Pashmina shawls have been hand woven in the Kashmir region of India for hundreds of years. Pashmina is the soft fibre derived from ‘pashm,’ the wool produced from the inner hair of the Himalaya region’s mountain goat ‘capra hircus.’ Cashmere is the westernized word for this soft material.
When we were again in Kashmir in June we visited Raja, a pashmina shawl weaver. He works on a handloom in his own small home in a semi rural area on the outskirts of Srinagar surrounded by rice fields. Raja lives with his wife and two small children, while we are there his son returns from school. Raja was at school but like so many others he was forced to leave due to militancy in Kashmir during the 1990s. Instead he followed in the tradition of his family and became a weaver as was his father and grandfather.
It takes up to five days to thread up the loom; the warp is either white or natural coloured pashmina. Before starting to weave Raja uses a spinning wheel to wind the coloured pashmina threads onto spindles for the weft that will create the stole’s design. Then he weaves around four inches per day. A stole takes around a month to complete, shawls longer. The raw material of dyed pashmina threads is supplied by Gulam Mohammed. He is a wastakar, a respected weaver who is sought after by customers for his woven pashminas. He is able to give work to other weavers like Raja.
The handloom pashmina weavers are paid in installments. These advance payments are necessary as the scarves and shawls take so long to complete. When the piece is finished the installments are deducted from the final cost of the pashmina. This system makes the handloom weaving industry sustainable for both the artisans and facilitators in Kashmir.
Some traditional textile crafts in India are being lost for various reasons including competition from similar machine made products and a move by young artisans to other work that is more highly paid. Thankfully handloom pashmina weaving survives as an appreciation of the pashmina fibre’s exquisite quality continues in hand woven stoles and shawls by people throughout the world.