The richness of this gorgeous soft and warm wardrobe accessory has been under-appreciated in recent years. In the market you will find huge disparities in price and quality of so-called Pashmina. Shawls made with viscose silk or sheep wool are marketed by unscrupulous companies as Pashmina. All sorts of products are selling under the name of Pashmina, though they bear little resemblance to the true material.
The unique aspect of Kashmir’s Pashmina shawl industry is that they these not mere pieces of decorative handicraft. Artisans of Pashmina shawls blend matchless artistic skills with a great deal of practical functionality. This timeless fabric woven by humble hands from Kashmir has been, unfortunately, completely bastardised, misunderstood and misrepresented.
This distinctive work requires years of training on weaving, shearing, spinning, etc. The cheap replicas/ imitations peddled by unscrupulous dealers might look exactly like the real ones but they are damaging both the artisans and the traders. The buyers, meanwhile, are thoroughly confused by the plethora of imitations.
In this article I aim to describe aspects of traditional, artisan-led production of Pashmina shawls and to explain what makes a real Pashmina so special.
Pashmina as “Cashmere”
For years, there has been a common confusion between Pashmina and Cashmere. To clear this confusion, we have to go back in history. “Cashmere” is the anglicised version of Kashmir, the region in Asia from which cashmere fabric originated. According to many experts in the craft sector, Europeans visited the region in the beginning of the 18th century and learned of this luxury wool. They returned home with Pashmina shawls as prized gifts but instead of calling Pashmina wool by its name, decided to re-name it after the place it was from: Kashmir. This eventually became “Cashmere”. Over time, this name gained more prevalence and became a famous name in the international market. It arrived then in Britain and France and Queens Victoria and Josephine popularised it as symbol of exotic luxury and royal standing. It evolved into a popular cultural object in Europe and the US which symbolised nobility and rank. A great reference book on Pashmina history is by Monique Lévi-Strauss: “Cashmere: A French passion”. The beautiful and delicate fabric called Cashmere shawl was first brought to European markets by East India companies and during Napoleon’s campaigns. Genuine Cashmere shawls were in high demand in Europe, but the genuine ones were rare, so Europeans used other fibers to produce imitation (replicas) shawls. In the US market, Cashmere was introduced in 1947, on a large scale. Today, the world’s largest Cashmere producing country is China, accounting for about 70% of world output. Mongolian Cashmere production accounts for about 20%.
I luckily came across an interview by Dr Yasir Mir, faculty at Craft Development Institute Srinagar, who has a PhD thesis on Pashmina branding. In an interview with Shruti J. Mittal, project head of Commitment to Kashmir (www.ctok.org.in), the expert informed, “Pashmina is Cashmere but not all Cashmere is Kashmir Pashmina.” He added that Pashmina became standardised as Cashmere in the international market but the cheap replicas misrepresented the pure Pashmina.
Now Pashmina from Kashmir has a GI registration. It is registered as “Kashmir Pashmina” under the Geographical Indications of Goods Act of India. According to the Quality Manual for Kashmir Pashmina published by Craft Development Institute Srinagar, the registration is an acknowledgement of the fact that a handicraft is unique and is produced in a particular area, with traditional knowledge and skills that are special to a region.
The Kashmir Pashmina GI
1. Made of 100% Pashm Fibre obtained from the under fleece of Capra Hircus (goat) having fineness up to 16 Microns.
2. A hand-woven fabric by artisans from Jammu and Kashmir
3. Made using hand-spun yarn.
Pashm: Fibre from Capra Hircus
In 2019, a film documentary, “Pashmina Road: Cashmere Himalayan goats, from Ladakh to Kashmir”, by Errol Rainey and Isaac Wall for ZEZE Collective told a visual story that spans from Ladakh to Kashmir to chronicle the elaborate process from sourcing to making of end pieces of Pashmina shawls. An essay by Monisha Ahmad explains the Pashmina source as:
“In the summer months, Changra goats (Capra Hircus) are herded to lower altitudes where they can graze on pastures growing along the glacial rivers and streams. The nomads say that during the winter, the Pashm (a Persian word meaning soft) lies close to the goat’s skin, insulating it from the bitter cold; it is only when the winter is over that the Pashm (pure form of Pashmina) rises above the goat’s skin and can easily be combed out. So in the spring (the moulting season), the goats naturally shed their undercoat (fleece), which regrows in winter. This undercoat is collected by combing the goat. Apart from natural shedding of inner fleece, the Pashmina goat is sheared with a knife once a year at the commencement of summer. A male Pashmina goat usually yields up to 300 grams of Pashmina, a female Pashmina goat about 200 to 250 grams.”
(To be continued….)
—The writer is a postgraduate in Craft Management, Design and Entrepreneurship and is working with Commitment to Kashmir (Ctok) Delhi, which nurtures and supports young craftpreneurs from Kashmir. [email protected]