What is Pashmina?
Pashmina is considered the finest craftsmanship in the world which transforms the exceptionally warm and delicate Cashmere threads to opulent accessories. The fleece of Changthangi Goat is known as Pashm which is an Urdu word & has origins in Farsi. This goat is exotic and is only found there, 15000 feet above sea level in Ladakh - Jammu and Kashmir, making the art of Pashmina even rarer and revered all over the world. Pashmina has fascinated kings, royals, and people all over the world by its magical allure and a traditional grace. Perhaps this was the reason why we chose to showcase the exquisiteness and regal demeanour of this centuries old art to the world
Royal Admirers of Pashmina
It's not just today that Pashmina has patronage from around the world. There were times when this art was favoured with royal patronage. Kings, queens, royal families and nobles all over the world knew Pashmina. In fact, they owned a large number of shawls and scarves.
It was in the 16th century when the birthplace of Pashmina - Kashmir - was under Mughal rule, that Pashmina was discovered. And the then Mughal kings were swooned by the mere looks of it. Later the aesthetics of this art spread more and French monarch Napoleon Bonaparte gifted his wife, Josephine, a Pashmina shawl. She is believed to have owned a few hundred shawls in that time. In Iran, rulers wore as well as gifted Pashminas within their political practices. Here in India Maharaja Ranjit decorated his court with hand-embroidered Pashmina shawls and Fabric. The present scenario isn't too favourable for Kashmiri Pashmina. Yet Cashmere is even now considered the king of all fabrics which makes it timeless and a heritage.
From the Nomadic Land of Changthang
The dramatic beauty and the ornamental allure we see on a luxurious Pashmina shawl has a very humble beginning.
Changthang is the land of the nomads, located east of Leh, about 14600 m above sea level. The area is untouched, unusual and rare. It seems as if the noise and grit of the city fades till it reaches Changthang top. Perhaps what makes it so is extreme climate, high altitude and remoteness. And since these properties made Changthang unsuitable for agriculture, the local nomads started rearing goats - the Changthangi goats. For the goats, these conditions are perfect. It is these goats which grow Cashmere - the same Cashmere which is processed in Kashmir to conceive Pashmina shawls.
Also read: Trail of India's Cashmere Goat Men
Let’s take you deep into the journey of this unbelievable craft, right from Ladakh where from it is conjured, through narrow alleys of Kashmir, to luxury stores all across the world.
The Journey of Pashmina...
How the hand-embroidered shawl was first developed?
In the 18th century, as the demand for the kani shawls increased, so did the intricacy of the designs. To weave an intricate kani shawl, it would take two weavers over three years to make, blocking up a huge capital for a long period of time in turn.
Also read: What is Kani Shawl?
To counter this problem, the kani shawls were woven as per panel designs. Then the different parts of the design were stitched together to form a cohesive shawl.
The “rafugars” stitched the panels together with such precision that it was hard to tell where the seams were.
This decreased the time taken for an intricate kani shawl to be made from three years to 6-8 months. But it significantly increased the number of looms used & the kani weavers working on them.
One rafugar in particular, known as Ali Baba, had the idea of touching up the design & pattern of the kani with thread & needle using the chain stitch. He was much pleased with the result & proceeded to develop the entire design by embroidery.
Later, he modified it further by using pashmina thread for embroidery. This improved the final result of both, the kani & the chain stitch.
Introduction of embroidered shawls
Initially, the embroidery replicated the twill tapestry & required very minute observation to tell the difference between the two.
An embroidered shawl took quarter of the time to be ready compared to the kani shawls having a similar body of work. It was hence priced much lower than kani shawls. As far as looks were concerned, the embroidered shawls were spectacular. The decreased time to make an embroidered shawl resulted in considerably less taxation than the Kani shawls.
With the trend witnessing more elaborate designs for kani shawls, thereby increasing its cost, the embroidered shawls, with comparatively lower prices started gaining popularity. These embroidered shawls, were known as “amlikar shawls” & originated in the 18th century.
For embroidering the shawls, the design to be embroidered on the shawl is traced out with perforated lines. It is then imprinted onto the shawl using a fine powder in a contrasting color through the perforations. Once the tracing was removed, the outlines would be visible on the shawl for the embroiderer to start working on. These days however, the embroiderers may also use wooden blocks with carved out designs to make the tracings on the shawl.
Embroidery gains fame
The pinnacle of the embroidery was seen in the mid-19th century. It was when embroiderers developed a new technique, using which the shawl would have two different colors on either side of the shawl. These were called “do-runga” shawls meaning two- colored.
The technique implied imitating the kani weave on the wrong side of the embroidered shawl. This was done by interlacing a different colored thread through the fabric along the motif to mimic kani weave.
The making of the do runga shawls is still practiced however; the do runga embroideries done with Cashmere yarn have ceased to exist in Kashmir after the middle of the 19th century. In fact, this term is not recognized in Kashmir in the present day.
What is the history of the pashmina hand embroiderers?
The hand embroiderers of Pashmina belong to families that have learned, taught & passed on the art through generations. These skilled artisans have been meticulously crafting exotic Pashminas, in time spanning over half a decade for a single shawl. The most refined pieces, with embroidery visible from both sides, are rarely available in the modern time. These double sided or “do-rukha” shawls were worn by the royal families. In fact, these were the ones that were presented to the foreign nobles & rulers as gifts.
The foreigners were so awed by these exquisite shawls that they were immediately won over by them. The elegant handicraft became the object of everyone’s desire.
These exquisite shawls were so loved by the French empress Josephine that she asked for more to present them to her friends at the royal court.
What all types of motifs were used on the pashmina shawls?
There were a lot of designs & patterns that were woven on the Pashmina shawls. The most popular ones include the following.
Buti: This motif is a small singular flower design. It may or may not depict a root structure.
Buta: This motif is multi floral & a lot bigger than a buti.
Buta- buti: This motif is in between the sizes of the buta & buti. It is bigger than a buti & yet smaller than a buta. This particular motif may include double, triple or even quadruple flower heads. But they have always remained less than a buta in size.
Khat-rast: This pattern is a striped one & runs throughout the length of the shawl. Sometimes it incorporates the buti in the stripes.
Badam/ Ambi/ Kairi: This motif is known throughout the world as the “Paisley”. It has been the dominant motif in the majority of the shawls.
Lahariya: This motif is in zig- zag form & is usually used to depict water.
Shikargah: Shikargah means hunting. This motif in shawls depicts jungle scenes with a lot of animal & human figures.
Zanjeer: Literally meaning chains, this is the horizontal border design & encloses the main motifs, such as the buta, paisley etc.
Hashiya: The hashiya is the vertical border woven along the length of the shawl.
Cypress: This motif is denoted by a cluster of flowers & leaves emerging from a single stem. Often times, the stem is accompanied by a root structure. Many a times, the top most bloom has a tilted head making it a barely asymmetric motif.
Bouquets: This motif denotes an elaborate cluster of flowers sometimes absent of leaves but always has a big flower motif at the center, surrounded by smaller flowers. This motif lacks a root structure. Often, the stem is shown to be emerging from a proportionately tiny vase or dish.
Amongst the embroidered ones, similar patterns & designs are made. The flexibility given by the technique of embroidery allowed the embroiderers to explore a lot more in terms of motifs & designs which was somewhat restricted by the kani technique
What all types of Pashmina shawls can we see from the previous era?
A majority of the shawls that have survived over the centuries belong to four different categories, namely, doshalas, patkas, rumals & jamawars.
Doshalas: these are also known as shoulder- mantles.
Patkas: these are also known as sashes & are longer & narrower than doshalas.
Rumals: these are also known as the square shawls
Jamawars: these are also known as the all-over designed garment pieces.
The patkas & doshalas, though have different dimensions, but their patterns are similar, each having a prominent pallas. The vertical border of the patka was found to be usually 1.5 times broader than the horizontal borders.
Pallas consist of decorative floral motifs repeated along the width of the fabric; then enclosed within two or more horizontal & vertical borders.
For an entire century, from the late 17th till the late 18th century, the body of the shawls was left plain. Just the vertical border ran along the length of the shawl.
Over the years, the designs evolved, filling up the body of the shawl with floral motifs & different patterns.
The jamawar pieces & the variety of shawls however, are absent of any pallas. Instead they include only four sided borders with decorative patterns on the body of the shawl
Were all the pashmina shawls displayed in the museums designed like that originally?
Some pashmina shawls are still displayed in their original form. Over time however, most of these expensive shawls had worn out & were recycled.
There would be parts from the worn-out shawls that could be salvaged. These parts would be incorporated into the other shawls by the rafugars & made into completely new designs.
Sometimes, the client would reject certain parts of the design even in new shawls. These rejected parts would be cut off & replaced with a different design or pattern seamlessly to form a new design altogether.
This technique led to many shawls getting recycled & many new patterns & shapes getting formed. The notable ones amongst these would be the “chand-dar” or moon pattern. This was a square piece of pashmina with patches in a circular form in the center & on the corners
1. Fragment of a Kashmir Shawl from late 18th century on display at Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
What kind of dyes are used to color pashminas?
In the 17th century to the mid-19th century, organic dyestuffs were used for a wide range of colors. The skilled dyers would use only five to six different substances to produce a large spectrum of 64 colors.
The organic dyestuffs included indigo, lac & kermes, logwood, safflower & saffron for shades of blue, red, dull red & yellow respectively. It is assumed that the large color palette was achieved by varying the strengths of the dye & also by combining it with different dyes
Upon modern analysis, it was corroborated that all the reds & pinks were derived from lac. The purple shades were achieved by combining lac with indigo in different ratios.
The black dye was the only color which was inorganic. Ferrous- sulphate, a chemical compound, was used to achieve black color.
In the 17th Century
The 17th century dyers were very secretive about their craft & didn’t involve outsiders in its various processes & techniques. The craft was very well guarded & kept within the families & were only passed down through generations.
Their skills were fascinating. They were able to produce a range of 64 colors from the various permutation & combination of merely 5-6 substances.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the aniline dyes were invented & many shawl manufacturers started using them. These colors were not able to retain the softness & durability of the Cashmere fibre & were quickly discarded. This was done because foreign buyers refused to even look at shawls dyed using these harsh chemicals
Why does a shawl require wool from 3 goats?
The quantity of finest quality Pashmina fibre obtained is roughly about 35% of the actual wool by weight. Thus, if a goat gives 100 grams of pashm wool, then only 35 grams from it can be used for spinning of the fine quality yarn
The shorter fibre quantifies to about 50% be weight of the actual wool. These shorter second quality fibres are used to spin slightly coarser yarns. These are then dyed & are used for making the patterns on the shawls
What is pashmina way to process fibre?
The Changpa tribes of Ladakh who herd the Changthangi goat & harvest raw Pashm lack the skills to process the delicate fibre & transform it into the expensive fabric we know today. This lack of skills & inability to refine raw pashm has in fact been a matter of regret for the Changpa tribe.
The Kashmiri weavers, who buy the raw pashm from the middle men, the only connecting link between the Changpa tribe & the Kashmiris; clean the grubby raw pashm fibre. They then comb the fibre & segregate it according to the fineness. It is then hand spun & then set up into warps & put up on the handloom. The yarn is then hand woven & transformed into the beautifully luxurious pashmina shawls that are renowned the world over.
Also read: The Making of Pashmina
What all kinds of yarns are used for embroidering on Pashmina?
Embroidery on Pashmina Shawls is done using two types of yarns. They may be embroidered using silk yarns, or a synthetic known as “staple”.
The silk yarns, being very fine, give a more delicate & refined look to the shawl. As the silk yarn is very lustrous, it imparts a glow to the shawl.
The staple yarn, though thicker & less lustrous, has the ability to hold its color much more than the silk yarns.
After the embroidery is done, the floats at the back of the shawl are cut with scissors, giving it a neat look. It is due to this feature that even when a shawl is not intended to be double- sided, it is very hard to tell the difference between the front & the back!
What does a hand-woven Pashmina fabric feel like?
A truly hand-crafted Pashmina will feel as though you have engulfed yourself in pristine fluffy clouds. Its soft touch & utmost warmth caresses you as you nestle in it. Pashmina has a faintly glossy look owing to its twill tapestry weaving. It reflects small amounts of light & giving it a luxurious appearance.
When a hand-crafted Pashmina shawl is hand embroidered in Kashmiri embroideries, it looks and feels more regal. Shawls embroidered in Tilla Dozi were the ones patronized all over the world, especially by Mughal rulers and nobles.
A special reference to Tilla Shawls
Tilla Embroidery: A brief overview; The classic Kashmiri shawl is among the most exquisite textiles ever woven. It’s a product of consummate skill & artistry applied to one of the world’s most delicate fibres
It has been an object of desire for Mughal emperors & Sikh maharajas, Iranian nobles, French empresses, Russian & British aristocrats. It basically cast its impression on both sides of the Atlantic owing to the industrial revolution.
Pashmina shawls have inspired a number of imitations, but none that could rival the original in its softness & charm of design. Pashmina shawls have left a lasting impression in the aesthetic sensibility of the contemporary world in the Paisley, a motif developed in the workshops of Kashmiri shawl designers.
What makes hand-crafted Pashmina so expensive?
Pashmina weaving has always been a very laborious work. From the combing out of the fleece from the changthangi goats to separating individual fibres; then hand spinning it from fibre to yarn; then the entire weaving process & dyeing; & finally the intricate embroidery.
The number of man hours put in through all these stages is astonishing!
The combing out of the fleece of the entire changthangi goat livestock takes place over a few months. This fleece is a mixture of fine fibre, dirt, coarse hair from the outer regions of the goat, mixed with other organic material from the goat such as sweat & dandruff.
The next stage is the most tedious one, involving the separation of the fine fleece from the coarse outer hair. This hand dehairing of the pashm fibre is a lengthy process, with 50 gms of pashm taking up to 8 hours for separation.
The pashm wool’s natural oil & other impurities are then removed. This freshly cleaned pashm wool is then straightened by passing it through an upright comb.
The Spinning Process
The spinning wheel is used for spinning the pashm to form pashmina yarns. This step is usually carried out by the women folk of the house & requires a skill set that has been passed down through generations.
For spinning, the fibre has to be manipulated as it leaves the spinner’s fingers & onto the spindle. The spun yarn is doubled up& twisted again using the spinning wheel. It is then wound onto a large reel.
This large reel, with the yarn wound around it is used to make hanks of yarn using wooden blocks with large dowels fixed into them.
These hanks are then sent to the weavers.
The Weaving Process
The weavers then lay the warp using continuous lengths of yarn. After the required number of warp threads are set, they are lifted, spread & smoothened out before fitting them on warp beam. The warp beam is detached from the loom for this purpose & is suspended from the ceiling. The loose ends of the warp are cut & inserted individually into the heddles. It is then fitted back into the loom once the warp is set & given a few turns to tighten the warp. Only about 6-7 inches of warp are left for the weaver to start working on.
If, however, the weaver wants to weave kani shawls, then, on consultation with the designer & the weaver, the amount of yarn required for each color is calculated. It is then dyed accordingly.
The dyers of pashmina have also been in their respective craft since generations & were known to keep the secret of colors within the families, completely excluding outsiders from it.
Each of these steps requires an expert skilled artisan. Any mistake in these steps will lead to an improperly crafted shawl, altering its fineness & soft feel.
What goes into the processing of Pashmina?
The processing of Cashmere into Pashmina goes through various stages. Each requires an expert craftsman for it to evolve into the finished Pashmina shawls which are treasured throughout the world.
There are 12-15 stages starting from collecting the pashm fibre & then weaving it into the Pashmina shawls & wraps. After the Cashmere fabric is woven, it is hand dyed. Then skilled embroiderers work their magic on it; & transform it from a plain shawl to a delicate piece of beauty, mesmerizing one & all. The expertise of the craftsmen in these particular stages gives the hand-woven Pashmina shawls their superior quality.
The best quality yarn is made using the longer finer pashm fiber. The suitable length of fiber for hand spinning the pashm fiber into pashmina yarns is preferably over 5 cms. The yarn spun using the longer fibers are less prone to pilling. Hence, they are more sought after for weaving the refined yarn.
What are pashmina most famous weaves?
Pashminas may be available in plain weaves, twill weaves or diamond weaves, also traditionally called the “Chashm-e- bulbul” weave.
The plain Pashmina shawls are most notably available in the diamond. It adds more elegance & grace to the solid hued piece.
The hand embroidery is usually crafted on the twill weave pashmina shawls as they can support the weight of the embroidery better.
The handwoven kani shawl, one of the most expensive kind of Pashmina shawls, is woven in the twill tapestry weave. It resembles the twill weave. But the differently colored yarns forming the design on the shawl are interlocked within each other to strengthen the shawl & avoid any gaps created due to the pattern formation.
What are Pashmina most exquisite embroideries?
There are various types of embroideries adorning the Pashmina, adding to its value & elegance. Among them, the Sozni Embroidery is the heart of Kashmir & Pashmina alike. The other forms of embroideries on Pashminas include Tilla, Paper Mache and Kantha embroidery.
More used Embroideries
Sozni embroidery: Sozni embroidery uses thin needles and silk threads or a “staple” yarn to create elaborate floral or paisley patterns on pashmina shawls and stoles. The colorful motifs are so meticulously embroidered that the pashmina base is barely visible. Sozni requires patience and hard work as a single shawl can take up to two to three years to complete, with master craftsman working on it for six hours every day.
Papier Mache Embroidery: This type of embroidery has the same technique as sozni, but the threads used are thicker and brighter. Satin threads are used to form bright motifs. Later they can be outlined with a black thread to give a protruding effect
Tilla Embroidery: A royal tilla embroidered pashmina is an unmatched luxury clothing to own. Tilla is a golden thread, which is used to embroider paisleys, florets along the borders of a Pashmina shawl. A tilla shawl looks nothing than a precious jewel.
Done with needles as thin as size 28, this captivating embroidery makes every wrap a truly regal affair.
Rarely used embroideries
It consists of mixing hand-painted art with innovative decoration and outlining beautiful floral patterns on the pashminas
Kantha Embroidery: Literally meaning “rags” in Sanskrit, the word kantha originated from the West Bengal state of India. It was used for the pile of worn out silk and muslin clothes that women stitched together as a drape in brisker weather.
Today, it represents a type of embroidery that is done with a simple running stitch along the edges of the fabric, while adding stunning motifs of flowers, animals, birds and geometrical shapes on stoles and scarves.
What is a Pashmina kani shawl weaving process?
Kani shawls are still woven today as they were many centuries ago.
The very first step for making a kani shawl is to make the design for the shawl. The design is drawn freehand on paper first by the pattern drawer.
After this step, a person known as the color- caller fills in the colors & calculates the quantity the yarn has to be dyed in. The yarn is sent for dyeing.
In the meantime, the color caller replicates the design on a graph paper, giving it a geometric look. This replicated design on the point paper is then placed under the set warp. This helps gauge the number of warp threads each weft has to pass through, in order to represent the design on the shawl.
After the warp is set & the yarns are colourfully dyed & spun onto the kani sticks, the weaver proceeds to start the weaving process.
Looking at the design on the point paper & calculating the number of warp yarns the Kani stick has to pass through, the weaver proceeds with the weaving of the shawl. It takes at least 6-9 months
How did Cashmere come to be?
During the stark winters, with temperatures below -40° C, the Changthangi goats grow a thick down of very fine & warm fibers under their coarse outer layer of fur. This fine fiber coat enables these goats to survive the chilly winters. This fine warm fiber, called “pashm” is shed by these goats during spring. It is then harvested by the Changpa tribe.
The pashm of the Changthangi goat is considered to be par excellence & is the raw material used to weave Kashmiri shawls. The westerners, unable to pronounce Kashmir, started calling it as “Cashmere”. This is the origin of the 19th century use of the term “Cashmere”.
Why is Pashmina so exquisite?
The factors which determine the quality of pashmina are its fineness, its fiber length & color.
The raw pashm is available in colors ranging from white, considered the most premium, to brown & grey.
The diameter of the fibre determines its fineness & is measured in microns, i.e., 1/1000 of a millimetre. The pashm from the changthangi goat is between 13 to 19 microns. The suitable fibre length for hand weaving of “pashm” is more than 5 cms. The Changthangi goats that live at higher altitudes produce longer pashm fibre
Also read: Why Pashmina Shawls are Expensive?
Do the silk jamawars & staple jamawars cost the same?
The silk Jamawars are far more expensive than the jamawars embroidered with the staple yarn. This is because of a few major differences between the two yarns.
These differences, like the silk yarn being a natural yarn & staple being a man- made yarn itself makes the most difference in price. Then there is the thickness of the two yarns. Silk is a very fine yarn, compared to staple yarn which is far bulkier than silk.
As a result of this, the embroideries done using the silk yarn take a lot longer to complete than embroideries done using staple yarn
Is Pashmina another name for Toosh or Shahtoosh?
A lot of times, however, Pashmina gets confused with Shahtoosh, both of which were readily available in the previous era.
The scant availability of the white toosh fibre made it more premium & was reserved for the imperial class or the royals, earning it the name of shahtoosh.
Not only are Pashmina & toosh derived from different animals, but they are structurally very different, even though they look similar.
Toosh is finer & warmer than pashmina, with a micron count ranging between 9-12 microns. Whereas Pashmina ranges between 13- 19 microns.
The Tibetan antelope is a wild animal, living at a height of over 4300 meters; compared to the domesticated Changthangi goats which are reared at altitudes ranging from 3600-4500 meters. The higher altitudes & lower temperatures make the animals produce finer, longer & warmer fleece. This difference results in finer fleece of the Tibetan antelope.
The Tibetan antelope, or chiru, was mass slaughtered in the 1960’s to meet the high demand for toosh and shahtoosh shawls. This resulted in the addition of the Chiru in the endangered animals list & banning in the trade of toosh items.
Toosh is the fleece collected from the Tibetan antelope, also known as the Chiru. The toosh fiber is collected from the back & other regions of the chiru & is predominantly found in shades of brown. The toosh collected from the underbelly & throat region of the chiru, however, is white in color & is known as “shahtoosh”.
What are Pashmina varied sizes that you offer?
Pashminas may be available in fabric form, gents size shawl, i.e., 100" X 50", shawl size, i.e. 80" * 40", stole size, i.e., 80" * 28" or scarf size, i.e., 80" X 14". The most popular among these is the shawl size.
You can however customize any product according to your choice.
Are Kani shawls & plain shawls woven the same way?
The most common weave used to weave Cashmere is the twill tapestry technique. This technique has many variants, forming diagonal lines or herringbones or the most beautiful, the “chashm-e-bulbul”. The “chashm-e-bulbul” forms tiny diamond shaped boxes on the shawl & is more commonly known as the diamond weave. “Chashm-e-bulbul” means the eye of the bulbul bird.
Though the basic twill weave is easier to weave, the diamond weave is more popular for plain Pashmina shawls. It adds grace & beauty to the simple Pashmina shawl.
The weavers use a boat shaped shuttle to weave the plain shawls. This shuttle is hollow in the middle & houses a stick with yarn wrapped around it. It also has a tiny hole, or “eye” through which a single yarn comes out. This shuttle is moved to & fro the entire width of the shawl.
For the kani shawls however, the pre dyed yarn is wrapped onto a tiny stick called “kani”. The kani sticks are then used to form the structure as well as the colorful design on the Pashmina shawl.
While a plain shawl will use only one shuttle per weft, a kani shawl can have numerous shuttles in every weft. The number of the kani sticks per weft varies according to the design to be created on the shawl. The more intricate the design, the more is the number of kani sticks & the longer it takes to weave the shawl.
On an average, a plain shawl can be woven in three working days; covering about 26- 28 inches per day. On the contrary, kani shawl will progress slowly, with only about 1/4th of an inch being woven in a day. The work done per day depends on the intricacy of the design
Why is the Kani shawl more expensive than a plain shawl?
A Kani shawl, though woven on the same loom as a plain shawl, will always be much more expensive than a plain shawl. The reason for this is that the design gets woven into the fabric using an age-old technique in a very tedious process. The production of a kani shawl by an artisan takes over six months for completion as the design & structure gets formed weft by weft throughout the length of the shawl
Why is Pashmina so much sought after?
Ever since Cashmere has been discovered, it had been the most sought-after fibre. The reason: being the raw material for the delicate Pashmina shawls worn by the rulers & emperors, kings & queens.
Pashmina, perhaps is the only craft, for which various invasions had been planned. Many treaties were signed to gain control over its trade. It had always been the soft spot of the producing regions, reaping the most profitable revenues.
The pashm trade was shielded from any political controversy by the various treaties signed & this resulted in the prospering of Kashmir’s shawl industry in the late 19th century.
The sparse availability & high prices, along with the combination of high demand & banning of the toosh fibre, led to Pashmina becoming the most sought-after craftsmanship in the world.