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The Kashmiri Shawl
Kashmir is famous for the beautiful shawls it produces. This chapter talks about the shawl industry in Kashmir in detail, from the gathering of the wool to the final weaving of the shawl. It gives us a fascinating account of how Kashmiri shawls are produced, and helps us understand why they are so famous all over the world.
Types of Shawls and the Wool Used
Kashmir is called ‘Paradise on the Earth’. It is famous for both its scenic beauty and its handicrafts. Among these handicrafts is the Kashmiri shawl, a fine and light wrapping that keeps you warm in winter and makes you look elegant.
Kashmir has been producing shawls for centuries. Francis Bernier, the first European who visited Kashmir in 1664, wrote about their softness and delicacy.
These shawls are woven on handlooms. They are about 2 metres long and 1.25 metres wide. There are two types of shawls- one made with local fine wool, and the other from the soft under-fleece hairs of the wild goat, which is more expensive. In winter, the wild goats found in Tibet and Central Asia grow a layer of soft hair under their normal coarse hair that they shed off in spring. These goats are reared in farms where the wool is collected and then sold in Kashmir valley. In Kashmir and other areas, local goats also produce wool but this produces lower quality shawls.
Local shopkeepers sell the wool taken from the goats to women who sort the fleece before spinning it on a spinning wheel. The finer and softer the threads are, the better money you can get.
The Process of Weaving
Kashmiri weavers use horizontal looms. The women prepare the warps by ‘doubling’ the thread. The designer (called naqqash) decides the pattern. The colour caller or tarah-goru reads the design from the bottom upwards and calls out each colour in turn together with the number of warp threads under which the bobbin of the weft has to pass. A pattern master called the talim goru writes these instructions down using the traditional signs or ‘shawl alphabet’. The weavers keep this transcription called the talim in front of them as they work at the loom.
The designs drawn on the shawls are of various kinds. Both men and women work on the patterns in their homes. The most popular design is the decorative border at both ends of the shawl. The design is worked evenly on both sides.
The pashmina shawls are of two kinds- the loom shawl, woven entirely on the loom, and the shawl with an embroidered pattern. The famous ‘ring shawl’ is a fine fabric that can pass through a ring.
The Shahtoosh shawl, made from the fleece of the Tibetan antelope, Chiru, is a rare fabric. Another rare shawl is the Jamavar shawl in which the warp and weft threads are dyed before weaving. The price of a pashmina shawl varies from thousands to lakhs.
The History and Significance of Kashmiri Shawls
Sultan Zain-ul-Abideen started the shawl industry in Kashmir. The Sultan summoned a highly skilled weaver from Turkestan to build a loom for weaving shawls. The Mughals reorganised the industry. Akbar and his successors wore shawls of Kashmir.
After Napolean presented a rare Kashmiri shawl to Empress Josephine, shawls became a craze in France. Both Britain and France wanted to manufacture and copy ‘Cashmere’ shawls, but they followed a technique closer to the European tradition. The European shawls were trimmed which weakened them and lessened their beauty. European women preferred Kashmiri shawls whose decorated sections were much stronger. European shawls were also woven in several pieces which had then to be sewn together, a very different technique from Kashmiri shawls.
Kashmiri shawls are used as wedding gifts. They are also worn by elite men over the shoulders. The Kashmiri shawl industry feeds a lot of people, men and women, especially in villages in Kashmir. Even young girls and boys help their parents in embroidery work. Although people have to sit a long time to weave, they do it to earn their livelihood.
Kashmiri shawls have a rich history. A great deal of effort goes into creating these shawls, making them as beautiful as they are. The unique technique used to weave Kashmiri shawls as well as their beauty have made them so famous all over the world. The Kashmiri shawl industry is indeed very unique and fascinating.