Image source: Pari

PASHMINA

the story

For the grass that you have just eaten, oh goat,

Give us some good pashm.

For the water that you have just drunk, oh goat,

Give us some good pashm.

Sit down on the grass and be still, oh goat,

So that we can take out your pashm.

 

A song the Changpa recite as they comb the pashm wool from their goats.

Dr Monisha Ahmed: The story of pashmina

Source: Zeze Collective directed by Errol Rainey and Isaac Wall

Pashm: the fibre

Every year, when winter’s biting winds howl over the coldest places of the world - the Arctic waste of Siberia and Alaska, the bleak high altitude plateaux of Inner Asia - that’s when the resident mammals don their chill-proof underwear. Goats, mountain antelope, yak, camels, musk ox, even dogs, grow beneath their coarse other coat a thick down of superfine fibres which alone enables them to survive temperatures plummeting to -40 degrees celsius or lower, made more severe by wind-chill. Come spring, lengthening days and the rise in temperature trigger hormonal changes that loosen the down for which the animal has (for the next few moths) no further need. 

The luxurious fibres of these discarded undercoats have for millennia been combed or plucked out by the neighbouring human communities and recycled for their own use. Several species including the goat, the yak, the camel, the dog, and the tundra-dwelling musk ox, have indeed been amenable to domestication, enabling their down to be harvested sustainably, for local or commercial use. Those which have resisted domestication, especially the Andean vicuna and the Tibetan antelope, both of whose coats are in the superfine category, have all too often been slaughtered for the precious fibre. 

The Rupshu Changpa on the move to their next campsite, Tibet.

Source: "Pashmina: The Kashmir Shawl and Beyond"

Of all the animal fibres, the down from some breeds of domesticated goat of Inner Asia, internationally known as “cashmere”, is the most famous. In India the fleece of the Tibetan goat, from which the classic Kashmir shawl was woven, is usually called pashm, an Urdu word originating from Farsi, that can be applied to the raw fibre of the down producing animals of high Asia; when the term is used without qualification goat-pashm is understood. Pashmina is the yarn spun and the material woven from pashm. 

Pre-eminent among the down-bearing goats was the trans-Himalayan breed of Tibet and Ladakh, India’s northernmost region, often referred to as the shawl goat or the pashmina goat, and identified in contemporary breed-lists as the Tibetan or Changthangi goat (Changthang is Tibet’s immense northern plateau which extends from the Chinese province of Qinghai west 1600 km into the southeast corner of Ladakh). The herdspeople who raise it know it as changra or “northern goat”. This was the animal whose pashm was, par excellence, the raw material of the Kashmir shawl, hence the 19th-century application of the term “cashmere” to all goat-pashm.

The herders

The Changpa (northern people) are nomadic pastoralists whose yak-hair tents are scattered throughout Tibetan and Ladakhi Changthang, a vast and complex terrain of flat expanses of land interspersed by mountains and valleys. For centuries they have lived in this bleak high-altitude landscape, herding the goats who pashm supplies the kashmir shawl industry. The Changpa camp at altitudes ranging from 3600 to 4500 meters, in an extreme environment where winter temperatures can drop as low as -50° celsius.

The Ladakhi Changpa number a little less than 9000. However, while “Changpa" is the generic term, they are not a single homogenous community. Groups are divided by their place of origin, each having its own chief and its specified grazing areas. Ladakh is home to 14 such groups, varying in size from 20 to 176 families, the average being about 130. While local variants exist, essentially all the groups share the same way of life. 

While pastoralism is the main occupation for all the groups, some of them also practice agriculture, growing barley and potatoes in what are believed to be the highest arable fields in the world. Their livestock consist of sheep, pashmina goats (locally known as changra goats) and yak, as well as the horses essential to their nomadic existence. In 2007, according to official records, the number of pashmina goats kept by the Ladakhi Changpa was about 170,590; they also reared 52,549 sheep. 

Till the 1960s, most of the pashm for the Kashmir shawl industry came from western Tibet, and Ladakh was merely the conduit for the trade. But the Chinese occupation of Tibet, and the closure of the border between India and Tibet, together with improved connectivity with the Indian plains, changed the old-established trading patterns. Today it is the Ladakhi Changpa who are the main suppliers of raw pashm to Kashmir. 

Pashmina: the cloth

Pashm is no doubt among the finest fibres ever woven; but on its arrival in Srinagar it is no more than a grubby and greasy mass as it has come from the goat, mixed with all sorts of dirt and dandruff and coarse hairs from the animal's outer coat. To transform this unpromising material into a fabric of gossamer fineness, and with patterns as delicate as the flowers they evoke, takes all the artistry and skill of Kashmir’s spinners, dyers, designers, weavers, and embroiderers, together with a host of ancillary workers.

This has been true for the last 400 years and remains true today. 

 

From at least the 16th century till the early 19th, Kashmir was the sole region where the skills existed to exploit fully the qualities of pashm - not only its warmth and softness, but also its capacity to take and retain natural dyes in all the colours of the rainbow - and to weave it into a polychrome textile of superlative delicacy - an object of desire for neighbouring and distant elites. 

Accordingly, apart from Orenburg (where the Orenburg Shawl was knitted; the only other internationally known textile made from goat-fleece before the 19th century), pashm was produced in commercial quantities only in the regions within reach of Kashmir: Ladakh and western Tibet, and on  a smaller scale the mountains of Central Asia (today’s Xinjiang and possibly Kyrgyzstan). From the 3rd decade of the 20th century, however, “cashmere” emerged as a premium material for the highest quality of knitwear and woven fabrics in the developed world. 

As a result, production increased astronomically, the bulk coming from China, especially the northeastern Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia, also from (independent) Mongolia, based on a different breed of fleece-bearing goat. In the last quarter of the 20th century, experiments with selective breeding undertaken initially in Australia gave evidence that genetic as well as environmental factors contribute to down growth, raising the possibility of producing the fibre in temperate climates. At present, however, only negligible amounts of cashmere are produced outside Asia. 

The trade

At its finest, the Kashmir shawl - pashmina fabric in the form of shoulder-mantle, waist coat, turban, or coat-cloth - was among the most exquisite textiles ever woven. But more than that, its beauty and economic worth made it, for at least 3 centuries, the centre of a huge and elaborate commercial operation, involving, in its heyday, tens of thousands of people, and worth several king’s ransoms. 

 

The shawl’s journey, repeated year after year for centuries, was long and arduous. It started on the windswept plateaux of Tibet where the pashm was produced, and finished in shawl-dealer’s establishments in the bustling marts or cities both east and west of Suez. Growing on the bodies of goats reared by nomadic herds people in an ecological niche that only they could fill, and harvested at the onset of summer, the fibre was carried by Ladakhi and Kashmiri traders down from the high-altitude pastures over the rocky trails that passed for trade-routes through the mountains, to Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital.

There, complex commercial and technical processes transferred the grubby grey fibre into the most delicate and decorative of textiles which, prized by India’s elites, were also carried by horse- and camel-caravans across Asia’s mountains and deserts to the bazaars of Isfahan and Baghdad, Cairo, and Constantinople; or down to the great ports of India’s west coat and onward by ship to the Gulf, or Europe and America. 

The emperor Akbar had such a fondness for the Kashmir shawl that he gave it an affectionate nickname: parm-narm, “supremely soft”. It was an object of desire not only for Mughal emperors and Sikh maharajas, but also for Indian and Iranian nobles, Armenian merchants, French empresses and their ladies-in-waiting, British aristocrats, and, eventually, for the wealthy bourgeoisie created by the Industrial Revolution on both sides of the Atlantic.

Cashmere artisans, painted by William Simpson in the 1860s.

Source: "Pashmina: The Kashmir Shawl and Beyond"

It inspired any number of imitations, but none that could even approach the original in softness, delicacy and charm of design; and it left a lasting imprint in the aesthetic sensibility of the modern world in the so called paisley, a motif developed in the ateliers of Kashmir’s shawl-designers. 

 

But alas! while the Kashmir shawl contributed to the romantic 19th-century vision of the “Orient”, it also fell victim to the vagaries of Western fashion. Worse, it became an item in the Imperialist’s economic project of taking anything they fancied of beauty and value from the colonised world, commodifying it, using it as a template for mass-production in Europe’s mills and factories and sending the cheapened products to undercut the original in its traditional markets.

Western demand for an article thus deprived of its exclusive cachet slumped; the industry, which had become largely dependent on it, crashed. 

 

Not completely, though. Even when the West was done with it, the Kashmir shawl survived though, shorn of some of its glory. Throughout the 20th century the pashmina shawl, woven and embroidered in Kashmir, remained an indispensable item in the winter wardrobe of the ladies of North India’s affluent middle class; and since the mid-1990s, the exponential increase of wealth consequent on the economic reforms started in 1991 has created a patron-class for the revival of ancient techniques and skills which had all but disappeared." 

Credits:

The article above is taken from "Pashmina: The Kashmir Shawl and Beyond" by Janet Rizvi with Monisha Ahmed (2009, Mumbai, Marg Publications, 2009).

Janet Rizvi was born in Scotland and educated at Cambridge. She has spent most of her adult life in India, predominantly in Ladakh and Kashmir. She is author of Ladakh, Crossroads of High Asia; Trans-Himalayan Caravans: Merchant Princes & Peasant Traders in Ladakh; and Pashmina: The Kashmir Shawl & Beyond.

Monisha Ahmed is an independent researcher who has been visiting and writing about material culture in Ladakh since 1987. Her doctoral degree from Oxford University developed into the book Living Fabric: Weaving among the Nomads of Ladakh Himalaya. She is the author of several articles on the material culture and textile arts of Ladakh, co-edited with Clare Harris Ladakh – Culture at the Crossroads  and with Janet Rizvi authored Pashmina: The Kashmir Shawl and Beyond. 

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