Real Pashmina shawls are some of the most splendid garments you will see. They are lightweight, but warm, incredibly soft, shimmering in all the colors of the earth, woven in subtle patterns, or embroidered with intricate flowers and designs.
Last Monday I had the pleasure of meeting Suhail, from Kashmir of India. He will soon be coming to Shanghai to open shops at Yong Jia Road 557 and in Tai Kang Lu. Although his English was quite difficult to understand, this young man easily conveyed his love for his family’s heritage and history in shawl making.
I got the impression that his family still got the fibers for their shawls from wild goats rather than domesticated goats. These goats roam in the mountains of Kashmir. They have a soft downy undercoat that grows during the winter, as well as an outer coat of coarse hair that is called the guard hair. In the spring, they rub against bushes to get rid of the undercoat. Sheepherders gather up the undercoat and then bring it to his family.
The women separate the hair into 3 different qualities. The cleaning is still done by hand, after which the wool is carded and spun, again by hand, into two-ply yarn. It can take nearly a week to turn the wool from one goat into yarn, and it takes about three goats to produce the wool for one standard-size shawl.
The wool from the goat’s back is the 3rd, or lowest quality, and it is combined with 20-30% silk to make it softer, as it is a bit rougher than the wool from other areas. Usually these scarves are machine made. These can be left plain or I believe the women may embroider on these (although it might be on the 2nd quality.)
Wool from the belly is 2nd best quality. It won’t be combined with any other fibers. These scarves are machine made.
Wool from the goat’s chinny-chin-chin is the highest quality and the scarves are made with a loom and bobbins because the threads are so fine. They can be woven with colorful motifs or subtle designs. I’m not sure if the men embroider on first quality or second quality pashminas. A sure sign that you have a real 1st quality pashmina is the irregularity of the weave that you will see because of the use of the loom. A commercially made shawl will be perfectly made. Also, you should be able to see through the shawl when it is backlit and it will “glow.”
If you are really knowledgeable about the world of pashminas you may have heard about a particular variety of shawl called the shahtoosh shawl which is woven from the chin wool of the Tibetan antelope or Chiru. These shawls are actually now against the law in Asia as the animals were being killed just for the hair of their chins. As it took 3 or 4 of them to make 1 shawl, they were soon nearing extinction. The hairs were incredibly fine and difficult to handle, thus requiring the skills of the Kashmir weavers. These shawls are so fine that they can pass through a wedding ring and so are also known as “ring shawls.”
A shahmina, which is often confused for a shahtoosh, and isn’t illegal, is woven in the same way as a shahtoosh, but the fibers are the very thin fibers (13-16micrometers vs 9-11 micrometers for the Chiru) from the usual cashmere goat. I have a picture of one of these shawls later. I don’t think you’ll be able to see the weave, but it’s like no other weave I’ve ever seen–kind of swirly, rather than a back and forth grid.
So, there is a very strict hierarchy in Kashmir between men and women and who gets to do what in pashmina production.
The women separate the fibers into the 3 grades and do the cleaning and spinning.
Women work on grade 3.
Men work on grades 1 and 2.
Only men work with the looms and bobbins.
Men do embroidery where the back side is indistinguishable from the front side.
Women do embroidery where the back side, while neat and tidy, is clearly the back side.
Do you see the trend? Yes, the men were doing the most skilled work. When we prodded Suhail about why women weren’t doing the loom work or the better embroidery, his first explanation were words to the effect that they were women and just weren’t up to the task, of course. How could they possibly do it? (Thankfully this was in broken English or there might have been an incident!)
When we reminded him that he was in a room full of women, he sheepishly backed off and said something about women having to do things in the house for 6 months out of the year and not having time to do it. It was all a bit unclear, (especially since the men would undoubtedly be taking off as well to do farming) but frankly I just don’t think he thinks women are capable.
That being said, the embroidered scarves were works of art, especially the ones that had been done by the men. He brought ones that had been done by his grandfather, who is now 75 and still sewing.
These are not done with an embroidery hoop and a design stamped on the fabric the way I’ve always done embroidery. The fabric is draped over the knees and the patterns are sewn on free hand. The pieces take a year or two or up to 7 to make. The men specialize in embroidery that looks the same on the back and the front. I don’t know how they do it.
Unfortunately, the skill is dying out as young men no longer wish to stay in the villages and sew all day. Suhail can embroider names on scarves but that is the limit to his skills. It is such a shame.
The talk was at the Shanghai Sculpture Space, which is a public art gallery that has been created out of an old deserted factory. I have to say, there’s something about sculpture that speaks to me more than other art forms.
The pictures are now in a gallery–click on the first one and they will appear in the middle of your screen. You can use the arrows on either side of your screen to scroll back and forth.