The heaven on earth Kashmir is known all over the world not only for its natural beauty in the form of snow clad mountains, springs, lakes, lush green meadows, etc. but also for the handicrafts prepared by the Kashmiri artisans. Among the handicraft items, Pashmina Shawls have maintained the popularity all around the world from centuries. The word Shawl has been derived from a Persian word Shal, which originally meant a woven fabric. Shawls can be prepared from any material, anywhere in the world having their own identity but those prepared in Kashmir are different from all. In Kashmir, shawls have been prepared from all sorts of materials like wool, silk, angora wool, Pashmina, etc. and all these shawls have their own significances yet the most attractive, fine, Soft and elegant is the one made of Pashmina “the king of fibers”. It derives its name from Pashm which means Soft Gold. This luxurious fiber commands higher price among all natural fibers, because of warmth and lightness. Coherent to its royal stance in the history of world, it is known for its fineness, warmth, softness, desirable aesthetic value and timelessness in fashion. Even after centuries gone by, Pashmina Shawls have held their aura of perfection, and sophistications making them one of the finest luxuries even in the present day world.
Pashmina is a down fiber or under coat derived from Changthangi Goat, Capra hircus, which is native to India and their habitat is spread throughout the mountainous region of Central Asia. The area of distribution ranges from china into Tibet, Mongolia, Russia, Afghanistan and Iran. The history of Pashmina shawls dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization, into the Mughal reign where it was used as an indicator of rank and nobility, to being used in courts, and to be gifted to women which led to its spread to France and rest of the world. The founder of shawl industry in Kashmir was King Zain-ul-Abidin who actually taught this art of shawl making to the people of Kashmir by getting experts from Turkistan to Kashmir over hundreds of years ago. Since then this art is being performed from generations over generations.
How is Pashmina Made?
The traditional methods of processing involving dusting, dehairing, combing, spinning, finishing have given these Kashmiri Shawls a special importance all over the world. The Traditional method of Pashmina Shawl making in Kashmir is divides into four broad heads
- Pre-Spinning Processing:
- Harvesting: Pashmina is harvested during spring season, when the goat naturally shed their under coats. As the fiber obtained are intermingled with course outer coat called guard hairs, so the process of combing is followed by manual dehairing.
- Sorting/Dehairing (Puch-Nawun): It is the process where the undercoat fiber is separated from guard hair. It is done manually, mostly by Kashmiri Women folk.
- Combing: Raw Pashmina has lots of impurities which are removed by combing. Traditionally combing is done by impaling raw fiber repeatedly on an upright comb. This is done till the Tuft seen is in clean enough state to be spun. The step of combing is eliminated when machine dehairing is used.
- Gluing: It means the application of gluing material to the fiber obtained. This is done by applying pounded rice. The fiber is placed in a container over which pounded powered rice (Kharioat) is sprinkled and left on for a night or two. This is to provide extra strength, moisture and softness to the fiber. Later the fiber is again combed to get rid of all traces of the crushed rice power. The Fiber so cleaned is now given a shape of patty, locally called Thumb.
- Spinning: Spinning converts continuous untwisted strands of fiber into required yarn count and twits suitable for further processing. Traditionally, spinning is being carried out on a spinning wheel termed as Yander or Charkha. In this method, a small tuft/thumb of fiber is held between the second and third finger of the left hand supported by the thumb. As the spinner turns the wheel with right hand, she raises and lowers the hand the fiber in a perfect harmony to the rhythm of turning wheel. The yarn produced is spun on a grass straw or any light holder locally called Phumblet. The yarns are then made into hanks on wooden reeler locally called as Yarandul.
- Weaving: Weaving is started with opening of hanks on the large wooden stand locally called Thanjoor and is mounted on a wooden spindle termed as prech. The yarn is separated and is weighed before weaving. If the yarn needs to be dyed at this stage, it is send to dyer (rangrez). The yarn is washed with reetha soap in lukewarm water and sun dried. The next stage is to make the wrap. The span yarn is placed in a copper bowl, where it is steeped in a rice water starch called maya. This is taken out after two days and spread out in the sun to dry. The dried yarn is wound now on a wooden prech, this process is called Tulun. Four to six rods are being erected into the ground. Two person work together and transfer yarn from prech onto iron rods by using sticks. This process is called Yanun. About 1200 threads are stretched in this manner to worm a wrap locally called as Yaen which is enough for 4 to 6 shawls. The wrap is now given to the Wrap-dresser to stretch the wrap. He spends a week or so to fix each wrap thread in the saaz (heddles of the loom). The loom is constructed of wood with a bench on which two people can sit comfortably. The finished length of woven material is known as thaan. This is washed in cold water with powdered soap nut, reetha or special soap made from similar herbal ingredients.
- Purzgar with Wouch: The washed fiber is now sent to the purzgar. Here the fabric is tweezed, clipped or brushed out to rid it of any superficial flaw on the surface.
- Kasher: In this, the cloth is rubbed with a dried wiry core of gourd, bitter gourd or maize cob known as kasher.
- Washing: The fabric is now washed by washer man or dobhi who washes the fabric in running water by repeatedly striking it against a hard smooth surface or stone.
- Dyeing: If the fabric needs to be dyed, it is sent to the dyer who dyes as per the demand and requirement.
- Stretching: The fabric is rolled and left stretched for several days, it is then ironed and packed and finally handed over to seller. Before the final product reaches the customers, it is either a plain shawl or a shawls with various traditional Kashmiri Embroideries such as Tilla, Sozni, Paper Machie, Kalamkari, Aari etc.
Over the years, various machines have been introduced to replace the labor and reduce the time requirement of Pashmina Shawl making which resulted in decreasing the quality of these shawls and somehow introduced the concept of replica and imitation with other wool fabrics, that are sold under the name of Pashmina with zero percent of Pashmina present it them. The governing bodies thereby introduced the Geographical Indication GI mark to differentiate fake and original Shawls. Also the researches done is Kashmir, which compared the machine made and handmade Pashmina shawls resulted in proving that handmade Pashmina shawls have longer life with a greater overall quality. Handmade Shawls have been found highly significant thereby portraying the importance of the traditional craftsmanship and the methods involved, keeping the art alive.