Pashmina: Kashmir’s Winter Wonder!
Pashmina and Kashmir seem to be charming synonyms of each other and Brinda Gill tells you just why the relationship between this treasured fabric and India’s crown state must be acknowledged and celebrated the world over.
Pashmina shawls in Kashmir have been traditionally woven from pashm— the soft, under-fleece that is combed from the domestic goat Capra hircus that lives in the mountains of Ladakh and Tibet. Soft to touch and light to drape; plain and lightly embellished, elaborately embroidered or graced with intricate woven motifs; and seamlessly blending weave and embroidery—all these factors contribute in making the legendary pashmina shawl epitomise luxury and elegance. And it is the beauty of this wool and the hand-work involved that has made pashmina one of the most sought after textiles in the world.
EVOLVING OVER TIME
The origins of shawl weaving in Kashmir are traced to the patronage of Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin, who introduced this art in the valley in the 15th century. The weaving of pashminas flowered with the refined aesthetics and patronage of the subsequent rulers in Kashmir and this fact is made visible in the motifs and patterning seen on the pashminas. Reflective of the skill of Kashmir’s craftspersons, a variety of pashmina shawls continue to be woven and embroidered in the state and are
available at different price points. What is characteristic of the pashmina shawl-weaving process here is that the entire family gets involved in the manufacturing process. “Weaving pashmina shawls is the main industry of Kashmir. As the pashm yarn is delicate, it has to be hand-spun. Hand-spinning of wool into yarn is done by women at home. The weaving and embroidery of pashminas is then done by men, working from home. It is a home-based occupation, and the young generation learns from the elders in the family,” says Zahid Ali, Partner, Kashmirloom.
THE PRIZED TECHNIQUES
Pashmina shawls are woven by the painstaking, double interlock twill tapestry technique using numerous spools. As each spool is wound with one colour, the weaver can work either with a limited or a large colour palette. This allows him to create shawls with elaborate and intricate woven motifs incorporating several colours. The use of several colours in a shawl is a reflection of the proficiency of the weaver, and requires immense skill and patience. And it is this hereditary skill that has helped the Kashmiri weaver to continually create weaves as per the requirements of the market/client. Similarly, mastering embroidery skills has helped them create elaborately embroidered pashmina shawls. Most shawls bear one-sided embroidery. Experienced embroiderers also create embroidery that appears similar on both faces of the shawl. Skilled embroiderers create different motifs on either side of the shawl by splitting the warp and embroidering a different motif on each side. An elaborately worked shawl such as this, can take up to two years to complete.
THE PASHMINA MARKET
The pashmina market today has grown to include both the traditional as well as new styles of pashminas. “Broadly, there is the lower segment worn by young college students, then the pure pashmina segment worn by the older women, and then the collectible pashminas— which may be old or new, elaborately woven/embroidered pashminas— bought by clients who recognise their value and have the budget for them,” says textile designer Sohel N Weldingwala, Honeycomb International boutique, Ahmedabad, who stocks old as well as new pashminas, some of which have been woven or embroidered to his specifications. In his store, one would find both traditional-style and contemporarystyle pashminas as he finds that there is a demand for pashminas featuring traditional motifs as well as for those featuring checks, stripes and squares; these are in demand as some customers like pure pashminas with a different look. Sohel has also taken the initiative of having yarn dyed with vegetable colours, as it is eco-friendly and greatly appreciated, especially by foreign buyers. Among his designs are looseweave, 100 percent, hand-woven pure pashmina stoles of 28” by 80”, which are just about 65 gm in weight. Through these steps, he endeavours to craft and promote pure pashminas and thus develop the market for them.
The team at Kashmirloom as well has been bringing out new styles of pashminas, some of which feature metallic yarn, and are at the same time reviving old motifs. “Some of the looms have been upgraded to enable skilled and experienced weavers weave two-layer pashminas on the loom itself, which results in two different colours or patterns on either side of the shawl. We also weave pashminas with real zari metallic yarn that is 95 percent silver and 5 percent gold. Broadly, the cost for pure pashminas is R 7,000 for a stole and R 12,000 for a shawl; the price for an elaborately embroidered shawl generally oscillates between R 1,50,000 to R 2,50,000 while an elaborately woven shawl is about R 1,50,000,” says Zahid.
THE PASHMINA MARKET TODAY HAS GROWN TO INCLUDE BOTH THE TRADITIONAL AS WELL AS NEW STYLES OF PASHMINAS.
A BLOW TO THE INDUSTRY
Recently, over 20,000 pashmina goats died between February-March 2013 in the Changthang region of Ladakh due to unprecedented and heavy snowfall. “The loss of such a large number of pashmina goats in turn, has led to a shortage of pashmina fibre this season and the price of fibre has risen. As all pashmina yarn is hand-spun by women, due to shortage and high prices, handspinning of yarn will also be adversely affected and this in turn will affect the livelihood of the spinners”, says Zahid. This situation has led to other varieties of wool being sourced from Tibet/Mongolia that does not have the fineness of pashmina wool. To address similar natural calamities in the future, the Government of India through its Ministry of Textiles has launched a major programme for the development of pashmina and pashmina developers in the Ladakh region during the 12th Five Year Plan. This plan envisages a new Pashmina Wool Development Scheme with a special package and financial allocation of R 41.21 crores.
FIGHTING OFF STIFF COMPETITION
The troubles for the pashmina industry don’t just end here! As the pashm yarn is delicate, a 100 percent pashmina shawl can only be hand-woven, and then hand-embroidered. Elaborately woven and embroidered shawls take more than a year to complete. However, the mass production of machine-woven shawls has dented the demand for genuine pashmina shawls. “Manufacturers in Amritsar and Ludhiana mass produce machine-woven shawls featuring similar motifs and colour combinations. These shawls are priced much lower than handcrafted pashminas and are marketed as pashmina shawls. However, it is just not possible for a handcrafted pashmina to be priced so low,” says Zahid. He further explains that there is no regulation regarding the fibre content of pashminas. “So while Kashmiri pashminas are either 100 percent pashmina yarn or a blend of pashmina and silk yarns, there are manufacturers who use 5 percent pashmina yarn and 95 percent synthetic yarn to machineweave shawls in pashmina colours and motifs; sometimes they even use ordinary wool and silk! These shawls look attractive and are inexpensive; and with the consumer not knowing better, he/she is fooled. This has affected the demand for authentic Kashmiri pashminas,” says Zahid. “While there is a good demand for pashminas in India and around the world, there is also the need to create greater awareness about pure pashminas, i.e. pashminas that are made with 100 percent pashm yarn and are 100 percent hand-made in terms of the weave, embroidery and finishing. The softness, texture and look of a pure pashmina shawl is completely different to one which is a blend of other yarns or is not 100 percent handmade. This distinction has to be made and conveyed to customers”, says Sohel.
Pashmina craftspersons strongly reiterate the need for creating awareness about authentic pashminas and the effort that goes into crafting one of them, in order to make a significant difference to the demand. Several craft organisations are taking efforts to promote authentic pashmina weaves by sourcing them directly from craftspersons. Neela Shinde, Member, Mumbai-based Paramparik Karigar, an organisation of traditional master craftspersons, explains, “Paramparik Karigar promotes traditional craftspersons from across the country to nurture their craft. The organisation
encourages the weavers of Kashmir to continue weaving pashmina shawls that feature traditional motifs as well as new patterns or colours. Through exhibitions, the organisation provides pashmina weavers with a platform to generate awareness about the textile as they interact with the customers. Over time, as buyers have learnt that authentic pashminas are available at the Paramparik Karigar exhibitions and that the benefits reach the craftspersons as well, these exhibitions have been receiving a good response. Further, as there are a variety of pashminas in terms of work and prices, the pashminas exhibited, cater to the requirements of a number of different customers.”
SOLVING THE BRANDING DILEMMA
Along with creating awareness, a sustained branding exercise needs to be undertaken in order to educate customers about true pashminas as well as to encourage the pashmina weaving industry. As the word ‘pashmina’ is used by manufacturers of mass-produced pashmina imitations that have a low percentage of or sometimes no pashm yarn, pashmina craftspersons feel there should be a regulatory body that insists on shawls bearing a label that clearly states the composition of yarns used, the name of the producer and that the weave is a Kashmir pashmina. “The government should step in to work on the Geographical Indication of pashmina shawls. This will give the Kashmiri craftspersons an identity. There are many skilled and experienced pashmina weavers in Kashmir and this move will help them and the industry in Kashmir, and will also encourage the younger generation to take up the craft. If the next generation is discouraged from sourcing a livelihood by weaving pashminas, the industry and the craft will be affected,” warns Zahid.
Pashmina needs to be greatly credited with increasing the popularity of Kashmir as a vibrant tourist state and is a classic winter rage on the fashion scene too! And as such, the Indian government must take the necessary steps that are needed to keep this craft alive and flourishing.