The Pashmina Plateau
Cashmere makes a very long journey before it finally reaches it wearer. The source of the valuable fabric is the Changthangi goat (capra hircus) a beautiful but hardy animal found in the cold, arid plateau surrounding Ladakh in the northernmost Indian state of Kashmir. The goats grow a thick, warm fleece and the special fibres for cashmere come from their downy undercoats. The distinctive animals, with their large twisted horns, graze under open skies and many travelogues will capture them dotting meadows and foothills, their mostly white coats contrasting with their rocky surroundings.
The local Changpa community has reared Changthangi goats, along with yak and sheep, for centuries. The Changpas are nomadic pastoralists. Academic accounts state that they migrated from Tibet in the 8th century AD crossing the Himalayas to reach the Changthang region in India, which is a western extension of the Tibetan Plateau. The Changpas share a strong bond with their animals and their lives are governed by an ancient rhythm that aligns with the life-stages of the goats. For example, extreme cold is thought to be an essential element for triggering the growth of the Changthangi’s coats. In fact the Changpas have a saying that ‘as the days grow shorter, the wool of the Changthangi grows longer’. Unlike other nomadic tribes, in the region, therefore, the Changpas do not descend to kinder climes in the winter. Instead, the guardians of the Changthangi trace the migratory routes of their ancestors, grazing their herds in pastures at heights more than 4,500 metres. Having mastered the symbiotic relationship with their beautiful but barren surroundings, they stay in canvas tents or primitive stone structures called ‘rebos’, even in the harshest winters. As the snow melts, it creates springs to feed the meadows that in turn, provide the grass for the goats. This fragile eco-system is crucial for Changpa life, who start the harvesting of cashmere fibres from May to July.
The harvesting of the fibres is done by hand, using a wooden comb. The fibres are longer, smoother and straighter than sheep's wool and much finer – approximately 15 microns as against 24 microns of the most refined Merino wool. It is a time-consuming process requiring great skill and can take up to five days for a single goat. The fibres thus collected must then be de-haired and cleaned, before they can be sent for further processing. Each goat, depending on its size, yields only 70 to 500 grams of fibre and typically only half of this can be used. This scarcity, added to the fact that the number of Changthangi goats is declining, is what makes pure cashmere so rare and precious.