Earliest use of the fabric was to make robes for royalty. The rarity and intricacy of designs, coupled with its functionality made it popular. The shawls were sought after for their warmth as well as kept as heirlooms. Sometimes passed on from one generation to the other.
Origin of Pashmina dates back to ancient civilization and has been traced back to the times of Mahabharata. Earlier in olden days pashmina shawls found favor with emperors, kings, princes, rulers and nobles. This precious fabric was known as 'FIBER FOR KINGS'. It started long back; the mountain people of Nepal had to depend on the fabric they wove for warmth, for easy travel and for survival. In many high mountain areas and semi-tropical jungles, they continued to weave for their perfect protection and comfort wear. Today professional men embroider Kashmiri shawls. Lately, the American market has opened to Pashmina as Americans discovered its plush, soft texture. Fashion gurus now pronounce it as essential to the wardrobe as the ubiquitous little black dress.
'The word 'Shawl' is taken from a Persian word 'Shal' for a length of fine woolen fabric used as a garment. Shawl weaving remained one of the most important economic activities of Kashmir till the late 19th century. It usually takes two weavers around 3-6 months to complete a shawl, depending on the intricacy of the design.
In response to the severe cold of altitudes over about 15,000 feet, a species of mountain goat produces an undercoat of extremely fine soft wool called Pashmina, which is popularly known as 'Cashmere' globally. Caravan traditionally brought down limited quantities of this wool from western Tibet and Kirghizia into Kashmir. Depending on its quality the wool was sold, or let out to the spinners and dyers, in small amounts painstakingly weighed and accounted for.
The finest is known to grow on the Himalayan Ibex's underbelly. During the summers, they rub themselves against rocks and shrubs, leaving behind fine shorthaired fleece. This is collected and has an added value due to its scarcity. The fleece is called Asli Tus, renowned for it's soft silkiness, lightweight, warmth. The famous 'ring shawls', which can pass through a small thumb ring.
Division of labour was carried to extremes, with scores of people participating directly in the production of one shawl. These include the broker dealing in wool, the women who separate the fleece, clean it, and spin it, and the men who dye it, make and dress the warp, thread the heddles, draw the shawl pattern, call colours as the pattern is coloured in, transcribe the coded guide to weaving (taalim), weave the shawl, tweeze out imperfections, and wash and stretch the woven shawl. In the process, the Naqqash or designer is held in high regard. They are paid more than the weavers are. In earlier times, the fame of Kashmir shawls had so spread through northern India, that it was much sought after by the Nawabs of Oudh, the Rajput princes and the elite of Hyderabad. They wore Jamas and Angarkhas of elaborate design. The fame of the shawls had spread as far as Russia, where the nobility used it as wall hangings. It is said that the empress Josephine of France owned around 400 shawls.
Myths & Legends
The first mention of pashmina stems from the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata from 6 to 4 century BC. Pashmina - these precious fabrics were intended for the king and their donation is gaining the favor of emperors, queens, princes and nobles. Though the history of shawl weaving, with which the history of woolen textiles is closely associated, is rather obscure, references to shawls are first found in the Ramayana and the Atharvaveda as well. The shawl is also mentioned in ancient Buddhist literature among the recorded inventories of woolen garments.
The king of all wools originated in Kashmir hundreds of years ago. The art of Pashmina making in the valley of Kashmir is believed to be as old as 3000 years B.C. In the past, only rich and elite had the privilege of enjoying luxurious fabric. It adorned the court of Caesar and was the pride of French queen, Marie Antoinette. Impressed with the unparalleled looks of Kashmir shawl, Emperor Napoleon presented it to impress Josephine. After became empress, she reported variously as owning from 60 shawls to 400. Josephine's patronages confirmed the fashion, making the pashmina shawl-the rectangular doshala all the rage in France and throughout Europe.
Mention of pashmina shawls in writing is found between 3rd century BC and the 11th century AD. Zain-ul-Abadin, the 15th century ruler of Kashmir, is known to be the founder of the pashmina wool industry. He introduced weavers from Central Asia. Cashmere Pashmina shawls have been manufactured in Nepal and Kashmir for hundreds of years.
Ladies of the 18th century court in France and St. Petersburg were enchanted by the regal feel and warmth of Cashmere Pashmina. Pashmina scarves, stoles, wraps, shawls and throws remain an essential part of a fashionable wardrobe, attesting to the durability and appeal of this classic accessory. The flourishing of the shawl industry is attributed to Sultan Zain-ul-Abadin (1418-1419 and 1420-1470). He brought in weavers from Turkistan for this purpose. In the early stages of its development and popularity, Mughal emperors like Babur, Akbar and Jahangir are known to have played a role.
The earliest references in literature seem to be during Akbar's reign (ad 1556-1605). He introduced the Dhoshala style, where a pair of shawls was stitched back-to-back, such that the undersides were never visible.
Kashmir has been manufacturing shawls for centuries. In the second quarter of 19th century there were 40 thousand to 45 thousand weavers and one-lakh spinners in Kashmir valley on an average one-lakh pieces of pashmina shawls were manufactured annually. Of these 80 thousand were exported to Europe, Iran, Magnolia, Russia, Central Asia, Asalica, Turkey, Africa and Other parts of India.
Tradition says that the transparent veil worn but the Monalisa is in reality one of the those earlier pashmina fabrics that could be drawn through a lady's ring as a test of fineness. According to Ain-i-Akbari, Mughal king, Akbar the great encourage in every possible way the manufacture of shawls in Kashmir, Akbar coined a new name for pashmina as Paremnarm meaning supremely soft. The custom of presenting shawls is also recorded in the rage of Shah Jahan. Kashmiri shawls were all the rage in Europe for much of the 19th century. The earlier pashmina shawls to be appreciated as fashion items in the west were brought around the middle of the 18th century in the personal baggage of British officials and merchants on their return from India. In France, a few genuine Pashmina shawls were seen in the 1780s. Most sources agree that, it was Nepolean's military expedition to Egypt in 1798, when a number of his officers brought back shawls for their women folk.
In 1803, an Armenian trader, Khwaja Yusuf introduced 'Amlikar' or embroidered shawl method, as opposed to patterns incorporated during weaving. This proved to be cheaper and faster. By the time king Ranjit Singh annexed Kashmir in 1819, the rafugaars or darners of 20 years ago had become skilled embroiderers. William Moorcroft wrote a detailed account of the industry between 1820 and 1823. It indicated an advanced and organized system in division of labour. Depending on the intricacy of the shawl, there were even 12 or more specialists independently involved in the same shawl.
When Maharaja Gulab Singh handed over Kashmir to the British in 1846, conditions of the weavers further deteriorated from what they were. The weavers were the most oppressed and the king also at the receiving end of the various taxes levied them. The weavers thus fled in hundreds to Punjab and continued to weave there. These shawls were however inferior in quality. This was because the supply of Kashmiri raw materials was cut off and they had to make do with adulterated goat fleece.
The mid 19th century proved to be a great period for trade in shawls, for merchants and dealers. Many scholars believe that this period was also the time of artistic decline for these shawls. This was due to the foreign influence on the patterns, that trade brought in. Exports to Europe more than doubled between 1850 and 1860. In the following decade, jacquard looms were implemented in Lyons and Paisley, and the shawl manufacture could not compete with them. The Franco-Prussian war of 1970-71 caused the French market for shawl trade to decline.
With the decline of the Mughal Empire, and following the battle of Plassey (1757), the British East India Company became the major trade and political force in India, along with French, Dutch and Portuguese outposts. The Company held the monopoly for both import and export of goods from India, and increasingly taxed and controlled the manufacture and movement of goods within the country, particularly textiles.
By the late 18th century, both the empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon 1 of France from 1796-1809, and English royalty were setting the example of their taste for Kashmir shawls before ever-widening circles of the fashion-conscious. In Turkey, Russia, and Central Asia where they were also popular, purchasers of shawls were accustomed to stipulating the colours and designs, shapes and sizes, in their orders. Queen Victoria (reigned 1837-1901) received an annual tribute from the state of Kashmir, including specially woven shawls, square in shape, which she wore folded diagonally. The colorful shawls complemented white cotton dress fabrics, who were common at the time, and in the early 1800's the price of a Kashmir shawl in Europe was about L70 - L100. Very quickly, supply could not keep up with European demand, and many measures were adopted in both Kashmir and Europe to shorten the estimated 18 to 36 months required for a fine tapestry-woven shawl, to cash in on this demand.
A short cut of sorts, applied to the tapestry shawl, was to assemble dozens, even hundreds, of separately woven pieces, each individually shaped by its place in the design. Thus many weavers could contribute simultaneously to one shawl, along with an equally skilled rafugaar to darn the fragments together with imperceptible stitches. Victor Jacque Mont, a French naturalist on a mission to India in 1831, reported that the strategy of piecing shawls together also facilitated the collection of taxes on every scrap of weaving at the earliest opportunity, and that weavers, out of fear of dismissal by their employer, were reluctant to leave large portions of work on the loom.
Efforts to obtain pashmina or establish shawl goat flocks in Europe were not a success. The wool became felted and the goats perished during the long tropical sea journey, or the survivors did not produce their soft undercoat in Europe's milder climate. Until mid-twentieth century, Kashmir's kings had the sole right to purchase all pashmina from Nepal, Tibet and other higher reaches of Himalayas. This resulted in establishment of flourishing cottage industry in Kashmir and has lead to the perfection of art of pashmina making.
Pashmina fiber is less than 15-19 microns in thickness making it very soft (whereas human hair is 75 microns thick) One goat produces 3 to 8 ounces of Pashmina per year. Pashmina comes from Himalayan region as finest Kashmiri wool, which is derived at the altitude of 12000 to 14000 ft. where temperature goes down up to-40 degree centigrade. The thermo conductivity of the wool is best in the world, as the goat survives at -40 degree Celsius temperatures (far below freezing zero temperatures) in cold climates The pashmina we see on the Web and in local stores are usually an 80/20, 70/30 or even a 50/50 blend of cashmere and silk respectively. This is said to produce a strong yet supple, lightweight, luxurious wrap for evening or daytime wear. Most vendors claim that very special Himalayan goats produce the wool in their pashmina. Cashmere refers to the fine wool from the undercoat of these Kashmir goats - pashmina is the creme de la creme of cashmere.
The earliest shawls had no particular motifs but they had striped in various colours. As time passed, the weavers derived inspiration from nature. Man floral motifs emerged. There is a strong Persian influence in the designs. There are few remnants of the mid 19th century European influence as well. Chand-dar or Moon shawl had a medallion in the center and quarters in the corner. The patterns almost covered the ground colour. Various butis and badam shapes are the popular motifs. These come in different shapes and sizes. Two badams were superimposed at times. Naturalistic forms of flora and fauna are also used. Zebaish - Twill weave simulated in black embroidery to outline the motifs and give emphasis to detail. This was sometimes skillfully executed in a way that the two different sides of the shawl looked different in pattern and colour. Patterns from architectural elements like Mihrab patterns were also used. It is used in a way to give the feeling of looking through a window.
A few other commonly used motifs are:
Char badam, Seda badam (badam in vertical orientation), Panjdar (pattern like five fingers of flower) Shikargah Cheet misri (Egyptian print), Kev Posh (root flower), Khrika Alza Gul-e-noor jehan (a flower liked by queen Nur Jehan), Gulabkan (roses), Yumberzal Posh (meadow wild flower), Hasan Kuli (name of a weaver), Khatrast (One-inch stripes), Marder (snake like forms), Gulkar (only flowers), Ragas Chinar (Chinar leaf motif), Taj (Taj Mahal).
Different types of shawls were woven.
1. Soodi - a simple, non-patterned hand woven fabric employing four-shaft twill weave
2. Kani - a highly decorative brocade textile, employing a double interlock slit tapestry twill, woven on the same loom as the one used for plain pashmina but with woven patterns made using small wooden sticks called tujies.
Kanika Jamawar is a high-end variety of Royal Jamawar shawl. It is made with weaving sticks and the patterns are so finely done that front and back of the shawl is indistinguishable. Pashmina wool is used to make these shawls. Less than a dozen Kani Jamawar shawls are manufactured every year. The primary manufacturing center for these shawls is Kashmir while some ancient hand-mended (darning) shawls also coming from Najibabad, U.P.
In the 19th century, there was a minor revolution in the weaving of the traditional Kani shawls of Kashmir, the demand for which was ever increasing. Instead of being woven as one piece, now the shawl was woven in long strips on small looms. Due to the large areas of design to be woven, the pattern was broken down into fragmented parts, each woven separately, at times on separate looms, and then all these pieces were pieced together, rather like completing a jigsaw puzzle, and then they were stitched together by a Rafoogar.
The beauty of this shawl is that the stitches are almost invisible, and the completed shawl looks like one complete unit. In the beginning of the 19th century, there was yet another far reaching development in Kashmir, and that was the advent of the Amli or embroidered shawl. The Kani Shawl was further embellished, or in some cases, the plain ones beautifully decorated by a kind of parallel darning stitch, the thread being made to nip up the loops of the warp threads, but rarely permitted to go beyond the whole texture of the cloth, which made the embroidery look as if it was made on the loom itself! Kani shawl is a length of intricately woven material used as a wrapper around the body. The shawl is widely known as Jamawar as the kings and countries used to buy it by the yard, war and made "Jama" gown or robe out of it. It has a superfine texture, which baffles even the connoisseurs. By way of techniques, the Kashmir shawl can be categorized in two main types- the loom woven or Kani shawls and the needle embroidered or sozni shawls. Kani is the Kashmiri name given to a wooden spool that works most while weaving a shawl on the loom. Weaving is meticulously regulated by a coded pattern, known as the Talim drawn by the Naqash for guidance of the weaver.
3. Amlikor - plain pashmina embroidered upon with very fine Kashmir silk thread or cotton thread because it is hand spun, a genuine pashmina shawl is always one of a kind, identified easily by a certain irregularity of weave. Also, because the hand spun yarn varies in thickness the weaver uses his judgment while weaving it into fabric.
4. Saadi or seud - pashmina is hand woven pashmina fabric, beautiful in its simplicity. There are various styles of saadi pashmina:
5. Zooti - fabric made from mixing all the natural colors of pashmina, which gives it an uneven, shaded look.
6. Busso - “ woven from thick pashmina yarn, spun in villages by weavers who are still Apprentices.
7. Tilitouso - made from double ply yarn (dogun) in the warp and single ply yarn in the weft. It is made to resemble a shahtoosh shawl.
8. Alwon - made from naturally white yarn, with high warp count and tightly woven. Also called Tafta.
The weavers themselves have introduced various innovations in designs: such as the striped design, the dorukha (two faced), etc. But the basic method used remains the same. The Do-shala, as the name goes, are always sold in pairs - there being many varieties of them. In the Khali-matan the central field is quite plain and without any ornamentation. The Char-bagan is made up of four pieces in different colours neatly joined together; the central fluid of the shawl is embellished with a medallion of flowers. However, when the field is ornamented with flowers in the four corners we have the Kunj. Kani shawls are the most celebrated and popular among all the pashminas. Its production is also the most widespread and the extra weft weaving is done with a slight difference.
With a growing availability of cheap imitations of Pashmina shawls in the local markets, original Pashmina shawls' future is at stake. Buying the famous Pashmina shawl of Kashmir has been one of the major charms for anyone visiting the scenic valley or the State. But with a growing availability of cheap imitations of Pashmina shawls in the local markets, original Pashmina shawls' future is at stake. For centuries the Pashmina shawls have been woven on handlooms from wool handspun from the shaggy coat of a goat, which lives in the heights of the Himalayas in the Ladakh region of Jammu And Kashmir State.
Thousands of Kashmiris are associated with the ancient trade. Women mostly spin and men weave the delicate yarn into warm, soft scarves and shawls, which are often embroidered. Hundreds of Pashmina weavers, however, have felt compelled to take to other professions. For, cheap and machine-made shawls available around are affecting the original pieces' demand and particularly the duplicate items available here.