Kashmiri shawls are noted for the extreme fineness of the
cream coloured goats wool known as Pashmina and for the intricate
embroidery work. Pashmina is unmistakable for its softness. Pashmina yarn
is spun from the hair of the ibex found at 14,000 ft above the sea level,
although pure Pashmina is expensive, the cost is sometimes brought down by
blending it with Rabbit fur or with wool.
History Of Shawl Making
Shawl making has been a Kashmiri specialty for over 500 years. The word shawl was not used until 1533 when Nagz Beg of Khokand in central Asia came to Kashmir with his master, Mirza Haider Dughlat. Nagz Beg presented his master with a piece of Pashmina, and he asked Beg what it was. Beg replied a shawl, the name used by the people of Khokand for a blanket since then this type of weaving has been termed a shawl. The embroidered shawl or Amilkar was started by an artisan, Ala Baba, who covered up some footprints made by a fowl on his white material with coloured thread.
In 1796 a blind man, Sayyid Yehyah, from Baghdad, visited Kashmir and received a shawl from the Afghan governor. Sayyid presented it to the Khedive of Egypt, who in turn presented it to Napoleon. In France it caught the eye of the French court, which through history had set the fashion in Europe.
The subsequent demand was enormous, and in those days the shawls sold for amounts varying from Rs. 60 to Rs. 7,000. More than 40,000 looms worked day and night in the vale to satisfy the unprecedented demand from Europe. In 1820, the English explorer Moorcroft learnt the art and sent instructions to England. The English weave shawls are not equal to the originals from Kashmir.
Types Of Shawls
There are three fibers from which the Kashmiri shawls are made- wool, Pashmina and Shahtoosh. The prices of three cannot be compared - woolen shawls being within the reach of the most modest budget, and Shahtoosh being an once-in-a-lifetime purchase.
The Exquisite Embroidery
Woolen shawls are popular because of the embroidery worked on them, which is a special to Kashmir. Both embroidery and the type of wool used causes differences in price. Wool woven in Kashmir is 'Raffel' and is 100% pure. Many kinds of embroidery are worked on shawls - 'Sozni' or needlework is generally done in a panel along the sides of the shawl. Motifs, usually abstract designs or stylized paisleys and flowers are worked in one or two, occasionally three colors, all subdued.
A unique type of needle embroidery is popularly known as Papier Mache` work because of the design and the style in which it is executed. This is done either in broad panels or either side of the breadth of a shawl, or covering the entire surface of a stole. Another type of embroidery is 'Ari' or hook embroidery; motifs are well-known flower design finely worked in concentric rings of chain stitch.
Shatoosh - The Ring Shawl
Shahtoosh, the legendary 'ring shawl' is incredible for its lightness, softness and warmth. The astronomical price it commands in the market is due to the scarcity of raw material. High in the plateau of Tibet and the eastern part of Ladakh, at an altitude of above 5,000 meters, roam Pantholops Hodgosoni or Tibetan Antelope. During grazing, a few strands of the downy hair from the throat are shed and it is these, which are painstakingly collected until there are enough for a shawl.
Yarn is spun either from Shahtoosh alone, or with Pashmina, bringing down the cost somewhat. In the case of pure Shahtoosh too, there are many qualities - the yarn can be spun so skillfully as to resemble a strand of silk. Not only are shawls made from such fine yarn extremely expensive, they can only be loosely woven and are too flimsy for embroidery to be done on them. Unlike woolen or Pashmina shawls, Shahtoosh is seldom dyed. Its natural color is mousy brown, and it is, at the most, sparsely embroidered.