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‘There were people who could recognise Pashmina by tasting its threads’: Story of a dying art in Kashmir

A fully embroidered shawls price can go upto 3 lakh rupees
A fully embroidered shawl can cost upto Rs 3 lakh (KM/Special Arrangement)

By Afshan Anjum

It takes a few generations for an art to develop, grow and flourish. And then one calamity or a conflict for it to suffer and lie low. Hanan Zahoor has witnessed the same with the age-old craft of making Pashmina shawls. He’s the fourth generation of a family that specializes in meticulously weaving these shawls from scratch and then taking them out to the world.

As someone who can easily spot a real or fake Pashmina without batting an eyelid, Hanan recalls the fascinating men from whom he learnt how to do this; men whose expertise is unmatched in today’s world. “I remember people who came to see my grandfather for work, could recognise the wool and threads by tasting them. They could put it on their tongue and tell you if it was real Shahtoosh or Pashmina.” 

Hanan Zahoor is on a mission to revive Pashmina (Photo: KM/Special Arrangement)

Decades of conflict in the valley has done immense damage to artisans and the business that survived alongside other Kashmiri art. Hanan too found another path and career in life. But somehow, the love for Pashmina drew him back to the world of threads and yarns that he admired as a child.

“I can’t see this art die; it’s heartbreaking for me. So I decided to revive it and present it to the world in a new way. I invested in digitalising and documenting the process involved in creating these masterpieces. People need to understand it before they think of rejecting or valuating an art like this.”

Hanan manages the website where you can get complete information about the Kashmiri art, primarily Pashmina. 

So what is so special about a Pashmina shawl?

The name Pashmina comes from Persian pašmina, meaning “made from wool”. In reality Pashmina is not like any other usual woolen shawl.

It takes almost a year to weave a traditional Pashmina shawl (Photo: KM/Special Arrangement)

It has history and cultural heritage in every fold. It’s a craft introduced by Sayyid Ali Hamadani (RA), a Persian Sufi, who came from Persia to Kashmir along with 700 craftsmen in 1372 AD. For centuries these shawls have been the symbols of honour and status, ranging from the Mughal emperors to having a special place in a bride’s trousseau.

For its uniqueness and artistic value Pashmina is also considered very special in European countries.

Is it unreasonably expensive?

Pashmina shawls are not cheap but it’s important to understand the effort and cost that goes into creating every single piece. 

It starts with collecting the real wool shed by Pashmina goats in Ladakh. The fabric is manufactured during the spring season every year when goats shed away their fur grown during the winter season. Approximately 80–170 gram (3–6 ounces) of this wool is collected from one goat every year and goes through the process to produce the shawl.

A weaver working with the threads (Photo: KM/Special Arrangement)

The procedure of making handloom Pashmina includes three processes- spinning, weaving, and dyeing. After which comes the process of embroidery. It takes an artisan ten to twelve months to complete a fully hand-embroidered traditional shawl for which he or she has worked with needle and thread almost eight hours every day. This piece of art would be sold to the customer for anything between 60 thousand to a lakh rupees. Expensive shawls can sell for up to three lakhs rupees too. But imagine the time and labor that has gone into a piece before it comes into your hands. A single shawl that has been created over a year’s time still has its cost covering the bare minimum for the labor involved. Considering that, a Pashmina artisan hardly earns five thousand rupees per month for an art that’s appreciated around the world.

Honestly, if you ask the experts there is a Pashmina for everyone. “A basic embroidered stole can be bought for a price of five to six thousand rupees,” admits Hanan.  

The challenges it faces today:

The biggest challenge artisans and sellers face are the cheap replicas and fake goods peddled by unscrupulous dealers. These might look exactly like the real ones but can never give you the same quality and the finesse of hand-woven fabric. 

A fully embroidered shawl can cost upto Rs 3 lakh (Photo: KM/Special Arrangement)

What makes it fake? Simply because it would not be made of the particular wool that comes from the Pashmina goat. Replicas are either synthetic or made of the commonly available sheep-wool. While hundred percent of Pashmina production has taken place in the Kashmir valley for centuries, the replicas have started flowing in on large scale from China and neighbouring states. Kashmir’s struggles with conflict and lockdowns has only made things worse. There has also been a sharp decline in the number of youngsters wanting to keep the art alive as their profession. 

Why you should buy a Real Pashmina and not a fake:

You will be amazed to know that a replica can be bought for almost one tenth of the price of the original Pashmina. It gets its softness due to the fine silk threads and can appear finer than an original to the undiscerning eye, as it is done by the machine.

There has been a sharp decline in youth choosing shawl weaving as a profession (Photo: KM/Special Arrangement)

But it will always remain a replica. For what is a Pashmina that isn’t collected from the Himalayas and woven in the valleys of Kashmir? It shall never be as beautiful as the one made by the artist’s hands and a piece that has a bit of ruggedness in every stitch.

The story of the Pashmina is like Kashmir – loved and appreciated the world over, but still struggling to find a place for its existence.