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Volume 53, Number 4July/August 2002

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Kashmir's Best Cashmere

Written and photographed by Eric Hansen

Within the walled family compound of Muhamad Yusuf Khan, I woke to the fragrance of fresh bread and the cooing of pigeons. Children chattered quietly to one another in the flower and vegetable garden below my bedroom window, and the sounds of myna birds and women's voices mingled with the twittering of house sparrows. The bumping of cooking pots and the distant sound of running water announced that the household was coming to life. A short while later, a soft knock on the door let me know that a pot of saffron-scented tea, with milk and sugar, had been left outside on a tray in the hall, and that breakfast would soon be ready downstairs.

I was in Srinigar, the capital of Kashmir, where I had come with Harpal Brar, a shawl dealer from London, so that I could learn about the art of Kashmiri shawls, a trade that, directly or indirectly, engages nearly everyone in the city and many on its outskirts. Muhamad Yusuf Khan's family has been in the business for more than 150 years, and I was staying at his family compound—a safe haven amid the political turmoil and violent conflict that plague this beautiful land.

The bitterly cold winters of Kashmir have made warm clothing, especially shawls, a necessity for survival, but it took centuries of experimentation and refinement to raise shawl-making from a necessity to a unique textile art. The best Kashmiri shawls produced today are made from the soft, downy undercoat that grows primarily on the neck and belly of the Himalayan mountain goat, Capra hircus. Although fine wool of various grades is commonly marketed in the West as "cashmere," the name that Kashmiris themselves give to the fiber from Capra hircus is pashm, which is the Persian word for "wool." "Pashmina" is pashm in its woven form, the highest quality of cashmere, and Capra hircus is often referred to as the "pashmina goat."

Pashm has a special luster due to its long, fine fibers, which are as thin as 12 microns; by contrast, the fibers from premium sheep's wool, such as Merino Extrafine, are 23 microns thick, and human hair ranges up to 200 microns thickness. Thus pashmina is exceptionally light, soft and warm, and feels luxurious against the skin. The natural colors of the fleece range from white to gray, red, brown and black.

At breakfast that morning, Muhamad explained that although the pashmina goats are capable of surviving in lowland areas, it is only the animals living above 4500 meters (14,500') that produce the finest wool. There, the growth of the fine, warm pashm is an adaptive response to the harshly windswept terrain and winter temperatures that fall as low as minus 30 degrees Centigrade (-22° F). In the early 19th century, William Moorcroft, a veterinary surgeon employed by the British East India Company and bent on breaking Srinigar's pashmina monopoly, entered Tibet from Kashmir in disguise to take pashmina goats to Scotland. Of the 50-odd goats he spirited away, only four survived the journey. They did not thrive in their new home, and the wool they produced was inferior.

Harpal pointed out to me that the very best pashm comes from one remote area in western Tibet known as the Changtang, where nomadic pastoralists known as Drokba tend flocks on the high plains. They collect the fleece by combing the goats in the late spring, just before they molt. Each goat produces approximately 100 grams (3 1/2 oz) of uncleaned fleece, which is a mix of pashm and coarser hairs. In summer, Ladakhi traders come to the Changtang to exchange the raw fleece for grain, tea and manufactured goods. They transport the fleece to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, where the Kashmiri dealers make their purchases and then forward the wool to Srinigar. There, the coarse outer hair is pulled away, by hand, from the fine, soft pashm.

When Muhamad's family first started dealing in pashm, they used animal caravans to bring the fleece over the mountain passes from Leh, but today it comes in by air. The cleaning is still done by hand, after which the wool is carded and spun, again by hand, into two-ply yarn. Both the cleaning and the spinning are done by women in private homes. It can take nearly a week to turn the pashm from one goat into yarn, and it takes about three goats to produce the wool for one standard-size shawl measuring two meters by one meter (78 x 39"). What makes the Kashmiri shawls superior is not only the fineness of the individual pashm fibers, but also meticulous cleaning, sorting, dehairing and hand spinning. These are all manual skills, perfected by Kashmiri women and passed down through generations since the late 16th century, the time when the Mughal emperors began to encourage the shawl industry.

Elaborate 18th-and 19th-century Kashmiri shawls, known as kanikar, have tapestry-like designs worked into the fabric with a series of small bobbins, known individually as kani. Using a twill tapestry weave with interlocking wefts, these exquisitely made kani shawls, as they are commonly referred to, are renowned for their unique softness, rich colors and astonishingly intricate designs. According to Frank Ames, author of The Kashmir Shawl, the definitive book on the subject, and John Irwin, former assistant keeper at the Indian Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, kani shawls from this period are among the most complex, sophisticated textiles ever produced in the world. In 1853, one kani shawl ordered by the Empress of France took 30 men approximately nine months to complete.

Because of the fragile and ultimately perishable nature of textiles, it is impossible to determine the origins of either woven or embroidered designs in the region, but 11th-century wall paintings at the Alchi monastery in Ladakh clearly depict finely embroidered shawls. The earliest written account of pashmina shawls comes from the Rajatarangiru of Srivara, a 15th-century Kashmiri text that discusses woolen fabric with fine woven designs. The Ain-i Akbari, an account from the Mughal period in Kashmir (1586-1752) states that the Emperor Akbar was a keen collector of kani shawls.

By the late 16th century, the shawl industry was well established in Kashmir. One of the first Europeans to notice these shawls was François Bernier, who lived in Kashmir from 1656 until 1668 as the private physician of the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb. Bernier provided some of the first, tantalizing descriptions of the designs and the soft, delicate texture of pashmina shawls, and the shawls themselves eventually began to find their way to France and England.

By the beginning of the 1800's, kani shawls were extremely popular with the fashionable women of Paris and London. Napoleon's wife, Josephine, was said to have collected nearly 1000 of them, and by the mid-19th century the shawl export business to Europe was huge. To guarantee that the styles and colors were in accordance with European fashion of the time, French textile designers set up shop in Srinigar.

By the end of the 19th century, Jacquard power looms, which used punched cards to reproduce textile patterns, allowed weavers in Paris, Lyon, Vienna and Paisley to produce attractive and affordable domestically made shawls for the emerging middle class. But the delicate pure-pashmina yarn could not be worked on a power loom, and therefore the newer and less expensive shawls, made with similar designs but with lower-quality materials, eventually undercut the market for the high-priced kani shawls. The market collapsed finally with the 1879 defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War and the ensuing general depression. Women's fashions had also changed, and as a result, the shawl industry in Kashmir declined rapidly; a famine in 1887-1888 decimated it. In 1860 there had been 25,000 weavers in Kashmir; by 1911 their numbers had dropped to 148.

However, the late 19th century also witnessed the growing popularity of plain-woven pashmina shawls decorated with fine embroidery. According to local legend, this came about as a result of a visit to Srinigar by an Armenian trader and shawl dealer from Constantinople named Khwaja Yusuf. He realized that, though the high prices of the kani shawls and the exorbitant tax on them prevented him from reselling them at a decent profit, the less expensive embroidered shawls, known as amlikar, were made from the same fine materials, were also esthetically pleasing and, most significantly, were exempt from taxation. His decision to create a wholesale export market for embroidered pashmina shawls set the scene for today's embroidered-shawl industry.

The popularity of embroidered Kashmiri shawls has continued to the present day, especially over the last decade as some of the very highest-quality work has been brought to market by fashion-conscious designers such as London's Madeleine Trehearne and her partner Harpal Brar. I discovered these two shawl merchants by chance, through a magazine advertisement, but before long, we were deep in conversation about thread counts, fiber thicknesses and insulating qualities, the enduring mysteries of the parallel darn stitch, and what it takes to design and produce high-quality traditional handmade shawls that are both fashionable and timeless.

Before flying to Kashmir, I visited Madeleine and Harpal at their studio and shop on New End Square in Hampstead. The size, variety and quality of their collection made it obvious why they have become the premier dealers of high-end pashmina shawls in London and the world. The colorful stacks of neatly folded shawls lined the walls to the ceiling and filled the room with a wonderful scent of fine wool. We discussed their approach to creating shawls for a market largely influenced by western fashion trends. They had decided early on to have the shawls dyed to a western palette, if only because the range of people's skin colors is different in the West. Prior to 1993, shawl colors were limited to black, maroon, dark green, natural, bright pink and white—color combinations too limited for the export market.

"The Americans, Japanese and Arabs are all very good customers with a highly developed sense of individual style," Madeleine said. "They recognized the pashmina shawl as a luxury garment, but we needed to be more flexible in terms of color and design in order to attract different tastes."

For centuries, wealthy families in Kashmir, India and Nepal have included fine pashmina shawls as part of a daughter's dowry. Prosperous families in northern India are regularly visited by a pashmina-shawl wallah (vendor), and as Harpal pointed out, "A reputable shawl-wallah protects his livelihood by selling only good-quality shawls. It is a door-to-door business, and a stylish and well-dressed Indian woman from a good family will buy at least one or two new shawls each winter." In Kashmir, shawls are not for young girls; rather, they are for women to wear at weddings and social occasions. A Kashmiri woman will start acquiring shawls at about the age of 16 or 17, and five to eight shawls is average for a woman's collection.

Harpal explained also that some western customers buy their first shawl out of fashionable desire but, with exposure to quality work, that desire can become a need. Once a person is hooked, he said, he can end up talking about pashmina as though it were a controlled substance. There is, he said, simply nothing that feels quite like it: The touch of pashmina on the skin creates a uniquely luxurious feeling of understated, gently sensual warmth.

Madeleine and Harpal's business in high-end shawls has helped create a renaissance of fine work in Kashmir, and this has contributed to the prosperity of local people and the families who work for them in Srinigar. Most of their plain pashmina shawls are woven in twill, a basic weave distinguished by minuscule diagonal lines, or ribs. Other shawls use a diamond-patterned weave known as chesm-e bulbul, "nightingale's eye." Either fabric can be embroidered.

Difficulties come in marketing, mostly because there is no agreed-upon naming standard for fabric types. Retailers can apply the words "pashmina" and "cashmere" loosely. So-called "pashmina shawls" are presently being sold for as little as $89 in airport shops worldwide, but at that price they contain only a very small percentage of low-quality pashmina—if any. The genuine article is considerably more expensive: Without embroidery, a shawl might start at around $500; a jali shawl, with an allover, open embroidered design, sells for approximately $1800; the solid-embroidered shawls known as jamawar sell for $3000 to $7000 or more, depending on the fineness of the stitching. Museum- or collector-quality shawls from the 18th or 19th century often command prices in excess of $100,000.

It was only after I had gained a basic knowledge of the history of pashmina shawls and the complexity of the manufacturing process that I decided to join Harpal on one of his seasonal visits to Srinigar.

Just after breakfast on my first day in Srinigar, Harpal and Muhamad took me to a nearby I weaving workshop of 10 hand looms. With windows on three sides, the weavers sat quietly at their benches, throwing and catching polished hardwood shuttles as they softly tapped the wide comb against the weft. A light breeze ventilated the workshop, and apart from the snipping sound of scissors and the occasional whispered conversation, the room was silent. Power looms of the same width as these could produce seven or more utilitarian shawls per day, but the delicacy of pashmina yarn still requires the use of hand looms, and it can take nearly a week to weave one shawl.

Holding a shawl to the window, Muhamad showed the fine weave."Real pashmina glows," he said."And you should be able easily to see through the shawl when back-lit. It has a distinctive, irregular weave due to the hand loom."

On another day we watched teams of men wash shawls on the wide concrete steps on the edge of the Jhelum River, and then we drove to a workshop where the shawls were dyed in a fantastic setting filled with color and heat. Amid leaping flames, billowing clouds of smoke and rising steam, the workers labored over bubbling cauldrons as they dipped the shawls with large wooden paddles, repeatedly immersing them in the dye until they matched the color sample at their side.

The following day we traveled by car to the village of Bakura, where we visited the workshop of Ali Muhamad Wusta, who supervises nearly two dozen embroiderers. The men sat around the perimeter of a single room with their backs to tall windows that cast an even, diffuse light on their work. Embroidery is a daytime activity because the best work cannot be achieved under artificial light. Ali Muhamad explained that shawls may be embroidered with a narrow or a wide border, or all over, and that the stitching is always done with silk thread. Only one person embroiders a particular shawl, he said, because everyone stitches with a slightly different tension, and that must be maintained to ensure that the finished piece is uniform from edge to edge.

The embroiderers start work when they are approximately 18 years old, and most stop at about 50, or whenever their eyesight begins to weaken. Because most are also farmers, it is seasonal work. In their colors and designs, the embroiderers often depict the flowers and trees of Kashmir. There are common motifs, such as the leaf of the chinar tree—a variety of plane or sycamore that has characterized Kashmir since Mughal times—but Muhamad's embroiderers work from more than 10,000 designs that have been developed over the last 150 years by his family and carved into woodblock stamps. Using water-soluble ink, these are used to print the embroiderer's guide on the plain shawl. A design master and an embroidery supervisor then select initial color combinations. A small sample section is completed and, if it looks good, the embroiderer begins his long task. A top embroiderer can earn about 400 rupees ($8) a day.

"Each shawl is a unique piece," said Muhamad. "Our craftsmen follow the traditional designs, but good handwork reveals the individual style of the embroiderer. This is why there are never two shawls exactly the same."

"When the shawls are done," Harpal said, "they are so filthy you wouldn't recognize them. Only after a finished shawl has been washed in the river does it reveal its beauty."

At the second village, called Busarbu, we were greeted warmly by headman Hajj Samad Mir. In his workshop, the embroiderers quietly hummed tunes while stitching. They passed a bubbling waterpipe from man to man, and the room was filled with a haze of sweet-smelling tobacco smoke. Several of the men were working on solidly embroidered jamawar shawls. If a man works diligently, and takes time off only for the farming season, he might complete this type of shawl in three years, but more often a top-quality jamawar shawl takes an embroiderer six or seven years. In part this is because the jamawar stitching takes so much concentration that, for relief, the men will often work on less complex shawls. The jamawar shawls, Hajj Samad said, are usually worn by women; men prefer a plain, light brown shawl, with a minimum of embroidery.

On the final day of my visit, Muhamad laid out a number of his very best embroidered shawls for me to photograph. When I asked him about the secret of his success, he told me that it was really just a combination of honesty, hard work and luck. "You must be a reputable dealer," he said, "because the shawl trade is based on trust. From raw fiber to finished shawl, we must guard our reputation by controlling all aspects of production."

Before Harpal and I flew back to New Delhi, I asked Muhamad what he thought was so special about pashmina shawls.

"What is the special purpose of the shawl?" Muhamad said. "Well, just between you and me, I wear a shawl because it keeps me warm in the winter. It is beautiful, but it is really just the Kashmiri jacket."

Eric Hansen ([email protected]) is a writer and photographer living in San Francisco. He specializes in the traditional cultures of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. His most recent book, Orchid Fever (Vintage Books), is about the international trade in rare and endangered orchids.

This article appeared on pages 18-27 of the July/August 2002 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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