A coveted fabric that adorned the court of Caesar and was the prized possession of French Queen Mary Antoinette, the pashmina was also gifted by Emperor Napoleon to his spouse. Her patronage made it a craze in France and throughout Europe. The art, craft and business of this 'soft gold' is today hit not only by the pandemic-induced recession, but by recent India-China border skirmishes, climate change, adverse effect of power looms and the lack of interest in the craft by the next generation of weaver families.

Elegant handwoven pashmina shawls are almost synonymous with exquisite beauty and quality. The word pashmina literally means 'soft gold' in Kashmiri. Regarded as the diamond among fabrics, it has proudly found its place in museums across the world, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Louvre in Paris.

Pashmina wool is obtained from the fur of the world's best wool goat, the Changthang goat or Capra hircus. This breed of goats is reared by nomads at a height of 13,000 feet above sea level in the Changthang region of Ladakh.


The art of pashmina weaving with exotic ornamental allure in the Kashmir valley is as ancient as 3,000 years BCE. In the bygone era, only the affluent section of the society enjoyed the luxury of this coveted fabric which once adorned the court of Caesar and was the prized possession of French Queen Mary Antoinette. It was gifted to Josephine by Emperor Napoleon. Her patronage made it a craze in France and throughout Europe. This craft has been mentioned in writing between 3rd Century BCE and the 11th century CE.

Zain Ul Abadin, who reigned over Kashmir in the 15th century, was the pioneer of the pashmina wool industry. The shawl industry thrived under his reign (1418-1470 CE). He was instrumental in bringing weavers from Turkistan. Mughal emperors like Babar, Akbar and Jahangir patronised this regal craft and gave a boost to its development and popularity.

The craft has been mentioned in literature as early as during the Akbar's rule (1556-1605 CE). He took keen interest in giving a fillip to this ancient industry. The motifs used in these shawls still bear Mughal influence. The names of certain designs like Shah Pasand (Emperor's delight) and Buta Mohammad Shah (Mohammad Shah's flower) also bear testimony to Mughal influence. Pashmina finds mention in the autobiography of emperor Jehangir, Tuzk-e-Jehangiri, as his favourite piece of clothing. The art reached its pinnacle in the Mughal era when one and half square yards of pashmina could be twisted and passed through a finger ring.

18th Century In the 18th century pashmina made its way to the shores of Europe and gained popularity in fashion circles there. The illustrious French monarch Napoleon Bonaparte presented pashmina shawls to his spouse Josephine. So enchanted was she by its soft allure, it is said that she possessed hundreds of pashmina shawls and was instrumental in making it a fashion statement in Europe.

Europeans coined the term cashmere for pashmina shawls after the land it originated in. Keeping in tandem with its ever increasing demand from Europe, its production increased. Gradually, innovations came up and that led to British and French textile manufacturers copying those in response to their ever increasing popularity. They experimented with a number of fibre blends to create the softness and warmth of the Kashmiri shawl, but no match came up. After a series of failures, popular imitated versions of pashmina shawls were produced in Scotland in 1777. These shawls from the city of Paisley came to be known as paisley shawls. Gradually, they became famous across Europe. They became more and more popular along with their imitated versions. By the late 19th century, cashmere rip offs were available. Presently available varieties of cashmere are blends of wool and silk. Pashminas are rare and cost a mini fortune. 

Varieties of pashmina shawl

     Jamawars: Garment pieces with designs all over them.

     Doshalas: Also called shoulder mantles.

     Patkas: Also known as sashes, these are lengthier and narrower than the doshalas.

     Rumals: These are also called square shawls.

The patkas and doshalas have varying dimensions, but their patterns are almost similar, each with a defined pallas. Pallas are nothing but repetitive ornamental floral motifs, along the width of the fabric confined within two or more vertical and horizontal borders.

Body of the shawl: From the latter part of the 17th century to the latter part of the 18th century, the body of the shawls used to be plain. There were only vertical borders that ran along the length of the shawl. But over years, the designs cropped up and filled up the body of the shawl with floral motifs and varying patterns. The jamawar variety is free of pallas. This type is adorned with four-sided borders with ornamental patterns on the body of the shawl.

Dyes used: Initially, wool used for pashmina shawls was not dyed. Wool in its natural colour like black, brown, white and off-white was used to weave shawls. Organic dye stuff was used to colour a wide spectrum of colours and shade from the 17 century to the mid-19th century. The adept dyers produced a wide variety of 64 colours out of just 5 to 6 different substances.

These consisted of indigo, lac and kermes, logwood, safflower and saffron for shades of blue red, pale red and yellow. This large colour palette was obtained through the use of dyes of varying strengths as well as blending them with different dyes. At present, acid metal complex dyes are used to dye pashmina fabric. Dyeing is done manually to make these eco-friendly shawls.

Motifs used: The most popular motifs are as follows:

     Buti: It is a tiny singular flower design.

     Khat-rast: It is a pattern with stripes which run along the length of the shawl.

   Cypress: It consists of a cluster of flowers and leaves emerging from a single stem, which is mostly accompanied by a root structure.

     Buta: This is a multi-floral motif and is much bigger than a buti.

     Zanjeer: This motif is denoted by a horizontal border design, which encloses the chief motifs like the paisley, buta, etc.

     Lahariya: This pattern is in zigzag form used to showcase water.

     Badam, Ambi, Kairi: This motif is called paisley across the world.

     Shikargah: This word literally means hunting. It showcases jungle scenes with human figures and animal figures.

     Buta-buti: This is bigger than a buti and smaller than a buta. It may consist of double, triple or even quadruple flower heads.

     Hashiya: This includes a vertical border which runs throughout the length of the shawl.

     Bouquets: This consists of a cluster of flowers, at times devoid of leaves. This pattern always includes a big flower motif in the middle surrounded by smaller flowers.

Embroideries: There are a variety of embroideries available on pashmina that enhances its worth. The thread work on the border and across the length of the shawl determines the cost of the piece.

  • Kani: From the Kanihama area of Kashmir, this is anancient handicraft of the state. A can needle is employed to weave in thispattern. The designs may range from intricate jaal to just the borders, knownas border kani. Forty colours may be used in a single kani shawl.

  • Jamawar: The term is derived from Urdu language inwhich jama means a robe or shawl and war connotes yard, i.e the measuring unit.Jamawar is a blend of pashmina, wool and cotton displaying an array of coloursthat grants a unique quality to each such shawl.

  • Sozni: In this kind of embroidery, thin needles andsilk threads are employed to make floral or paisley designs on pashmina shawls.Satin stitch is used to create abstracts or flower motif patterns on theborders. It has similar patterns on both sides throughout the breadth or acrossa shawl. In this kind, the pashmina base can be hardly seen due to intricatelyembroidered colourful motifs.

  • Tilla: Tilla is a silver or golden thread employed toembroider florets and paisleys along the borders of a pashmina shawl. This kindof embroidery is done with needles of size 28 and the result is spellbinding.In ancient times, tilla was used for royalty and elite sections of the society.

  • Aari: Aari hand embroidery is a unique feature ofKashmiri craftsmanship. In this, artisans employ hooked needles, known astambour, to make concentric loops. This needlework dates back to the 16thcentury, when it was patronised by the Mughals to make floral designs for regalgarments. Pashmina shawls and stoles adorned by this fine art in bothtraditional and contemporary styles are used by the royals often even now.

  • Kalamkari: Kalamkari is a traditional art form. The termmeans 'work done using a pen'. Kalamkari artisans, known as kalamkars, employbamboos and wooden cut pens dipped in vegetable pigment inks.

Shawl making: Traditionally, pashmina shawl making involves the following stages:

Pre-spinning: This comprises the following steps:

Spinning: This transforms the continuous and twisted strands of fibres into needed yarn count and twist conducive for further processing. The traditional method of spinning involves use of spinning wheels (charkha). The yarn obtained from the spinning wheel is spun on any light holder like grass straw, locally called phumblet. The spun yarn on the holder is doubled on hand reeler. The double yarn is then twisted or piled on the same charkha. These yarns are converted into hanks.

Weaving: The hanks are opened on big wooden stands, called thanjoor. These are then mounted on a spindle made of wood called prech. If the yarn requires dyeing in this stage, it is sent to the dyer. It is then washed with soap and is dried in the sun. Next, the yarn is reeled back on the racks. After this, the warp is made by the warp maker by twisting the yarn into required twist and strength. Now the spun yarn is dipped and left in rice water starch, called maya for two days. Next it is dried in the sun.

Then the yarn undergoes the process of tulun and yarun. In this way, warp is formed by stretching 1,200 threads, which is sufficient for weaving four to six shawls. Next the warp is stretched by the warp dresser. Then the weaving is carried out on the loom and the woven product is known as thaan, which is then washed with powdered soap nuts.

Finishing: It is carried out in following steps

  • Purzgar with wouch: The washed fabric is tweezed,clipped or brushed out to make it free of any superficial flaws on a frame.Uneven threads are removed by long handled tweezers called wouch.

  • Kasher: The fabric is rubbed with a dry and wiry coreof gourd, bitter gourd or maize cob, termed as kasher.

Washing: The fabric undergoes repeated washing.

Dyeing: If the fabric requires dyeing, it is dyed by the dyer as per the requirement and demand.

Stretching: The cloth is rolled and stretched for some days. Then it is ultimately given to the broker for selling after ironing and packing in plastic bags.

The price of a plain shawl is 5,000-6,000, whereas that of an embroidered one is 10,000 upwards.

Present scenario

According to media reports, the pashmina shawl industry is confronting a major crisis at present. India produces 45 tonnes of pashmina wool annually contributing to 1 per cent of global pashmina trade. The Changthang  region, where the Capra hircus breed of goats is reared by the Changpa nomads, turns almost inaccessible from November to February with temperatures as low as minus 50 degree Celsius. Consequently, the nomads migrate to warmer grazing lands close to the disputed border with China along the Tibetan plateau and across the frozen Indus river with their herds. The quality of the under-fleece results from the typical nomadic lifestyle they lead between extremely chilly conditions in the Changthang region and warmer grasslands. At present, the nomads' way of life is facing a serious threat from the military standoff. The din and bustle of the military movement troubles the goats. The weavers are not able to procure raw materials due to such restrictions.

The nomads at present are communicating with the local authorities as well as the Indian army to solve their problem. Many of the routes to the warmer grazing grasslands have been blocked by the Indian authorities. Failure in accessing warmer pastures may result in the death of a higher percentage of the young of the herds. This could surely hit the nomads hard financially and may prove disastrous for the Kashmiri weavers.

This impact may not be felt right now, but it would certainly be evident in three years when the young goats would reach the age to produce pashmina thereby resulting in great crunch. Under these circumstances, the authorities must permit nomads to bring their goats down to warmer pastures.

Climatic change

Besides the military stand off, climate change has gradually decimated the traditional grazing grounds. There has been a steady increase in temperature during the last few years affecting the greenery adversely. There are chances that if the temperature increases by even 5 degrees Celsius in the coming years, it will severely impact the herds and the quality of the pashmina wool.

As it is, Ladakh and Kashmir are suffering from landslides and extreme monsoon patterns.

If the weather pattern continues to change, it could adversely impact pashmina goat rearing in Changthang. Dozens of nomad families have shifted to the outskirts of Leh from their village Kharnak within a short span of five years. The ministry of textile is making efforts to reverse this trend by providing monetary help to the Changpas to resume the practice of rearing goats on the plateau. The downfall in trade will affect India's export of pashmina products as well as the unique tradition of the Changpas.

Adverse effect of power looms

For centuries, artisans have been making pashmina shawls manually. But over the last few years, machines and power looms have been fast replacing traditional weaving looms. These machines and power looms can produce eight to ten shawls in a day, thereby making the artisans jobless in spite of the 1985 Handloom Protection Act for banning mechanisation to save the pashmina trade. But the government has been unsuccessful in enforcing this ban effectively.

Hardship involved in weaving

The needle work on the pashmina shawl is highly tedious. It takes craftsmen years to embroider a single shawl, thereby affecting their vision. Moreover, the artisans don't get more than 300 to 400 a day in return for backbreaking tedious job. Hence the trade is not attracting the younger generation anymore and they are opting for other means of livelihood.

The COVID-19 impact

There has been a steady fall in export orders and domestic demand due to the pandemic in the last few months. Exhibitions and shows have stopped due to the pandemic, thereby reducing the work of weavers in the valley. Moreover, the flow of tourists to the Kashmir valley has drastically declined in the last few months, badly hitting the sale of pashmina shawl. Yet all is not lost yet. There is still hope that this art will regain its lost glory once the situation becomes normal and the government makes plans to support the artisans.