One of the best textiles in the world is pashmina, often known as "Cashmere Pashmina." In the past, it was mostly favoured by royalty and wealthy social classes. The fabric is well-known throughout the world as one of the high-end goods. In Kashmir, India, the art of hand-weaving a pashmina has been passed down for centuries. The charm of pashmina fabric, especially in shawls, is timeless, and this traditional handcraft necessitates the highest level of skill.

The Persian word "Pashm," which meaning wool, is where the word "Pashmina" comes from. One of the softest animal fibres utilised in the textile industry is used to make pashmina. A Pashmina material is warm enough to hatch an egg, according to mythology, and it is incredibly delicate and warm at the same time. Due to the fact that goat wool, not sheep, is used to make pashmina, this fabric is unique. The undercoat of a particular breed of goats found in the high altitude Changthang region of the Himalayan hills is used to produce the wool. A western extension of the Tibetan Plateau, Changthang is located in eastern Ladakh, a recently created Union territory in India. Changthang, which is frequently referred to as the world's rooftop, is located at a height of around 4600 metres above sea level. It features extreme climatic conditions, with lows of - 40 degrees Celsius.

Pashmina's journey to cashmere

Soft Pashmina shawls from Kashmir have been a staple in Roman emperors' courts since the first century CE. Although Pashmina shawls had been made in Kashmir for generations, it wasn't until the 15th century that the cloth became widely used for shawls. Zain-ul-Abidin, the first Kashmiri emperor, rose to power at that period and established Kashmir's weaving industry. He urged weavers to experiment with new methods. Beautiful floral, animal, and geometric patterns began to appear on the plain shawls around this time.

By the 16th century, both the Kashmiri Pashmina shawl business and the Mughal Empire in India were thriving. In order to recognise his allies' outstanding service, King Babur, the creator of the Mughal Empire, began presenting Khilat (robes of honour fashioned of pricey textiles) to his governors and officials. The Khilat usually consists of a turban, shirt, coat, shawls, scarves, and at least one item embroidered with gold thread. Pashmina was occasionally used for all of the clothing. The possession of a high-quality pashmina fabric had become a trend among India's royalty. It was seen as a status symbol. King sponsorship enabled Pashmina shawl weaving to reach its pinnacle of aesthetic achievement. On the simple Pashmina shawls, elaborate stitching began to appear. A pashmina shawl was meticulously woven and embroidered over the course of months, perhaps even years. 40,000 individuals are thought to have worked in Kashmir's shawl industry during its heyday.

The European markets and the French fashion industry were totally dominated by Pashmina shawls by the 18th century. It all started when a Kashmiri governor sent an orange Pashmina shawl to an Iranian nobleman. It eventually made its way to the French Emperor Napolean Bonaparte during his expedition in Egypt after passing through numerous hands. It was given to Joséphine, Napoleon's cherished wife. She initially considered it to be an ugly item of clothing. She was, however, somewhat taken aback by the delicate yet warm fabric once she had worn it. She reportedly spent over 20,000 gold francs on the 300–400 Pashmina scarves she had.

In 1790, a French fashion magazine published the first mention of the pashmina shawl, which quickly became recognised as a fashion symbol in Paris. Pashmina shawls gained popularity in Europe thanks to Empress Josephine. Although they eventually became solely worn by women, in Indian tradition, these shawls were first worn only by men. The fact that Kashmiri shawls were being imitated in Europe is interesting. Europeans gave the fabric the name Cashmere, the location of its origin (Kashmir). The pashmina fabric was so beloved that a clause (written in 1846) required the princely state of Kashmir, which was ruled by the British, to provide three pashmina shawls to Queen Victoria every year.

As pashmina became more well-known in Europe, so did imitations and low-quality copies. The Changthangi goats were brought to England, and the British also used replacement raw resources such Australian Merino wool and silk in their efforts to manufacture the pashmina raw material. They were unable to achieve the same level of elegance as a Pashmina shawl, though.

In Paisley, Scotland, the hand-woven shawls were replicated using a machine. The shawls were inferior to the original, but they were less expensive, and they became quite popular in Europe. So much so that individuals began requesting the replica shawls rather than the real ones. Thus, the widespread Indian tear-drop pattern on Pashmina shawls became known as Paisley (after the place it was manufactured).

The Changpa nomadic pastoral community raise the Changthangi goats, which are found on the Changthang Plateau. Changthang is 4,500 metres above sea level, which means that no agricultural products can grow there due to the region's high height and harsh environmental circumstances. The Pashmina goats, sheep, and a few yaks are essential to the existence of the Changthangi region's nomadic people. Raising these animals is the Changpa community's traditional livelihood because it is the only option to survive in the high-elevation mountain areas. Winters that are long and brutal make life even more challenging. Changpas constantly move in search of pasture area for their animals, therefore they seldom stay in one place for very long.

In the Changpa hamlet, which is untouched by urban bustle, a person's level of wealth is determined by the number of animals they own. Every family would have at least 80 to 100 animals, and some would even have a herd of more than 300. They typically keep 5 to 10 yaks in addition to an equal number of goats and sheep. In Changthang, Changpas traverse challenging areas of open countryside with their goats for grazing. Depending on the amount of grass available, the day's grazing lasts for approximately 6 to 8 hours. Goats are highly regarded by Changpa people, who see them as a sign of material success.

The goats have thick, hairy undercoats in the winter that keep them warm. The thick, hairy undercoats are combed for Pashmina fibre in the springtime. It is not necessary to injure or kill the goats in order to obtain the Pashmina fibre. To collect naturally fallen hair, Changpas comb goats. Pashmina is made from the wool that comes from the inner portion of the neck. The Changthangi goat's wool is the best available. In a year, one goat may produce roughly 300 grammes of raw pashmina wool. One Pashmina shawl is made from the wool of three goats.

The Process of Extracting Pashmina - 

The raw wool is manually dusted to remove impurities like sand, dust, etc. after combing. From gathering the wool to weaving it into the completed Pashmina fabric, there are a number of phases.

This wool is purchased by the weavers to be turned into fabric (usually shawls).

They clean the dirty raw fibres and eliminate contaminants like sand and dust. Then it is combed and divided into groups based on fineness.

The longer, finer pashmina fibre is used to create the highest grade yarn. After that, the raw wool is hand-spun into yarn. The traditions for spinning this wool vary by area. A wooden wheel known as the "Yender" is used to spin yarn in Kashmir. 

In contrast, spinning in Ladakh is done with a Phang, a whorl less, supported spindle made of willow wood. The Phang is held steady while spinning in the Phang-kor, a cup formed of apricot seed pulp, or a sizable metal spoon. Learning how to spin wool was traditionally a task for women. Yarn hand-spinning is gradually giving way to power looms. Spinning machines that are quick and economical compete with traditional spinning wheels.

The yarn is then threaded onto wooden looms where it is woven into Pashmina cloth using age-old methods. The diamond pattern is one of the most widely used weaving patterns and is used to create the finest shawls. The wool that is utilised naturally comes in beige, brown, or cream colours. The Pashmina cloth is hand-dyed after it has been woven. The opulent, solid-colored Pashmina shawls are prepared. Although the scarves and shawls made from pashmina are the most well-known items. For ages, pashmina cloth has also been used to create a variety of items, including blankets, gloves, caps, outer jackets, and more.

The next optional stage in the creation of a shawl is to embellish it with time-honored stitching. Another option for weaving a shawl is to use many colours and weave patterned stripes, squares, or arabesques right into the fabric. This was a lengthy, laborious project completed with the finest skill. The shawl is then transformed into a work of art by experienced craftsmen using various embroidery techniques like Sozni, Aari, and Kantha embroidery.

Pashmina weaving has been a thriving craft for generations in Kashmir, but there are now other significant Pashmina weaving centres as well. Basholi in Jammu's Kathua District, which was on the old route taken by traders from Tibet, became a centre for weaving. To resuscitate the old customs, the State Handloom Corporation began a tiny pashmina weaving enterprise in Basholi in 1955 with roughly 500 spinners. One of the Bhotiya community's ancient trades is weaving, which is practised in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh. The Bhotiya weavers, who are predominantly female, are nomadic people who weave clothing throughout the year. In the summer, they engage in other activities like gardening. Bhotiya weavers in Munsyari, Uttarakhand, are well known for their pashmina shawls. Some of the world's best pashmina is made in Munsyari. Ladakh also weaves pashmina, albeit the texture differs due to the type of spindle used. Although Ladakhi Pashmina is a little bit thicker than Kashmiri Pashmina, its attractiveness is unaffected.

A hand-made Pashmina is the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Although it had a modest origin in the nomadic highlands of Changthang, it eventually found its way into the crowded lanes of Indian markets and high-end shops all over the world.

August 19, 2022 — Karan Bose
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