KASHMIR SHAWLS Of the myriad varieties of textiles for which India was famous over much of Europe and Asia from at least the time of the Roman Empire, the Kashmir shawl stands out as the only woollen one. Although its precise origin is lost in a haze of myth and legend, it is safe to say that it grew out of a unique combination: a superlatively fine fiber plus the highly developed set of skills necessary to work the fiber. Or, as a nineteenth-century government report put it, “It is impossible not to admire the felicitous conjunction, in the same region, of a natural product so valuable and of workmen so artistic.”
The raw material of the Kashmir shawl, known in the West as “cashmere,” is called pashm in India, and the fabric woven from it pashmina. It is the warm soft undercoat grown by goats herded on the high-altitude plateaus of Tibet and Ladakh as protection against the bitter winter cold. Combed out by their herders at the onset of summer, for centuries the entire clip was sent down in a series of complex trading operations to Kashmir, the only place whose craftspeople had developed the skills necessary to process it. In the 1820s it was estimated that between 121,000–242,000 pounds (55,000–110,000 kilograms) a year reached Srinagar, to be made up into some 80,000 to 100,000 shawl pieces. The very finest shawls were woven from toosh, a similar but even finer material produced by the Tibetan antelope or chiru, an undomesticated species. Although the precious wool has always been procured by slaughtering the chiru, the amount consumed was negligible, probably less than 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) a year, insufficient to make a dent in a population estimated in the millions. By the early twenty-first century, however, the situation had changed; wholesale slaughter in the late twentieth century brought the chiru population down to a few thousand. It is recognized as an endangered species, and trade in its products is banned.
Manufacture of Shawls
The transformation of the raw pashm, a mass of greasy fibers, into a fabric renowned for its fineness involved a series of processes. The shawl entrepreneur supplied the pashm in its raw state to women who, in the seclusion of their homes, undertook the painstaking and laborious task of removing the coarse outer hairs from the fleece; they then cleaned it with rice-flour paste, and spun it on wheels similar to those used everywhere in India. The skill of spinning such delicate fiber was passed down over generations from mother to daughter.
Meanwhile the entrepreneur had employed a pattern-drawer to design the pattern of the proposed fabric. The pattern was passed to a color-master who filled in the colors, and finally to a skilled scribe who reduced the colored pattern to a shorthand form known as talim, which enabled a complex pattern to be recorded on quite a small piece of paper. The dyer then dyed the spun yarn in the required colors. Other workers prepared the warp and fixed it to the loom; only then did the actual weaving begin.
The classic Kashmir shawl employs a weave technically known as 2:2 twill tapestry, which is unique to this product. Tapestry implies that the design is woven into the very structure of the fabric; the weft is inserted not by a shuttle, but by a series of small bobbins filled with various colored yarns. Depending on the complexity of the design, one line of the weft may involve dozens or scores of such insertions. In Kashmir the technique is known as kani or tilikar, referring to different names for the bobbins.
Tapestry is an ancient textile technique, practiced in different areas all over the world in a plain weave, in which the weft passes alternately over and under one warp-thread at a time. It was only in Kashmir, however—and to some extent in Iran—that shawl weavers used a twill weave for tapestry, in which the weft passes over and under two warp-threads at a time, the pairing of the warps changing with every line of the weft. It is presumed that this modification was adopted to minimize the strain on the delicate pashmina warp-threads. Fabrics woven in twill exhibit a characteristic very fine diagonal rib, which enlivens the finished pattern. The borders were often woven on a silk warp, to strengthen the shawl’s edging, and sometimes on a separate loom, being attached to the main body, with almost invisible seams, by the rafugar, or needleworker.
The creation of intricate patterns in tapestry requires an extraordinary level of manual dexterity, though in the case of shawls this was exercised with no scope for creativity, rather in mechanical response to the instructions read out from the talim by the master weaver. The shawl weavers were bonded to their employers by a system of perpetual debt, paid barely enough to sustain them and, on top of that, were taxed to the limit by the government. The rooms where they worked were often dimly lit and badly ventilated, and it was said that a weaver could be distinguished by the pallor of his face, his sickly physique, and above all, his delicate hands.
Tapestry weaving is a highly laborious and time-consuming technique, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, as the designs became ever more elaborate, particularly fine shawls took months and even years to complete. Accordingly, the manufacturers adopted two distinct methods of speeding up production, both exploiting the skills of the rafugar. On the one hand, not only the borders, but also the main bodies of the shawls began to be woven in pieces—sometimes literally hundreds, for elaborate all-over patterns—using several looms. It was the rafugar’s job to join these with seams so fine that only the expert eye can discern them. The other method was to abandon the twill-tapestry technique altogether, the rafugar’s skill being applied to the creation of patterns by embroidery in silk on plain pashmina fabric.
The word “shawl” originally referred not so much to a garment as to a fabric, and the long shoulder mantle—in India originally worn by men—was only one of many varieties of shawl-goods. Shoulder mantles were woven in pairs, and often stitched together back-to-back; they were called do-shala. Square items, qasaba or rumal, were made for women’s wear, and long narrow ones, patka or shamla, for men’s sashes. Lengths of shawl fabric in all-over designs, jamawar, were intended to be tailored into men’s coats ( jama). Apart from these four main categories, about twenty-five varieties of shawl-goods were produced, including turbans, stockings, horses’ and elephants’ saddlecloths, carpets, curtains and other kinds of hangings, bedspreads, and shrouds for tombs.
The earliest extant shawl fragments, probably from the mid- to late seventeenth century, have the two ends decorated with a simple and elegant repeated design of single flowering plants—a favorite motif of Mughal decorative art from about the 1620s—enclosed in a floral meander. Gradually the single flower evolved into a bouquet, or a flowering bush (buta), assuming a cone shape, typically with the topmost bloom inclined to one side. In the later eighteenth century the plain background acquired a sprinkling of small flowers; by the 1820s, as this grew denser and more elaborate, it necessitated an outline to emphasize the main motif. Thus emerged the quintessential theme of shawl design, the bent-tip buta, which later became known as the “paisley,” after the town in Scotland whose weavers, in the mid-nineteenth century, cornered the British market for imitation Kashmir shawls. This perennially popular design motif, noticed on objects as diverse as nineteenth-century buckles in Cyprus and contemporary coffee mugs in Scotland, to say nothing of fabrics for all sorts of uses, may be regarded as Kashmir’s gift to the world.
The bent-tip buta found expression in myriad forms, often incorporated into other design formats, of which the most common were flower-filled stripes—especially for jamawar—and roundels. Square shawls often had a large floral medallion in the center, with quarter-circles in the four corners. They are known as chand-dar, or moon shawls.
As the nineteenth century progressed, the patterns on the shawl’s ornamented ends became increasingly complex, and also larger, often invading the central field entirely, leaving no empty space at all. At the same time, French manufacturers were adapting and developing Kashmiri design for their own Jacquard-woven shawls, while sending such modified designs to be made up in Kashmir. The resulting elaborate and fanciful shawls represented an astonishing degree of technical virtuosity. Today’s embroidered shawls are made up in the whole gamut of traditional designs, modified only by the difference in technique.
The earliest explicit documentation of the Kashmir shawl comes in the late sixteenth century in the Aini-Akbari, a comprehensive description of the Mughal empire in the time of the emperor Akbar. The Ain, however, is clearly referring to an already mature industry, which must have been flourishing for decades if not centuries. Kashmiri tradition attributes its origin to the great fifteenth-century sultan, Zain-ul-Abdin, who is said to have encouraged the immigration of textile workers from abroad, possibly from Iran and central Asia.
For over two centuries Kashmir shawls and shawl-goods were an essential element of the Indian royal and aristocratic lifestyle. Demand was such that by the middle of the eighteenth century there were said to be 40,000 shawl looms in and around Srinagar. In 1752 Kashmir was wrested from the Mughals by the Afghans, who ruled until 1819. They, and the Sikh and Dogra governments that followed, imposed such heavy taxes that in the 1820s the revenue to the state from the shawl-weaving industry was greater than that from all other sources combined. As a result of these exactions the number of looms fell, and those weavers who could escape from the serflike conditions under which they were employed emigrated to the Punjab and elsewhere in North India. Even so, according to a report in the early 1820s, at least 130,000 people were working in the industry, while the value of shawls exported was about 60 lakhs (6 million) rupees.
Shawls were commissioned in designs according to the demands of different markets. As well as plains India, many Asian countries also imported Kashmir shawl-goods from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. They are mentioned in Ottoman customs records as early as 1624. Jamawar was popular in Iran, while both there and in the Ottoman Empire shawls were part of men’s wear, worn as turbans, or around the waist as sashes. Even distant Egypt imported shawl-goods; they were admired by officers of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army in 1798, some of them purchasing shawls to take home as gifts. The empress Josephine’s passion for shawls set an enduring fashion in France. They had already entered the fashion scene in Britain around 1780, brought home by returning officers of the East India Company, and were regularly imported from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Over the next seventy years, export to Europe became the mainstay of the industry. At the same time, flourishing industries in “imitation Indian shawls” sprang up in both France and Great Britain; in fact, the Jacquard loom was invented as an attempt to reproduce the intricacies of Kashmir design by mechanical means.
The decline of the kani shawl in the last decades of the nineteenth century is often attributed to changes in European fashion; but the story is more complex. Social and political shifts in India and elsewhere in Asia led to erosion of the luxurious lifestyles of elites; as they started to adopt Western fashions, the shawl became irrelevant. By the early twentieth century, reduction in demand had led to the almost complete disappearance of kani work. The industry was kept alive by increased production of embroidered shawls, which came to be considered an essential accessory to the winter wardrobe of middle-class women in north India.
Remarkably, however, in the early years of the twenty-first century there are indications of a purposeful revival of the kani shawl. The development of a wealthy business class in India, especially after the economic reforms of the 1990s, created a market for such highly priced luxury goods, in response to which some astute Kashmiri shawl-makers have initiated the resuscitation of almost extinct skills. Thus, despite political upheavals, Kashmir’s craftspeople—the designer, the spinner, the plain weaver, the rafugar and now once again the kani weaver—continue to keep alive the region’s tradition of manufacturing textiles of unparalleled delicacy and beauty.