Gabba – the common man’s carpet

Gabba is one of the significant handicrafts of Kashmir and finds its origin in the humble efforts of reusing old woollen blankets. Gabba making has its roots in village life, therefore the reflection of rural taste and aesthetic preference is visible in the craft. Gabba is a traditional example of sustainable design as it uses waste as a resource for making new useful products.
A domestic craft, Gabba was originally used by a common man to keep warm during the harsh winters of Kashmir. Gabba is a creative and thrifty utilization of old worn out woollen textiles to enhance their thermal quality by means of layering.

There is no exact date of Gabba’s origin and it finds little mention in books on handicrafts of Kashmir. There is a local belief that 200 years ago there lived a boy named Lassa Tota in Anantnag district of Kashmir. Being very poor, he fixed together different pieces of old woollen clothes of various colours, which gave rise to a unique kind of mattress. The new design fascinated people around him and they started making similar type of mattress, which led to the origin of Gabba. This suggests that Gabba has its origins in Kashmir. According to another theory, a refugee from Kabul, Abdul Rehman prepared a saddle in appliqué technique for his host Kamal Bhat. This interesting idea caught the imagination of the local makers and Gabba came into being.
Legend has it that in 1846, the then Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, Gulabh Singh, on his visit to a village in Anantnag requested his host to sell him the piece of flooring – a Gabba – he was sitting on. Maharaja Ranbir Singh, another patron of Kashmiri handicrafts, honoured Gabba makers on various occasions and master crafts person were often invited to the palace. This is an evidence of the popularity of Gabba among the royalty in Kashmir.
Gabba is considered to be the common man’s carpet as it is relatively inexpensive. The embroidery is done on a woollen cloth with a hook tool called “Aer”. Gabba is made in two ways. Patch work or appliqué’ Gabba is made by joining different pieces of old rags of varied colours. The patches are joined with such skill that the onlooker cannot tell that it is made out of different pieces. Traditionally pieces of old rags or waste blankets were sewn together and embroidered. Even pieces of fabric were joined with the help of stitching onto a larger piece of fabric to form patterns.
Another way of making Gabba is by first dyeing the cotton or woollen cloth in a single colour followed by embroidery done with the yarn of different colours. In this type of Gabba, double stitch embroidery is done with cotton yarn. Such kind of Gabba is popular locally. Currently, craftspeople do not use the conventional old rags to make Gabba. Instead new blankets are used. The artisans have started dyeing the blankets before embroidering them.
Another type of Gabba is where embroidery is done using spun cotton yarn. The cloth used as a base differs from other Gabbas. In chain stitch, the embroidery is done so close that the base is not visible in the final product. Sometimes, the craftspeople use staple yarns instead of wool for embroidery.
A Gabba comes in varied sizes with dimensions of 9×12 feet, 4×9 feet, 2×4 feet, and 3×4 feet. Gabbas have been traditionally used for various purposes & during different occasions such as marriages, in guest rooms and embellishing the interiors of palanquins for brides. Chainstitch Gabbas are also used as curtains. Gabbas have also found use in rituals and as prayer rugs.

Namda – the hand felted rug from Kashmir

Imagine a material which is cool during summers and warm in the winters! The secret of the ‘Namda’ is one that Kashmiris have long kept to themselves.
Namda is a handmade felted rug used for furnishing. It is made of unspun wool or wool and cotton pressed and felted in specific proportions. The size varies from few to several feet in length.
The term Namda comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Namata’ which means “woolen stuff” and is used to describe felted wool floor coverings. Felting is one of the earliest uses of fibre that man discovered and adapted to use.
Wool from local sheep is used to make Namda which gives it the warmth as well as strength. Namda performs the role of an insulator, which is the reason it is warm in winters and cool in summers.
Even in the sub zero temperatures of Kashmir, Namda becomes a good source of warmth besides a Kangri. Namda is considered the common man’s carpet, because traditionally those who could not afford to buy costly ‘kaleen’ used this economical means of furnishing. The quality of Namda depends on the percentage of wool and use of dyes in the felt.
Yarkand is considered to be the place of origin of Namda. The rug came to Kashmir from Ladakh and the distant lands of Iran. Kashmir has served as a prominent market for Namda decoration and work in the past.
Namdas used to be brought in bulk from Central Asia to Kashmir for yarma work (embroidery). Yarma work is the ancient skill & source of earning to Kashmiris.
The practice of using wool as a felting material is also seen in other places where sheep rearing has been a significant livelihood of the local inhabitants; mainly Kutch area of Gujarat and western Rajasthan.
Las Khan, who according to his descendants was from Kabul used to come to Kashmir via Ladakh for Namda trade. In1850 Las Khan settled in Bhavdinpura, Srinagar and established his Namda workshop there.
Slowly, Namda work spread throughout a vast area of Srinagar and therefore this area is now known as Namdagari Muhallah. The permanent settlement of Las Khan in Srinagar paved way for the industrial development of Namda in Kashmir. After the death of Las Khan in 1886 his two sons followed suit & their descendants are still involved in the same trade.
Namda became very popular during the First World War. Namda workers became very busy and people started taking up the craft as a profession. Due to growing demand, Namdas started to be imported from Yarkand.
Thus Namda workers earned a lot and work bloomed. The wool merchants used to come from Ladakh, Kangra and other places of Kashmir and put up at Safakadel Sarai, which had become a market for Namda. This Sarai still exists.
During the Second World War, Namda work peaked to greater heights. By then Namdas were already exported to US and UK. Namda demand reached such an extent that few traders who had ensured quality control till then could not monitor it any longer. As a result many Namda makers started compromising on the quality.
Due to bulk orders and limited access to local wool, there was a dearth of raw materials and the rising demand from the market could not be met. So efforts were made to bring down the production costs and gain more profit. This opened up a new chapter in Namda making as makers started mixing cotton with wool.
Namda making faced rough weather on many occasions. Its production declined considerably by the end of World War Second. In 1947 considerable stock couldn’t be exported and was left in warehouses. This paved the way to the Namda Quality Control Act in1958, which made it mandatory for Namda exporters to register their products before exporting.
Process of Namda making needs to be refined. Innovation in this craft is the need of the hour, if we are to provide a sustainable product with a longer shelf life.

Pashmina – the ‘soft gold’ from Kashmir

The name Pashmina comes from the Persian word ‘pasmina’, meaning “made from wool” or ‘pashm’ meaning “wool”. Pashmina, traditionally part of the Royal ensemble, came to Kashmir via the route of Drass in Ladakh and gained quick popularity as it has very soft fabric and warm feel. Pashmina is just the indigenous word for cashmere used throughout the Himalayan region. Cashmere is a term applied by European colonialists to a fabric that was known primarily as a product of Kashmir.

Pashmina is the finest type of cashmere wool that is derived from the undercoat of the “Cashmere goat,” any of various breeds sometimes referred to as Capra hircus. Pashmina shawls are hand spun and woven. The founder of the Pashmina industry in Kashmir is the 15th century ruler, Zayn-ul-Abidin, who introduced weavers from Central Asia to Kashmir.

Today, however, the word “Pashmina” has been used too liberally and many scarves made from natural or synthetic fibre are sold as Pashmina, creating confusion in the market. There are a lot of counterfeit products in the market which are passed off as Pashmina. Some shawls marketed as Pashmina contain wool, while other unscrupulous companies market the man-made fabrics such as viscose and others as “Pashmina” with deceptive marketing statements.

You can test the quality of Pashmina from the warmth and soft feel of the fabric. One distinct difference between Pashmina and generic cashmere is the fibre diameter. Pashmina fibres are finer and thinner than generic cashmere fibre, and therefore, ideal for making light weight apparel like fine scarves.

The relatively higher price of pure Pashmina products is due to the quantum of expert craftsmanship that goes into creating each item and the rarity of the Pashmina wool. The wool used in an authentic Kashmiri Pashmina product comes from the Changpa breed of the capra hircus goat and this breed constitutes less than 0.1 per cent of global Cashmere production.

As the fibre diameter is very low, Pashmina has to be hand-processed and woven into products such as shawls, scarves, wraps and stoles, etc. Several government agencies have made failed attempts to weave Pashmina through machines. The quality of a finished Pashmina shawl is not solely dependent on the fibre diameter of the wool but also on the craftsmen’s skills.

The Pashmina goat sheds its winter coat every spring, which grows back in winter. The inner wool is collected and spun to produce cashmere. Unlike sheep, the Cashmere goat not only feeds on the grass but also the roots of the grass.

The traditional producers of Pashmina Wool in Ladakh region are a tribe known as the Changpa. They are from a region known as the Changthang region, which has a lowest altitude of 13,500 feet above the sea level where the winter temperature drops to minus 35 degrees Celsius. The Changpa rear sheep in these harsh climes and lead a nomadic life to produce Pashmina wool.

Pashmina accessories are available in a range of sizes – from scarves (12 × 60 inches) to stoles (28 × 80 inches) and to full sized shawl (36 × 80 inches). Pure Pashmina is a rather gauzy, open weave, as the fibre cannot tolerate high tension.

A craze for Pashmina products in the mid-1990s resulted in high demand, which far exceeded the supply. However, due to counterfeit products and unfavourable socio-political scenario in Kashmir, Pashmina business has suffered during the last two decades. Therefore revival, innovation and patronage to the craft and the craftsperson are the need of the hour.