Fine, handwoven Pashmina shawls or Cashmeres as they are known are prized for their beauty and quality. Literally meaning ‘soft gold’ in Kashmiri, the Pashmina has a truly illustrious and ancient past.
The Pashmina wool specially made from the fur of a distinct breed of goat called Changthangi, found in the high altitudes of the Himalayas probably made its way through the Silk Route, across the ranges into Europe, China and the known world of the period.
– Literally meaning ‘soft gold’ in Kashmiri, the Pashmina has an illustrious and ancient past
The weaving of fine shawls from Kashmir finds mention in several ancient texts and can be traced back to the second century BCE. The shawls woven in Kashmir find mention in The book of Han composed in 111 CE, giving the history of China, from 206 BCE to 23 CE. It provides information about the lifestyle of Kashmiris and their talent for producing fine fabric. The shawls made of Kashmiri wool also reached the Roman courts of Caesar and Nero (54 CE – 68 CE).
The Pashmina has been prized through history not only for its great quality, beauty and warmth but also its uniqueness. The Changthangi goat is only found at an altitude of over 14,000 feet above sea level in the plateaus in Tibet and the neighbouring area of Ladakh and has been reared by the Changthan community for centuries. These goats survive the harsh Himalayan winters, where temperatures go as low as -20°C, thanks to their soft undercoat, covered by thick fur. It is this thin undercoat of hair which is used to produce pashmina.
While the art of making the Pashmina has been known for millennia, it wasn't until the15th century that the word Pashmina was used for the fine wool. The then King of Kashmir, Zain-ul-Abidin (1418 – 1470) is said to have founded the Pashmina wool industry in Kashmir. Legend has it that Mir Ali Hamadani, a Sufi saint came to Kashmir along with 700 craftsmen from Persia. He came to Ladakh, the homeland of Changthangi goats, and used the soft wool of the goats to make socks, which he presented to the king. Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin, was so impressed that he started it as an industry.
Mughal Emperor Akbar had a keen interest in Pashmina shawl karkhanas or factories and he took great interest in improving the old industry when he took over. It was at this time that embroidery was introduced and the Mughal influence can still be seen in the motifs used in these shawls. This influence is also reflected in the names of certain designs, such as Shah Pasand (Emperor’s Delight), and Buta Muhammad Shah (Muhammad Shah’s Flower), both named after the Mughal emperors.
Emperor Jehangir in his autobiography Tuzk-e-Jehangiri describes Pashmina as his favourite piece of clothing. Dealers brought large quantities of unprocessed goat hair to Kashmir from the city of Leh in Ladakh, an established trade route between Kashmir and Central Asia. Weaving Pashmina reached such heights in the Mughal period that one and a half square yards of Pashmina could be twisted and passed through a finger-ring.
– Emperor Jehangir in his autobiography Tuzk-e-Jehangiri describes Pashmina as his favorite piece of clothing
The industry flourished and reached its zenith under Mughal patronage. Members of the Mughal imperial court consumed large quantities of Kashmiri shawls between the sixteenth and mid-nineteenth century. The imperial patronage by the Mughal Emperors eventually led to the commercialisation of the industry.
In the 18th century, Pashmina reached the shores of Europe and became an article of high fashion. The great French monarch and conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte, on his way back from his Egypt campaign (1798–1801) bought Pashmina shawls as a gift for his wife Josephine. Empress Josephine was so impressed with the fabric that she is reported to have owned several hundred Pashmina shawls. She is credited with making the Pashmina a fashion statement in Europe.
Europeans named the Pashmina, after the land it came from cashmere. So great was the demand from Europe that production increased and new innovations were introduced. Eventually, British and French textile manufacturers responded to the initial popularity of cashmere shawls by copying them. Various fibre blends were experimented upon to reproduce the softness and the warmth of the Kashmiri shawl, but none matched up. Later by 1777, after many failed attempts, popular imitation of Pashmina shawls was made in Scotland. These shawls were known as Paisley shawls from the city of Paisley, in Scotland and gained popularity all over Europe.
As the fame of Cashmere spread, so did its various imitations and by the late 19th century, Cashmere rip-offs were widely available.
Today, most Cashmeres that are freely available are largely blends of wool and silk. Pashminas are rare and expensive. Soft luxurious and warm, most Pashminas are not as ‘perfectly factory-made’ as their copies.
The irregularities and nuances are what make the Pashmina unique heirlooms!