King Zain ul Abideen, who ordered starting a number of manufacturing units for Cashmere, and assisted these by bringing craftsmen from Persia.

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

What actually happened is that the famous 14th century Sufi Saint by the name of Mir Syed Ali Hamdani discovered this supremely soft and luxurious wool in Ladakh. As he found it to be perfect, he ordered socks to be made out of it. When the socks were complete, he gave them as a gift to Zain ul Abideen, who ruled Kashmir back then. The king was so delighted and impressed with the high quality and softness of the socks that he immediately ordered its processing to be done in Kashmir. Around 700 craftsmen came from Persia and trained local Kashmiris in processing Cashmere. Spinning, weaving, and embroidering were taught to locals, and ever since, families depended on these crafts for a living. This was the start of Cashmere manufacturing in Kashmir, which later spread all over the world.

Trading Cashmere

When Europeans came to know about Cashmere, they at once ordered some pieces to be traded between the nations. Raw Cashmere would be imported from Kashmir, and was first used by France to create copies of Pashmina shawls. French Cashmere shawls were differently patterned as compared to Kashmiri shawls. Pashmina shawls arrived first in Paris, and instantly became the most sought after, and expensive, status symbol of the time. Cashmere was purchased by women from the wealthy upper classes, who would keep themselves comfortable pairing war Cashmere shawls with short-sleeved, high-waist dresses. But the highlight in the history was the obsession of Empress Josephine, first wife of Napoleon of France, who supposedly owned hundreds of Cashmere shawls

Cashmere produced in Scotland

In the 1800s, after Cashmere took over the fashion world in France, it started moving towards Scotland. In fact, the art industry in Scotland put prize money for the first person to produce Cashmere yarn in the country. Later, large production of Cashmere began in the country, especially in the town of Paisley. The town became a huge success in manufacturing Cashmere and a motif was named after it. Some believe that the motif was even invented by the Scottish craftsmen.

A shawl stands tall in the Metropolitan Museum. It is a European Cashmere shawl, which is an imitation of Kashmiri style. It has the Buta motif covering its borders, which some consider is the Paisley motif from Scotland.

Fragment of a Kashmiri Shawl from the late 18th century on display at Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Fragment of a Kashmiri Shawl from the late 18th century on display at Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

After some years, Europeans started manufacturing Cashmere blends. Manufacturers mixed pure Cashmere yarn with cotton, silk, or sheep's wool, and sold these at cheaper prices to be afforded by the common man. This was basically to cut Kashmiri Shawls from the market and promote their own product. While the actual patrons of pure still purchased shawls from India, due to them being authentic and of superior quality.

Reply to European Copies by Kashmir

When Europeans copied almost all styles manufactured in Kashmir, the local artisans replied by creating new and unique styles in the industry. They invented a new shawl which was made of patches sewn together. Another type of shawl was the AMLI shawl, which wasn't Pashmina but a simple cotton shawl. It had a cotton base, which was fully embroidered in colourful threads.

French craftsmen used a new kind of loom, called the Jacquard loom which automated the weaving process much. With the Jacquard loom, it was possible to weave complex patterns of flora, fauna, architecture more quickly and efficiently. Soon Scottish craftsmen used Jacquard loom and manufactured their own production. The introduction of new patterns of shawls in Kashmir, as well as Europe, made the shawl industry flourish like never before.

Decline of the shawl industry

Fashion doesn't remain for long. And that is what happened to all these Cashmere shawls. Women's preferences changed, and soon this mass production of shawls attained a low. Something similar happened to the Kashmiri Cashmere industry. Their first door closed when Europeans changed their preferences. Soon demand declined, and artisans went jobless. Locals, too, weren't interested in wearing Cashmere due to its high prices, and declining quality. Hence Cashmere began to be seen lesser and lesser, and the trend perished soon.

Revival of Cashmere in Kashmir

When some manufacturers gauged the flourishing of the Pashmina trade amongst Europeans, they started to malign it. The power loom was introduced, and now shawls were being woven over the power loom. To bear the strain of the machine, Cashmere was mixed with nylon, silk, or sheep wool, and the end product would thus be a blended Pashmina and not the pure one. But the sellers would sell it as pure Pashmina and take home the prices that one would pay for the purest shawls. Soon audiences realized they had been cheated when shawls weathered within a few years (pure Pashmina lasts for over 20 years) and stopped buying Cashmere shawls. They were of the opinion that the quality of Cashmere has diminished.

Papier Mache Embroidery on Pashmina Shawl
So many pairs of connoisseur hands come together in the making of a Pashmina shawl which looks nothing less than a marvel in itself

But soon, the real admirers of classic fashion came to rescue Pashmina as well as its makers. Pashmina.com is one of them. They gave people the knowledge, as well as offered purest Cashmere, made Pashmina shawls in their collections. Now audiences know the difference between machine-made shawls and handmade shawls. Pure Cashmere can only be processed manually, as it is delicate, and cannot bear the wear and tear of the power looms.

Also read: Cashmere for weddings and beyond

Why should we invest in Cashmere shawls?

We being ardent admirers of Pure Cashmere shawls feel that such questions are really important to be asked. Because when you fully know what a treasure Cashmere is, you will definitely invest in one piece at least. Here are a few reasons to buy Cashmere Wraps:

  • Cashmere is one of the warmest fibers in the world. It has amazing insulating properties, and it is eight times warmer than sheep wool.
  • Cashmere shawls are versatile and have adapted to modern styles. You can have plain solid Cashmere shawls, striped and printed ones, and embroidered heavy keepsakes too. These are perfect for every occasion.
  • Cashmere is sustainable. It is a natural fiber, doesn't use any machines in its making, isn't cruel in its acquisition, and many other reasons that make it a responsible buy.
  • Cashmere is warm, yet lightweight. It is so light that one full shawl is around 300 grams (solid). This makes it an ideal accessory for working women, as they would never want to wear an uncomfortably heavy wrap at the workplace
  • Cashmere shawls make ideal gifts for even those who have everything. These are souvenirs from the past, and hence make a beautiful gift for those who mean a lot to you.
  • Cashmere shawls are unisex. These can be worn by men too and carry a dapper look. Men's shawls are just a bit longer and wider, but stoles are almost the same measurement as women's are
  • Cashmere shawls bind you to your traditions. You are connected to your roots, and gradually discover how beautiful traditions are

We love Cashmere

For the solid pieces worn to offices, to animal prints for casual days off, from striped scarves for client meetings, to reversibles for semi-formal functions, from embroidered shawls for a best friend's wedding, to a Kani Jamawar when you are the bride, Cashmere is the ultimate luxury you can have. From the mighty Himalayas to your wardrobes, this treasure goes through hundreds of hands, who pour their love and best wishes into each fibre that encompasses a luxury shawl. About 10 to 12 households survive because of one shawl you wear, that's how treasured it is. Not only its warmth and softness make it special, but how it contributes to society makes it irresistible.

We are totally in love with Cashmere. Are you yet?

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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