All the way from the highlands of Changthang region in Ladakh, pashmina or ‘the soft gold’ comes with the tale of a regal past and the promise of a lustrous future.
I am bobbing back and forth in a shikara right in the middle of the Dal Lake. There are at least a dozen local shopkeepers encircling us, showing off everything from a pouch of saffron, a box of walnuts to detailed, hand-knotted carpets in hopes of making a bid. I am fascinated with everything around me — the crystal clear water of the Dal, the towering Chinar trees surrounding it, the snow-peaked, mammoth ranges of Zabarwan peeping from behind, the soft murmurs in sophisticated Kashmiri boli (dialect) filling the air, and the twinkling trinkets that a young lad is trying to sell me. But my vision continues to stay fixated on a ring that an old man, clad in a traditional Kashmiri pheran, is holding in his hand. I gawk, awestruck, as he holds the ring high up, takes what looks like the most lustrous piece of clothing I had seen, in his other hand, and passes it through. The cloth glides through the loop — smoothly, gently, in one go!
This is my first memory of a pashmina, back from the childhood days during my maiden trip to Kashmir. I have had many such pleasant encounters with the cashmere ever since, have even owned one, but my fascination with pashmina still persists. And how can it not? This ‘soft gold’, as they call it, is the most coveted fibre in the whole world! And the one word that strikes my mind every time I look at a pure pashmina piece is: luxury. How often have you run your palms over the softest pashmina, taking pleasure in its delicate feel? Have you ever wondered why it’s so special? Where does it come from? Or what does it take to make it the luxury that it is? We are here to find out.
Tracing the origin
The silken-soft pashm wool may find its mentions in the writings about Caesar’s court many centuries ago. But the story of pashmina weaving and its fame spreading through the farthest corners of the world like a wildfire, truly begin much later in the high mountains of northern India. Zain Ul Abadin, who reigned over the region (then Kashmir) in the 15th century, was the pioneer of the pashm wool industry, which thrived under his reign (1418-1470 CE). The weavers were brought in from Turkistan, and the motifs used bore Mughal influence. Emperors like Babar, Akbar, and Jahangir patronised the royal craft, giving a further boost to its development and popularity.
For centuries, Ladakh was an important stopover at the crossroads of international trade routes through Silk Route, Western Tibet, and Kashmir, and pashmina played a significant role in determining its economic and cultural evolution. Kings went on wars, and kingdoms signed treaties, all in attempt to own the ‘soft gold’. It was greatly favoured with royal patronage. The love for the aesthetics of this art spread from the Mughals of Ladakh to overseas, when French monarch Napoleon Bonaparte gifted his wife, Josephine, a pashmina shawl. Legend has it that she owned as many as 400 pashmina shawls that then cost her 20,000 gold francs! This way, pashmina made its way to the shores of Europe and gained popularity in fashion circles in the 18th century. ‘Kashmir’ was Anglicised back in the day as ‘cashmere’ and that’s where the term caught up with the pashmina fabric in the western world. Featured in French fashion magazines as early as the 1790s, the pashmina shawl came to soon become a fashion statement and heirloom for women globally. Countries and industries from across the globe tried to copy and come up with their own imitated versions, but they were no match to the original texture, shine, and warmth that pashmina had to offer.
Fibre to fabric
If you wish to witness the glory of the coveted fabric from scratch, you must travel to the highland Changthang region of Ladakh, and meet the pastoral nomads, known as the Changpas, who call it home. Changpas rear a variety of livestock, including the pashmina goat or the Changra (Capra Hirpus Laniger, locally called Rama). The material used in original pashmina shawls is the finest quality of cashmere wool from the downy undercoat of the Changra goat. The art is considered the finest craftsmanship in the world which transforms the warm and delicate cashmere threads to opulent accessories. For Changpas, however, the work remains limited to migrating to warmer grazing lands when the highlands become completely inaccessible every winter with their herds, rearing young goats well, and running a specially fabricated long-toothed comb over the undercoat, once they mature, harvesting some pashm wool with each stroke.
The raw fibre used to be traditionally sold by weight to traders from Leh, who would degrease, scour, and spin the fibre for local production. The Kashmiri weavers today buy the raw wool through middlemen and prefer to refine and spin fine yarn in order to deal with the delicate fibre and transform it into expensive clothings. The process involves everything from cleaning, combing, segregating to spinning, and hand-weaving. The weavers in Kashmir take anywhere between 10 to 15 days to create the base of each piece. Later, these pieces are dyed with hands using organic dyes made up of natural materials like indigo, lac and kermes, logwood, safflower, and saffron.
When it comes to quality, there are several weaves but there’s no match for the Chasm-e-Bulbul or the popularly known as ‘Diamond Weave’. As the name suggests, the weave takes the shape of perfect little diamonds, resulting in elegant patterns with an aesthetic sheen. Buti (single flower), Buta (multiple flowers), Khat-rast (stripes), Badam (paisley), Lahariya (waves), and Cypress (a cluster of flowers and leaves emerging from a single stem) are few of the many designs and patterns woven on the pashmina today. There are several kinds of embroideries as well, including Sozni, Tilla, Paper Mache, Kalamkaari, and Kantha. A purely hand-crafted pashmina feels like a fluffy cloud in your hands.
Ticket to runway
Pashmina is ideal but no longer reserved for the toasty, snug feel it lends on cold winter nights. Indeed, the regal fabric is still an heirloom piece worth an investment, but along the way, it has also shed its dowdy image, undergoing a fashionable face-lift to become an ensemble of its own. Brands today are going beyond shawls and experimenting with it in different styles, right from kurtas, dupattas, sarees to maxi dresses and classy kaftans.
From museums and the shikaras in Dal Lake to the runways and designer stores across the world, you can find the luxurious, expensive wool everywhere! The elegance, lightness, and opulence of the cashmere has saved it from running out of fashion over the years. Through latest collections almost every season, Kashmiri designers like Zubair Kirmani are striving hard to change the way pashmina is looked, without losing the sight out on the luxury and sophistication it possess.
In 2020, couture designer Anjul Bhandari launched dedicated autumn-winter collection Pashmina-E-Awadh, seamlessly blending the Kashmiri weave with Chikankari hand-embroidery from Awadh. Designer Amit Aggarwal and exquisite shawl label Dusala collaborated on a limited-edition pashmina collection, handwoven with Zari and reengineered with metallic polymers in 2021. From Designer Vaishali Shadangule using pashmina-silk blend for her collection Srauta showcased at Milan Fashion Week earlier this year, to Sabyasachi introducing breathtaking pashmina lehengas for his winter brides, there’s no looking back for the regal fabric now! Pashmina, in all its glory, is truly timeless.
A trail to remember
The story of pashmina goes beyond historical anecdotes and fashion references. To discover the beauty of true handwoven pashmina, join The Extra Mile in their unique experience. ‘The Pashmina Trail’ takes you through the passes where these mountain goats are herd, and into the homes of the local Changpa people. Know their stories, share a meal with them, attend workshops and lectures led by LENA, a Ladakh-based slow textile label crafting pashmina heirlooms, enjoy camping, take a peek into the current residing royal family’s home, and pay visits to some of the finest couture boutiques. The curated experience not only throws spotlight on the luxury fabric but also aims to positively impact the local economy and benefit the local people.