The Pashmina fiber is also known as pashm or pashmina for its use in the handmade shawls of the Himalayas. It is this soft yarn which provides the foundation of the shawl industry from Kashmir.
The weaving of pashmina originated in Kashmir, a picturesque valley nestled in the Himalayan ranges. This art of shawl-making is the impeccable way in which a fine fabric like pashmina is extensively hand-embroidered or hand-woven. It is the skill of these craftsmen and their capacity for intricate workmanship, which are their greatest assets.
THE FIBER TALE
The pashmina fiber is obtained from the underbelly of the Capra Hircus goat generally found and now bred in the sub zero temperature Himalayan ranges. Nature has endowed this delicate animal with this special fiber to keep it warm even at 14,000 feet altitude in the subzero temperatures. These goats only shed their winter coat each spring and produce only 3 to 8 ounces of wool per animal and the pashmina fiber is spun from this shed coat. Because this fiber is only 14-19 microns in diameter, and is short in length, it cannot be spun by machines, so it has to be hand-spun and handwoven.
The spinning of the yarn is done by the womenfolk of virtually every household and weaving in Kashmir is exclusively a man’s work. The yarn is coloured using vegetable dyes before the warp is set on the looms by the craftsmen.
Extensive hand embroideries have been done on fine pashmina shawls, an art which requires high skill and an incredible amount of dedication, commitment and wholehearted devotion by these extremely talented craftsmen from Kashmir. These shawls showcase a balance of great skill, hours of hard work, extreme dedication and weeks and months of persistence and those special moments of sheer joy. It is not just something which they do for survival, they put their heart and soul in creating each piece.
It is this undying spirit of these talented craftsmen who day in and day out fight a million odds for not just their survival but the survival of this exquisite ‘Art of Shawl making from Kashmir’.
PASHMINA AND CONTEMPORARY FASHION
The classic jamavars and Kani shawls have been expensive from their inception with the amount of man-hours which go in creating each piece and a fact that each piece, like a painting, is unique and cannot be recreated again. These classic Sui jamavars and woven Kani shawls are an essential part of the wardrobe, they are meant for collectors or passed on as family heirlooms.
But pashmina as a fiber is being used to create modern shawls keeping in mind the current fashion trends and colours to attract the younger generation as well.
The handicrafts industry occupies an important place in the economy of J&K. It is basically a cottage industry and provides direct and gainful employment to more than 3 lakh people and has the potential to generate more employment in future.
Shawl-making is a very integral part of this cottage industry supporting the livelihood of many people. For the survival of the art, it is imperative to maintain the age-old charm of traditional patterns and colours yet infuse a zest of modern colours and textures to lure the younger generation into purchasing these shawls. The pashmina fabric has evolved over time into a much softer and drapable fabric, keeping in mind its acceptability in the market.
The artisians and weavers still survive on the mastery of this age-old art of shawl making from Kashmir. There are no formal institutes which really teach you this art (except few now which teach you weaving of the Kani shawls), but this is passed on from generation to generation.
The writer is a Textile Designer and the person behind ‘The Splendor of Kashmir’, an initiative to keep the art alive.