How to save it: the Kashmiri shawl

Painters and poets have long been entranced by its finely woven folds, but the future of the Kashmiri shawl is far from certain. Victoria Frolova reports

Cashmere by John Singer Sargent, 1908 – one of the many artworks inspired by the Kashmiri shawl
Cashmere by John Singer Sargent, 1908 – one of the many artworks inspired by the Kashmiri shawl | Image: Archivart/Alamy Stock Photo

On 5 August last year, I was finalising the itinerary for my upcoming trip to Kashmir. The same day, the Indian government revoked its special (limited) autonomous status, which the Muslim-majority state had held since joining the Union in 1947. The government then imposed a security lockdown, cut communication lines and restricted travel. I’m neither a reckless risk taker nor an irrepressible optimist, but I didn’t cancel my trip. I knew it was foolish to hope that the situation in the Kashmir Valley – a place whose borderland status between India and Pakistan has seen it become a violent battleground over the decades – would stabilise in time for my journey a mere month away, but I was obsessed. The reason? A piece of fabric so weightless and yet so warm that it seems to defy all laws of science. I wanted to meet the artisans and learn how real Kashmiri shawls were made. The escalating conflict only increased my resolve for a glimpse of this rare art that is under threat of vanishing.

A finely woven shawl from Kashmir Loom, which focuses on preserving artisan techniques
A finely woven shawl from Kashmir Loom, which focuses on preserving artisan techniques

Understanding the secret behind the unique beauty of a Kashmiri shawl begins with the goat. Only the wool of the Changthangi breed, reared by nomadic herders in Ladakh at an altitude of 4,000m, is used for the authentic Kashmiri shawl. The animals grow a warm coat in response to the harsh climate, and when they shed it in summer, they are hand-combed – with no harm to them – in order to obtain the extraordinarily delicate fibre, which is even thinner than the finest sheep’s wool, about 12-15 microns.

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“A weaver’s son, possessed of a weaver’s patience,” sang Kabir, a 15th-century Indian poet and weaver whose words remain true centuries later. Patience is an essential element in weaving, especially in the weaving of a Kashmiri shawl. Each bundle of wool, too fragile to be worked by a machine and weighing as little as 50g, takes many hours to clean before it is treated with rice paste, washed and spun into gauzy threads, and sent to artisans at the loom. Kashmiri shawls are traditionally decorated using kani, tiny bobbins wound with different coloured threads, and the artisan manipulates the bobbins to create the design one deft move at a time. An intricate Kani piece can take more than two years to complete – and delicate embroideries are likewise time consuming. Each Kashmiri shawl requires human hands and inhuman patience.

The spinning, done by women by hand on a charkha wheel, is an ancient skill under threat
The spinning, done by women by hand on a charkha wheel, is an ancient skill under threat

“Weaving is like meditation,” say the artisans. “It’s like being in a trance.” The 14th-century Persian mystic Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani is credited with promoting the art of shawl weaving in Kashmir. Like many other visitors to the valley, he was spellbound by the region’s lush greenery and blue lakes, and is said to have returned with 700 artists, scholars and craftspeople from central Asia. Although textiles had a long history in Kashmir, the Sufi saint encouraged his followers to support themselves by weaving, and the industry grew. By the time the Mughal emperor Akbar conquered Kashmir in 1586, the state exported its luxurious shawls as far as China and Egypt.

The shawls are decorated using kani – bobbins with coloured thread
The shawls are decorated using kani – bobbins with coloured thread

European arrivals also fell under the spell of Kashmiri shawls. British traders came to India searching for spices, but they found the textiles even more tempting. As historian William Dalrymple points out in The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, many English words connected with weaving, such as chintz, calico, khaki, taffeta, pyjamas and dungarees, are of Indian origin. One might also add the word cashmere, from the old spelling of the name of the region.

Only wool from Changthangi goats is used for the authentic Kashmiri shawl
Only wool from Changthangi goats is used for the authentic Kashmiri shawl | Image: Monisha Ahmed

By the early 19th century, Kashmiri shawl mania was at its peak, from Saint Petersburg to Paris – and the East India Company was doing a roaring trade. Napoleon brought the exotic fabrics to France from his Egyptian campaign, and Empress Josephine set the trend by appearing in white gowns accessorised with colourful shawls. Painters like Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres were attracted by the complex patterns because they offered artists a chance to show off their skills. In the process, their masterful depictions fuelled the contemporary obsession with shawls. One example draping Josephine’s shoulders in a painting by Antoine-Jean Gros was particularly copied. It was crimson red, its border embellished with a motif known as paisley, after the town in Scotland that had begun to produce imitation Kashmiri fabrics. Queen Victoria may have appeared in Paisley-made shawls in public, but the gentry – like Lady Bertram of Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park – coveted the real thing.

Detailing on a Kashmir Loom shawl
Detailing on a Kashmir Loom shawl

And this ancient art continues to exert a strong pull on our imaginations. At a Christie’s auction last June, mere fragments of 17th-century Kashmiri shawls drew extraordinary prices. One fetched over £50,000, against an estimate of £4,000-£6,000, astounding even the experts.

Kashmir Loom has a team of 120 weavers who will also teach the skill to the next generation
Kashmir Loom has a team of 120 weavers who will also teach the skill to the next generation

But finding real Kashmiri shawls made today proved more difficult than I had anticipated. When I finally arrived in India, most of the “pashminas from Kashmir” I encountered were produced in Punjab, Nepal or even China. “You should visit Kashmir Loom,” said a friend, taking pity on me at last. She divulged its New Delhi address as if sharing classified data. “The shop is open by appointment only.” A few days later I rang the doorbell of the Kashmir Loom studio near the mausoleum of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. Nothing short of divine intervention, I suspected, was required to learn about the art of the Kashmiri shawl.

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“Weaving is indeed a mystical craft,” said Asaf Ali, co-founder of Kashmir Loom, over a cup of saffron-flavoured green tea. He firmly dissuaded me from going to Kashmir in these uncertain times, but he promised to teach me everything he knew about shawls. Born into a family of artisans in the Valley, Ali met his business partner Jenny Housego in New Delhi when he was a 17-year-old carpet seller and she was co-running a textile company. Housego, a former member of the curatorial team at the V&A and the author of books on Iranian and Punjabi textiles, had become fascinated with shawl weaving when she moved to India in 1989, and the more she marvelled at the complex techniques and elaborate designs, the more she grew concerned about the future of the art. In 2000, she and Ali created Kashmir Loom, determined to prevent true Kashmiri shawls from disappearing.

Kashmir is a place at a crossroads, and a craft like Kashmiri shawl weaving could only develop in such a site, where people and traditions from places like Persia, China, central Asia, India and later Europe met and interacted. The pattern generally known as paisley, for instance, started out as a slender Persian cypress tree on early shawls, before ripening into a curvy Indian mango. As the floral patterns became fashionable in Europe, Kashmiri paisley blossomed into graceful bouquets. In the 1960s, brands such as Etro blended the familiar teardrop shape into a psychedelic riot of forms, and in turn the Etro-like mélange of paisley returned to Kashmir to inspire new patterns and styles.

Being a crossroads and a borderland, however, comes with tragic disadvantages. Since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, India and Pakistan’s multiple clashes over the region, which both countries claim in full, have seen the Valley become the world’s most militarised zone. To many, the name Kashmir evokes violence, protests and insurgency, rather than its unique cultural heritage. Traditional arts are under threat in many parts of India, says Aparna Gwande, textile designer and an associate professor at World University of Design in New Delhi, but the situation in Kashmir is particularly dire because of the ongoing conflict. “Also, fake machine-woven shawls made from viscose and other cheap fibres are flooding the market. Because those sell at a lower price, they give tough competition to the actual craft. Weavers have thus been reduced to a meagre number.” At the end of the 19th century there were 23,000 workshops in the city of Srinagar alone, but today some estimate that only 50 to 60 do traditional high-quality weaving. 

“This is why I avoid the word pashmina when talking about our shawls,” says Housego. Pashmina, an alternative word for Kashmiri shawl, means “made from wool” in Persian, but has been so adulterated that it has become a dirty word. “People are genuinely confused. I once saw a sign in London advertising ‘Pure pashmina: 100 per cent acrylic’,” says Housego. Kashmir Loom made its mission to revive the reputation for exquisite weaves that the Valley once had. “We were determined to preserve the techniques that almost vanished, like the Kani weave,” she explains. “Few weavers even knew the way it was done.”

The partners focused on finding artisans willing to make Kani shawls and teach the skill to the next generation. “I’m proud to say that we’ve made progress and today we have a team of 120 weavers,” says Ali. The company has worked with luxury brands such as Hermès and Marie-Hélène de Taillac’s Hot Pink store in Jaipur on their cashmere pieces, and offers a contemporary line made from cashmere and merino wool – but embroideries and Kani weaves are its trademark. Every year Kashmir Loom’s artisans create about 90 to 95 fine Kani shawls, including museum-quality pieces, such as the Sargent shawl. John Singer Sargent, to whom Housego is related, depicted a Kashmiri shawl in several of his paintings. Housego decided to reproduce it – but in true Kashmiri fashion, Kashmir Loom’s Sargent shawl isn’t a simple replica; it’s inspired by the painter’s pastel palette, which inflects its paisley motifs with blue and green hues.

Textiles are a fragile art to preserve: fashions change and threads decay. The current situation in Kashmir is grave, but, as Ali and Housego observe, the relationships the company has built with artisans over the years motivate them to overcome challenges. “We took responsibility for our artisans and their families when we created this venture,” says Ali, whose own kin still live in Kashmir. “Why care about weaving in such times, one might ask. If we don’t maintain our culture, we have no prospects for the future.” He pauses for a moment and adds, “Each shawl contains months of work, but also years of training and centuries of tradition. Isn’t something so precious worth preserving?”

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