Spinning and Weaving 'Soft Gold'

The word ‘cashmere’ conjures up a world of sensorial luxury, but few are aware that this valuable fabric has a rich history that cuts across centuries and continents.

Ancient texts indicate that the use of cashmere or pashmina for garments was pioneered by Nitghz Beg, a skilled weaver at the court of Sultan Zayn-Al-Abidin, ruler of the northern Indian state of Kashmir in the 15th century. Originally called pashmina (a Persian word meaning ‘soft gold’), the exquisite fabric came to be popularly referred to as ‘cashmere’ because of Kashmir, its place of origin.

Cashmere found great favour with the Mughal emperors, who not only lined royal garments with it, but also developed further the crafts of weaving and embroidering the fabric. The Mughal love for botanical motifs, probably influenced by European artists at their courts, is clearly seen in the floral ‘butis’ that dominate pashmina shawls to this day.

Napolean bought pashmina shawls for Empress Josephine on his way back from his Egyptian campaign and she is credited with making it a fashion statement in the continents’ most fashionable circles. While initially skeptical of her gift, she soon became passionate about cashmere, collecting more than four hundred shawls and even making coverlets and pillows from the fabric. The English and French trading companies addressed the burgeoning demand for the luxurious textile and cashmere soon became 'de rigeur' for affluent wardrobes.

  • Varana: Spinning and Weaving Pashmina
  • Varana: Spinning and Weaving Pashmina

The actual making of a pashmina shawl is a long, complex process requiring great skill and patience. All phases of pashmina production – dehairing, sorting, spinning, weaving, dyeing and embroidery are done by hand. After the fibres are sorted and combed, they are plyed on a wooden wheel called 'yander' to create the yarn. The threads are so delicate that they cannot be machine-woven and skilled artisans, mostly women, carry out the entire spinning process. The yarn is then washed, dyed and finished as required before the weaving process starts. Weaving too, is done on traditional, hand-operated looms.

If the shawl has a pattern, it is first drawn on paper and each colour assigned a code. A manuscript with this 'coded pattern' is then generated and the weaver refers to this as he operates his loom. Different types of shawls require different loom configurations. To weave the famed 'Kani' shawl, for instance, that requires upto thirty different colours, small wooden spokes are used in the place of a shuttle

  • Varana: Spinning and Weaving Pashmina
  • Varana: Spinning and Weaving Pashmina

So time-consuming is the work and so much skill does it demand, that it would not be wrong to call each shawl a labour of love. It takes 15-30 days to create a length of plain pashmina. When the fabric is embroidered or loom-woven, it can take from one to five years to create a single, intricately worked shawl. Jamawar shawls, for example, with their many hues and complex patterns, are amongst the most exquisite textiles ever woven. It is said that one Jamawar shawl started in 1819 as a gift for Maharaja Ranjit Singh, took the legendary embroiderer, Ghulam Mohammad Kulu an amazing 37 years to complete, by which time the monarch was long dead!

At Varana, we are committed to honouring the centuries-old, pashmina-related crafts that exist in the Himalayan region. From light-as-air stoles in elegant colours, to embroidered and hand-painted heirloom pieces, each of our collections is sure to showcase 'Cashmere from Cashmere.