Weaving rare beauties

Wool from the hills

Weaving rare beauties

Spun and woven from the hair of goats in mountainous regions, pashmina products are so fine that even silk is considered a coarse impurity. Brinda Suri extols the virtues of genuine pashmina products that spell class and comfort

The journey from pashm (the Persian word for wool) to pashmina, a product that spells class and comfort, has captured the imagination of the world market. Those who are proud owners of a pashmina cherish it, and those who are not, long for it. It’s an established fact: until you possess a pashmina it is just another luxury, and once you do, you are forever tempted to add to your collection!

The wool for pashmina products comes from the neck and belly undercoat of the mountain goat Capra hircus laniger — a subspecies of the domestic goat Capra aegagrus hircus. The goat is found in the high altitude regions of Ladakh and its surrounding areas where the average temperatures stay at around -45 C. Its coat of hair that equips it to survive those drastic weather conditions is the hair that goes into producing the most expensive items of apparel. Though these prized goats are now being bred in a supervised environment, traditionally, harvesting pashmina meant that Ladakhis would traverse the tough mountains and collect the hair shed by the goats during spring and early summer between March and May.

Myriad forms

The Ladakhis would descend the mountains with bagfuls of pashm, marketing it to merchants who sold it to Kashmiri weavers, who finally converted the clusters of coarse, plain-looking pashm into exquisite pashmina shawls and products. The Kashmiri artisans transformed the wool into sheer exquisiteness; adorning it with delicate embroidery, they famously weaved it so fine that it could be passed through a wedding band. The kani-jamawar pashmina, or the tapestry weave shawls, also flourished in Kashmir. So overwhelmed were British colonisers with the art that they coined a new term for pashmina: ‘Cashmere’, representing their version of the word ‘Kashmir’. Though the original expression, pashmina, is back in vogue, the British term remains in circulation; connoisseurs can still be heard proudly mentioning that they’re “wearing a Cashmere”.
    
Painstaking effort is required to spin and weave pashm into pashmina products. The process begins with raw wool being carefully separated, based on the length of the fibre. This is subsequently washed in plain water as detergents damage the texture of the wool. Legend has it that pashmina acquires it’s characteristic quality owing to the fact that it is washed in the running waters of the beloved River Jhelum (known as River Vitasta or Vyeth in Kashmiri), that meanders through the length of the Valley. After the scrub, the cleaned fibre is gently straightened between the teeth of two wooden combs specially crafted for the purpose. The untangled fibre is then hand-spun into a yarn. A point to note here is that with pashm being extremely light in weight and as thin as human hair in breadth, it can never be spun or woven on a machine. A genuine pashmina, thus, will always be a purely hand-made product.

As the yarn is extremely thin, it is coated in rice-gum before being woven. During the spinning stage, two forms of yarn are spun. The warp yarn, which takes more stress during weaving, is spun with additional twists as compared to the weft thread, which is kept relatively loose with the purpose of achieving pashmina’s snug and feathery texture. Weaving a plain pashmina shawl can take up to a week due to the fine nature of the yarn and the skill employed in the workmanship.

Today, the use of the term pashmina is indefinite and quite deceptive. The trouble lies in pashmina having become a standard term for any supple, woollen fabric. This, besides lowering the value of a high-end product like pashmina also confuses buyers who, many a times, pay an exorbitant price for a fake. As the demand for pashmina has overshot supply, it has come to be blended with silk fibre. Silk aids in making it a bit more long-lasting as well as reducing the price of the product. When buying a branded shawl, cardigan, stole or muffler, look for the tag where the blends are stated. A top-grade pashmina will be available in the 80/20 blend, the latter being the percentage of silk used. However, ratios of 70/30 are more easily available.

When investing in a pashmina, always purchase the product from a reputed source. Some retailers now give you a certificate stating the genuineness of their product. They also buy it back, much like gold, and you should get the prevailing price of pashmina when you sell it.  The price of pashmina, like that of the precious bullion, is forever on the rise.

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