The Shim­mer­ing Shawls of Kash­mir

Fab­u­lous mas­ter­pieces to carry.

Woman's Era - - Long Story - By Kusum Me­hta

In­dia is prob­a­bly the home of shawls. John Ir­win of the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert mu­seum, Lon­don, tells us: “The Ital­ian trav­eller Pi­etro della valle, writ­ing in 1623, ob­served that whereas in Per­sia the scial or shawl was worn as a gir­dle, in In­dia it was more usu­ally carved ‘across the shoul­der’. Ac­cord­ing to Baron Charles Hun­gel, lo­cal tra­di­tion has it that the founder of the wo­ven shawl in­dus­try in Kash­mir was Zain-ulAbidin, called the Ak­bar of Kash­mir.”

The Kash­mir shawls are justly world fa­mous for their delicacy of work­man­ship, the most cel­e­brated be­ing the old “ring shawl”, so named be­cause it can pass through a signet ring.

In woolen ma­te­ri­als the most cov­eted is pash­mina, made out of the wool from the un­der belly of the Hi­malayan pash­mina goat, which this an­i­mal grows when it lives 14,000 ft. or more above sea level. The finest is ob­tained after very se­lec­tive sort­ing. The finest is ob­tained after very se­lec­tive sort­ing. The finest is sha­tush, a soft dreamy fab­ric that al­most melts to the touch. A sha­tush can be drawn through a ring and is there­fore,

called a ring shawl and though ex­tra­or­di­nary light, it is nev­er­the­less amaz­ingly warm.

The best grade of fleece, soft, silky and warm, is the asli­tus, de­rived from the wild an­i­mals, and col­lected from shrubs and rocks against which the an­i­mals have them­selves rubbed off the fleece on the ap­proach of warm weather. This was the fleece used for mak­ing the cel­e­brated “ring shawls” of Mughal times.

Amongst shawls, Kash­mir holds the world ti­tle. The most com­plex of shawls is called ja­mavar, from jama, a rabe and vas, yardage. The weav­ing is some­what as in tapestrip la­bo­ri­ous and time-con­sum­ing as nu­mer­ous ka­nis or shut­tles loaded with rich coloured threads are moved around even in a sin­gle weft line be­cause of the con­stant al­most fan­tas­tic change of colours which can be even as many as 50 in a sin­gle piece and be­cause of the use of a large num­ber of shut­tles ( ka­nis) it is pop­u­larly called kani shawl. Dye­ing is also a very spe­cial job done by spe­cial­ists. It is said that in the old days some­thing like 300 tints of veg­etable ex­trac­tion were used.


The most im­por­tant job is the pat­tern draw­ing which is trans­ferred to a graph by a highly skilled crafts­man, rated higher than a weaver. The colour­ing is, how­ever, done by the colour caller with black-and-white draw­ing be­fore him, be­gin­ning at the bot­tom and work­ing up­wards, call­ing out each colour, and the num­ber of warps along which it is re­quired to ex­tend un­til the pat­tern is cov­ered. All these de­signs are then tran­scribed into a coded pat­tern that the weavers can de­ci­pher and guide oth­ers by call­ing out aloud the num­ber of warp ends to be cov­ered in a par­tic­u­lar coloured weft. A sec­ond weaver sits on the loom to ac­cel­er­ate the process and the chief weaver re­cites the weft re­peat for him to fol­low. In some shawls there are two-sided weavers, usu­ally of the same de­sign but some­times in dif­fer­ent colour schemes known as do-rookha.

The mango ( kairy) de­sign, also known in its west­ern­ised ver­sion as pais­ley and prob­a­bly the most pop­u­lar, is seen in count­less va­ri­eties. The wo­ven de­signs are of­ten en­hanced by em­broi­dery and one finds the main wo­ven mo­tifs in the back­ground later con­nected by em­broi­dery. The colour com­bi­na­tions are of­ten fan­tas­tic, like ma­genta with pink, marune with red, a shock­ing pink against a bril­liant turquoise, and so on.

Be­fore the ac­tual weav­ing of the shawl, six other spe­cial­ists are con­cerned in the pre­lim­i­nary prepa­ra­tion: the warp-maker, warp­dresser, warp-threader, pat­tern­drawer, colour-caller and the pat­tern-mas­ter.

The warp-maker twists the yarn into the thick­ness re­quired for the warp, this be­ing gen­er­ally 2000 to 3000 dou­ble-threads; the warp­dresser then starches the warp and the warp-threader passes the yarn through the nee­dles of the loom.

The pat­tern-drawer or nag­gers is a very im­por­tant per­son and re­ceives the high­est pay. He may some­times colour his own de­signs, but usu­ally this is left to the colour­caller known as the tarah guru. With the draw­ing in black-and-white be­fore him, the lat­ter calls out each colour, from the bot­tom up­wards, and the num­ber of warps along which it is re­quired to spread. These in­struc­tions are noted down by the pat­tern-mas­ter, the ta’lim guru, and trans­lated into a kind of short­hand that the weaver can un­der­stand and fol­low. The above spe­cial­ists pre­pare the warp threads of the main part of the shawl, while a sep­a­rate group sim­i­larly pre­pares the warp for the nar­row bor­der.

The Em­peror Ak­bar was a great ad­mirer of Kash­mir shawls and started the fash­ion of wear­ing them in duplicate ( do-shala) sewn back to back, so that the un­der­side was never seen. Life isn't about wait­ing for the storm to pass. It's about learn­ing how to dance in the rain.


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