The Kashmiri Pashmina (Cashmere)

Pashmina has been, for centuries, an emblem of Kashmiri culture. It is considered to be the finest craftsmanship in the world which transforms the exceptionally warm and delicate Cashmere threads to opulent accessories. Pashmina is derived from the word “Pashm” (Persian for wool). It is made from the fine, soft undercoat harvested from a species of goat native to the Ladakh region, locally called Changthangi/Changra (Capra hircus). This goat is exotic and is only found at high altitudes of Ladakh - Jammu and Kashmir, 15000 feet above sea level, making the art of Pashmina even rarer and revered all over the world.

There are several theories related to the origins and making of Pashmina. Some historians say that Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin (r. 1418–1419 and 1420–1470 CE) was a major patron of Pashmina and credited with establishing the industry in Kashmir by inviting craftsmen from Turkestan, in Central Asia, to settle in Kashmir. However, there is also an alternate theory that the making of Pashima was already popular much earlier, probably introduced by the Sufi scholar Mir Sayyed Ali Hamadani (1314–1384 CE), who discovered fine goat wool during a visit to Ladakh and brought back samples to show Sultan Qutubuddin (r. 1374–89 CE). Impressed by the softness and warmth of the wool, the sultan invited 700 families of craftsmen from Persia, who introduced carpet weaving in Kashmir. Since then, this art has been passed down generations of weaver families who continue to ply the craft even today.

Pashmina has fascinated kings, royals, and people all over the world by its magical allure and traditional grace. Another alternate theory says that Pashmina was discovered in the 16th century when its birthplace (Kashmir) was ruled by the Mughals. And the then Mughal kings were swooned by the mere looks of it. Later the aesthetics of this art spread more and French monarch Napoleon Bonaparte gifted his wife, Josephine, a Pashmina shawl. She is believed to have owned a few hundred shawls in that time. In Iran, rulers wore as well as gifted Pashminas within their political practices. In India, Maharaja Ranjit Singh decorated his court with hand-embroidered Pashmina shawls and fabric.

The dramatic beauty and the ornamental allure we see on a luxurious Pashmina shawl has a very humble beginning. “Changthang” is the land of the nomads, located east of Leh (capital city of Ladakh, J&K), about 14600 m above sea level. The area is untouched, unusual and rare. It seems as if the noise and grit of the city fades till it reaches the top of Changthang. Perhaps what makes it so is the extreme climate, high altitude and remoteness. And since these properties made Changthang unsuitable for agriculture, the local nomads started rearing goats - the Changthangi goats. For the goats, these conditions are perfect. It is these goats which grow Cashmere - the same Cashmere which is processed in Kashmir to conceive Pashmina shawls. The name Cashmere comes from the old spelling of Kashmir, which is the source of origin for this luxurious yarn. The raw Cashmere used to make Pashmina shawls is very plush and treasured of all yarns. It is considered to be the king of all fabrics which makes it timeless and a cultural heritage.

Pashmina is derived from the word “Pashm” (Persian for wool). It is made from the fine, soft undercoat harvested from a species of goat native to the Ladakh region, locally called Changthangi/Changra (Capra hircus)

The processing of Cashmere into Pashmina goes through various stages, each one requiring an expert craftsman for it to evolve into finished Pashmina shawls which are treasured throughout the world. There are 12-15 stages starting from collecting the pashm fibre & then weaving it into the Pashmina shawls & wraps. After the Cashmere fabric is woven, it is hand dyed. Then skilled embroiderers work their magic on it, and transform it from a plain shawl to a delicate piece of beauty, mesmerizing one & all. The expertise of the craftsmen in these particular stages gives the hand-woven Pashmina shawls their superior quality. The best quality yarn is made using the longer finer pashm fiber. The suitable length of fiber for hand spinning the pashm fiber into pashmina yarns is preferably over 5 cms. The yarn spun using the longer fibers are less prone to pilling. Hence, they are more sought after for weaving the refined yarn. The length of the fiber, its color and fineness are the factors that eventually determine the quality of Pashmina. The raw pashm is available in colors ranging from white, considered to be the most premium, to brown & grey.

The velvety soft touch of Kashmiri Pashmina on the skin feels luxurious and exquisite, like a wisp of fresh air. It’s a warm, comforting hug in the biting cold. No wonder its warm and luxe nature has been patronized since time immemorial by nobility and the upper social strata. Pashmina is like wine; it gets better with age and intoxicates with its sublime softness and dreaminess.

There are certain commodities in the present world which are intrinsically linked to the region from which they originate and tend to symbolically represent the region, its history, its culture. The history of Pashmina, which today is globally consumed as an item of luxury, as an item symbolic of Kashmir and Kashmiri culture, is inextricably linked with commodity fetishism, in one of its early forms, entangled with the larger processes of colonialism and European consumption of and market for ‘Indian’ goods. The story of the Pashmina is that of a fascinating one, which not only underscores the economic linkages between Kashmir and the rest of the world, contrary to the present idea of Kashmir’s historical and sedentary link with India, but also highlights the influence the Pashmina had on the society associated with its demand and consumption.