Cashmere is produced in a number of countries all over the world. Nestled in the Himalayas, is the luxury fibre producing goat, the Capra Hircus, which produces Cashmere. The goat can be found in a number of places in the Himalayas. As a result, a large number of countries found around these areas are producers of Cashmere. Shawls, scarves, wraps, apparel, accessories, furnishings, and blankets made of Cashmere can be seen in the markets of so many countries at the same time. But there is a place, where the best of the best is found. A small place, where the world’s finest Cashmere is being produced by the Capra Hircus goat.
Ladakh, North India
At a place located over 15000 feet, where the temperature falls to minus 40 degrees celsius, it is hard to believe that something survives. But this vast freezing desert, which lies between the Himalayas and the Karakoram ranges, houses the rarest and exclusive goat breed, the Changthangi goat. The goats are found in a number of colours. White, black, ash, grey, and brown are the colours that these goats mostly feature. This area is Ladakh, situated in North India, and the region is called Changthang.
High altitude, freezing temperature, cold, and unforgiving winds, and the harsh mountainous regions around help the goat grow a special kind of hair. It is a supersoft undercoat that helps the goat survive one of the most severe living conditions. This hair is Cashmere. It is as fine as just 12 to 16 microns in thickness, making it one-fourth of a human hair (which is on an average 50 microns in thickness). This hair is also 8 times warmer than sheep wool. For these reasons, it is considered the most luxurious fibre, and products made from it are world-famous, cherished by the fashionistas and the affluent, and exceptionally elegant to drape.
The Herders of Changthangi Goats
In these inhospitable conditions, it is only the sturdiness and patience of the Buddhist nomadic tribes that stand by these goats. For centuries, these nomads have traveled pasture to pasture with their animals to find better conditions for them to graze and live. It is mainly yak, sheep, and goats that are domesticated by the people. The nomads and their animals together bear these rigid conditions and together give the world one of the most luxurious fibres in the world.
Cashmere is expensive, and we can't argue its legitimacy. As soon as the Spring season arrives, the goats’ moulting period starts and they start losing Cashmere naturally. Some portion left out on their bodies is gently combed off by the herders, thus harvesting the prized Cashmere. One goat produces just 150 grams of Cashmere wool. This is sorted, and bad is separated from good manually. Post sorting, cleaning is done, and this too with laborious, meticulous manual efforts. And after cleaning Cashmere fibre, it is sent for processing to Kashmir.
In Kashmir, Cashmere is again cleaned, and then hand spinning starts. It is a wooden spinning wheel that facilitates the spinning process. Spinning means transforming chunks of Cashmere wool procured from the goat, into long and fine fibre threads. These are sent for hand weaving, which is equally demanding and hard.
It takes months, and sometimes years to complete a Cashmere wrap or shawl. If the wrap needs to be embroidered all over the base, then the final product will be ready after 4 to 5 years. Solid pashmina scarves made from Cashmere are ready in weeks. Again depending upon the size, large shawls take more time than small scarves or mufflers.
Which country has the best Cashmere?
China and Mongolia are the largest producers of Cashmere. Other than these, Cashmere comes from Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The best quality Cashmere comes from North India, Ladakh. Even though Ladakh contributes to less than 1% of the total production of Cashmere, this is the best quality Cashmere ever.
The same wool from other countries is not as fine and as warm as Ladakhi Cashmere. The reason is just the climatic conditions. Ladakhi goats suffer a lot before growing the world’s finest Cashmere on their bodies. If the same Ladakhi goat is transported to an area just a few miles down the plateau, it is believed that the goat produces thicker hair. The same goes for the goats found in other areas of the Himalayan range. Their hair is thicker and less warm, whereas the Changthangi goat of Ladakh has the best Cashmere. As such, Cashmere scarves and wraps from Kashmir, are the world’s highest quality products, with no comparison at all.
Also read: Woven Grace of Cashmere Wraps
Who discovered Cashmere in Ladakh?
It was a traveler and saint from Persia, who first visited Ladakh, and found this soft and warm hair growing on the local goat's body. He ordered its herders to get it processed and make a pair of socks from it. The socks were presented to the then ruler of the Kashmir valley, who was highly impressed by its warmth, softness, and luxurious touch. He ordered processing units to be set up for processing Cashmere. This was the beginning of the Cashmere trade between Ladakh and Kashmir valley.
The trade never remained local but spread all over the world. Raw Material from Ladakh reached Kashmir where it would be processed into shawls, scarves, and mufflers. These products would then be exported to Europe, India, and many smaller regions all over the world. Europeans were, especially, swooned by the beauty of the fabric. In fact, Empress Josephine, the then-style icon of France, wife of Emperor Napoleon, owned a few hundred Cashmere shawls during her lifetime.
Cashmere was, and still is, a royal fabric. In the past, royals would give Cashmere wraps as gifts to each other, and to the rulers of neighbouring countries, which meant an agreement. Even now, either the most affluent, or the true patrons of art and culture own these wraps. As such, Cashmere too adapted to modern needs and came out of the embroidery bubble. Now Cashmere wraps from Ladakh, India, can be seen in animal prints, LGBTQ prints, stripes, and tartan checks, to suit the modern needs of women. Even men have started to understand the same and hence invest heavily in Men Ladakhi Shawls.