Pashmina shawl is one of the most sought after wraps around the globe. Pashmina shawls are fashioned by a lengthy and labor intensive process in which fine Cashmere wool of a Himalayan goat is ethically acquired and processed for years to furnish the world-famous Kashmiri Pashmina. It is not only the process which makes it special but a number of other things too, which makes it popular amongst known celebrities and it has been so since the 15th century
What is Pashmina?
Pashmina is the art of handcrafting luxury apparel and accessories from the downy undercoat of the Himalayan goat. The goat dwells in the Changthang area of Ladakh - India.
This region over 14000 feet above sea level is known to be home to a community of herders. The Changpa tribe has been occupying the region for decades now. It is they who rear an exotic species of goats - known as Changthangi goats. And it is them who take us to the first milestone in Pashmina making, i.e, collecting wool from the goat.
Also read: The Trail of India's Cashmere Goat Men
Making of Pashmina
When it comes to surviving in the Changthang region, the weather, temperatures, and life are all quite challenging if not impossible. Already, the place cuts itself off from the rest of the world during snowfall in winters, the temperature too is severe and troubling. In winters, Changthang experiences a temperature dip of -40 degrees Celsius and makes life an uphill climb. And it seems that no sign of life would be possible in such conditions, but there is. The Changpa tribe and their goats do manage to survive even in such grim circumstances. How the people manage life here is indeed difficult to perceive, but how the goat survives is even more fascinating.
To survive a temperature of -40 degrees, nature has bestowed the Changthangi goat with fine Cashmere wool which grows over its underbelly neck and some sensitive areas of its body. The wool is delicate, fine, and exceptionally warm. This wool acts as an insulator and keeps the goat warm and active. Even though the diameter of this fine wool is just 12-16 microns, its warmth is such that never has an animal died due to cold, as long there was Cashmere over its body!
In winters the same wool which helped the goat survive, makes it uneasy as soon as summer arrives. And why shouldn't it? After all, wool has extraordinary warmth and comfort. Feeling the same, the goat rubs itself against surrounding rough areas leaving some portion of the wool helter skelter. Herders watch this agony and seek professional help to gently comb off the rest of wool from the goats body. Specialized tools, combs, blades are put to practice. This process takes a long time, as the professionals have to make sure that the animals aren't harmed a bit.
People often ask "Why are Pashmina shawls famous in Ladakh". Well firstly, Pashmina shawls are more famous all over the world than they are in Ladakh, the reason being affordability. Secondly, there are many women and men who love to wear Pashmina in Ladakh too due to its insulating and warming properties. Nothing is as warm, lightweight and comfortable in winters as Pashmina shawls are. Hence be it Ladakh, or any part of the world, Pashmina is loved in winters, as well as in fall or Spring.
Also read: 5 must-have Kashmiri Shawls for all times
Processing in Kashmir
As soon as wool is collected, the animal is free and the wool is in a lump. To make it processable, it is cleaned and sent to Kashmir. Kashmir is the place where masterly skillful artisans are able to process Cashmere manually. On its arrival in the valley, Pashmina is again cleaned and sorted and that's how the entire process begins. After cleaning and sorting, it is handed over to womenfolk of the valley who spin it over a wooden spinning wheel. This step is crucial, as the gentle cashmere wool is easily breakable even by manual stress. Women, by a regular motion of hands and the wheel, make it possible to convert the lump of wool into fine threads, sometimes barely visible. These fine threads are assembled for many days till a sufficient quantity is flocks together. Now is the time for weaving.
Weavers are usually men. As the Cashmere fibre reaches their handloom units, they sit in combinations of two or three and start weaving the fibre into fabric. After an arduous process of 4-5 days, a luxurious and exquisite Pashmina shawl is contrived, still in its basic form.
From the handloom unit, the shawls pass on to washers, who wash it on river banks. Then to dyers, who colour it as per the customers' preferences, and then again wash it. Later the shawl travels to embroiderers, who make simple solid shawls masterpieces. Hand embroidering each shawl might take up several years depending upon the design. Sozni embroidery and Paper Mache embroideries are done on Pashmina use fine threads and needles to cover the base in intricate designs. Tilla Dozi on the other hands uses metallic threads dipped in gold and silver to cover the base in shimmery classic motifs
Other than embroidery, a shawl can be patterned, printed, ombre dyed, or woven in Kani style. Being feathery light and unusually warm, the shawl looks as beautiful as it is comfortable. Not only shawls but huge demand from all over the world has led to Cashmere wool being transformed into scarves, stoles, hijabs, handkerchiefs, sweaters, robes, and many more apparel and accessories.
Pashmina runs in families
Pashmina has been special since it was discovered in the 15th century by Syed Ali Hamdani, who was a Persian saint and had come to visit Kashmir. Along with 700 craftsmen, he was responsible for training locals in handicrafts, one amongst which was Pashmina making. This was the art that was chosen by the most number of people, as it was preferred by royals of that time. Royal courts would have furnishing made in Cashmere. Pashmina was revered by Kashmiris and Kashmiri artisans were respected all over the world. They were the most well-known people of their time.
Pashmina was back then a family affair. While some women would clean or spin Cashmere, men of the family would weave and embroider shawls. Hence a Pashmina shawl would be a brand belonging to one or the other family. At a certain time, when the economy fell, women would sell pieces of their Pashmina to make some money. Hence Pashmina has an emotional connection with the people of the valley, and it is such that even after the industry is on the verge of extinction, it is these 70 and 80-year-olds, who haven't let go of it.
Also read: Kashmiri artisans - Hands behind the craft