Pashmina: Woven Tapestries of Art

Portrait of pashmina shawl makers in Kashmir, 1867, Wikimedia Commons

A pashmina is a piece of history, an aesthetic superlative and in fact tangible wealth that we can (and do!) pass on to the next generations. Most of us have a pashmina in our closet given to us by our moms or grandmothers. Its folds holding tales of another time, a whiff of their perfume still enveloping its warp and weft.  

A portrait of Empress Joséphine wearing a Kashmir shawl and a gown made of Kashmir shawl fabric, Wikimedia Commons

One of India’s most valuable gifts to the world, pashminas were once worn by the royals and the nobility and have been woven in the Kashmir region since at least the 1st century AD. Legend has it that in 1798, the French military and political leader, Napoleon Bonparte chanced upon a fine pashmina shawl that had traveled all the way from Kashmir to Egypt, where he was stationed at the time. He gave it as a gift to his beloved wife Josephine who was enamored with the fineness of the textile. So much so that she started collecting them, even getting bed linen made out of pashmina fabric! Nobility in other parts of Europe like Russia also coveted this exquisite textile. Wealthy Russians like Nikolai Demidov, a mining magnate in the Ural region gifted several to his wife Yelizaveta Demidova, a baroness in her own right and she spared no occasion to show them off. The portrait shown here features her wearing a dress made of pashmina. 

The buta design on an 18th-century Kashmiri shawl

We’ve spoken at length about the history of pashmina with Imran from Pashme Ladakh, give it a listen here.

Made from the fine, downy hair of the Changi goat bred only in the Changthang plateau, pashminas are living heritage. And they’re a sight for sore eyes; expertly woven Kanis in resplendent hues, Jamdanis and Dorukhas embroidered in fine stitches like kanigar, zalakdozi and Vata chikan. Their motifs hold us in their thrall; the delicate boteh (paisley), the very Kashmiri pamposh (lotus) and Chinar (Indian Plane), the Chand-dar (moon) which was once a preferred motif for pashminas exported to Europe in the 1800s, the minimalist Khat rast (stripes) and the Cypress that harks back to the origin of so many of these motifs, Persia.  

A woman from Bombay wearing a Kashmir shawl, Wikimedia Commons

Something as exquisite and delicate as a pashmina, needs lots of tender, loving care. Taking care of your pashmina shawls ensures you’re able to not only enjoy them for a long time but also preserve a sliver of India’s artistic heritage. Here are some steps you can take to give your pashminas a long life: 

  • Do take them out periodically because pashminas kept folded for a long time tend to stress the natural fibers  
  • Pashmina shawls are really soft textiles and wearing them with thick fabrics or sharp accessories can lead to pilling (those little balls of lint that form on the surface of a shawl.) Pair them instead with soft textiles like silk. 
  • Always hand wash your pashminas with cold water and mild baby shampoo or take them to a reputed dry cleaning service. Do not wring them while washing and if you must iron them, do so by placing a cotton cloth over them shawl’s surface. 
  • Store your pashminas individually by wrapping them in soft cottons. You might want to use an old, much worn cotton saree for this. And do avoid anti-bug pellets as the chemicals in them can damage your shawls 
  • Keep your pashminas in a moisture-free environment and far away from direct sunlight. 

Finally, wear them often. Here are some of our favourite pashmina shawls to be cherished forever.

Lastly, you do need to handle them with kid gloves, but you also want to wear a pashmina and admire yourself in every reflective surface! We may be all staying in right now (good call!) but a time will come when we get a chance to wear them again and revel in their beauty. Where would you wear yours? 

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