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.