History suggests that Kashmiri Shawls were sent as tribute to ancient Assyria. Alexander’s women and warriors carried them from Punjab to Babylon and Macedonia. Syed Asma reports.
Mughal emperors presented them to kings and queens. Even in the treaty of Amritsar signed between the British and Gulab Singh, latter had to present “three pairs of Kashmiri shawls” to the British every year. Such was the status the royals conferred on the product.
It is also said that Sir Walter Scott, The Wizard of the North, presented his French bride Charlotte Carpentier with a Kashmir shawl in 1797 for her trousseau which cost 50 guineas, a huge sum then.
The British also made many attempts to copy the pattern of Kashmiri Shawls but could not succeed. France, England and Scotland even imported the particular goats for wool and tried to make Kashmir shawls, to avoid import duties and paying of a Mughal tribute.
In fact machines were devised to reproduce Kashmir patterns. Victoria lent her Kashmiri shawls to the Paisley Shawl Company of Scotland so it could copy her patterns in its Paisley shawls. But all this was in vain.
Earlier the wool for shawls used to come from Tibet and now most of the raw material comes from Ladakh. These goats are commonly attributed as “shawl goats”. Each goat produces about half a pound of wool. First it is trimmed a bit and then is combed from tail to neck (backward) so that maximum wool is yielded.
After the wool is collected, it is supplied to the Valley where it is sold to wool merchants (poi woin). They later divide it into small bits and distribute it among the spinners who are mostly women. The wool is then cleaned up of dust and impurities and spun into threads. The threads are woven into a shawl.
The basic shawl is then washed properly. The shawl is then passed on to artisans to make beautiful embroidery designs and motifs.
The price of the shawl is primarily determined by the type of the wool used. Shahtoos (King’s wool) shawl is the most expensive among all. It is called “Ring Shawl”, as it is said that it so soft that it can even pass through a small ring. It is famous for its lightness, softness and warmth. It is made from the hair of Tibetian antelope’s throat. Shahtoos is preferred in its original colour which is mousy brown and is seldom dyed.
Another type is Pashmina, less expensive than Shahtoos. It is also known for its softness and warmth and is widely used not only in Valley but is preferred the world over.
It is formed from the wool of underbelly of Changthangi goat found 14,000ft above the sea level. The original colours of Pashmina are white, grey and brown. The product can be dyed in different colours also.
As both Shahtoos and Pashmina are very expensive, they are at times mixed with wool to bring down the price of the product.
Raffal shawl is the inexpensive one, not as soft as other two but is equally warm. Its price depends on the count of wool like 40, 60, 80 etc. As the count increases the price goes high.
The next thing which determines the cost is the type and quantity of embroidery put into a shawl. And embroidery has a story of its own.
Shawls are centuries old product of this Himalayan Valley and have witnessed dozens of dynasty ruling its native place. The ruling dynasties have left their influence and marks on its art and craft. The art matured with each passing year.
It is said that earlier in 17th century, the embroidery on shawls was a single flowering plant complete with roots, believed to be inspired by English herbs.
Then after advent of Mughals, single flowers expanded into a spray of flowers and around 1800 stylish cone shaped motif known as boteh, presently known as Paisley pine, locally known as Badam design. Shape of motif changed over years, from small squat to elongated ones.
Each shawl has its own of style embroidery, type of thread and specific needle used. Shahtoos and Pashmina usually have sozni embroidery. In sozni, either silk or staple thread is used, and a thin needle, thinner than the normal stitching needle, is used. Time taken to complete a shawl depends on the type of the shawl and measure of embroidery.
On a Shahtoos shawl border embroidery takes six months (embroidery only), and on Pashmina it takes arounf four months. If embroidery is done for the whole surface, a Shahtoos shawl takes around two years and Pashmina takes around one year.
Another kind of embroidery is the crotchet stitching (Aari kaim). It is commonly done on Raffal shawls as they are thick enough to bear crotchet piecing. Shahtoos and Pashmina will be ruined by crotchet stitching as these are very thin fabrics.
Kani shawl is another variety. The design of these shawls is woven while making the shawl unlike other embroideries which are done after the base is ready. It is made of coloured threads and is woven on thin wooden stick Kani. The craftsmen complete a shawl in two to three years. The shawl is also known as Jamawar – craze of Kings and Courtiers.
The French Angle
Kashmiri shawl has been acclaimed for centuries but historians credit French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s fashionable wife Jos?phine de Beauharnais for making it a global sensation.
Jos?phine, Napoleon’ wife for 14 years, is considered among history’s greatest style icons. Her elegance, charm, and easy aristocratic grace are legendary. Her contribution to the evolution of French luxury industry is next to none.
Her fascination with Kashmiri shawls grew after Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign in 1798, when the French Army returning from the Egyptian campaign, brought many items including a lot of shawls. The best of these shawls were gifted to the emperor and reached the queen.
Jos?phine, historians say, was the proud owner of 200 to 400 Kashmiri shawls. In a number of paintings depicting her, she can be seen wearing Kashmiri shawls.
Her love for shawls became a trendsetter, as till then, it was only being worn by wealthy men in the Indian subcontinent, and not women. Notwithstanding its cost-a substantial 12000 francs then, the Kashmiri shawl became a craze among women in Europe.