History of Pashmina
The Kingdom of Nepal is a small landlocked country in southern Asia, bordered on the north by Chinese Tibet and by India to the east, south and west. It is one of the least developed nations of the world and, until now, famous only for the great Himalayan mountain range which includes the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest. Nepal has a market economy largely based on agriculture and forestry. Hand-woven carpets and textiles have long been traditional products. Recently, however, business has developed around pashmina cashmere shawls.
Pashmina cashmere is spun from the downy undercoat of the Himalayan mountain goat which live at high altitude (above 15,000 ft./5,000 M.). The colder the conditions the better the quality of the wool. The goat from which the cashmere comes is called the Chyangra. The word pashmina is derived from 'pashm' which means 'inner layer of hair'. On average, one human hair is 75 microns thick; normal cashmere is approximately 20 microns; super Grade A pashmina cashmere is 12 microns thick. In other words, the best quality pashmina cashmere is 6 times finer than a human hair! One goat produces enough wool for 1 scarf and three goats must be combed to make a shawl.
For more than four hundred years, Nepalese craftsmen have been weaving these shawls using traditions handed down from father to son. Generations of Nepalese and Indian women have passed them on to their daughters as an essential part of their dowry. Pashmina cashmere shawls were first made by Mogul craftsmen for Emperor Akbar to give to his chosen wives and in the early 19th Century these shawls were a favourite of Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte.
As in 19th century France, Pashmina cashmere shawls have become a coveted fashion accessory. In addition, beautifully beaded, sometime with real semi-precious stones, and embroidered shawls are being made. The variety of design and colour is infinite and the quality of the workmanship superb.
There are different methods for different types:
Plain Shawls: woven from undyed yarns in a simple weave. Dyed after weaving but before the fringe is finished.
Jacquard Weave Shawls: as above but made on special (Jacquard) looms which allow self patterns to be woven into the fabric.
Stripes, checks, etc: woven with dyed yarns into the various patterns.
Printed: woven from undyed yarns, base colour dyed after weaving and then screen printed with the pattern in the various colours required. A different screen is used for each colour.
Embroidered: as for plain shawls but embroidered before fringe finishing.
How a Pashmina is made?
It can take up to three weeks from beginning to end to produce a shawl. The process begins in the foothills of the Himalayas where flocks of goats are regularly combed by hand. The combings are processed to separate the coarser hair (which is used for cashmere products) from the soft, white hair from the under belly which is then sent to cottage industries where the shawls are made. This animal-hair fibre is spun and woven with silk on simple machines. An accomplished weaver can make seven shawls a day.
The shawls are then washed with natural soap and passed to the dye master. Using the best dyes in the world from Ciba-Geigy of Switzerland, the dye master mixes the colours to order. The shawls are boiled, up to nine at a time, in large metal pots over a gas flame and continually stirred to keep the colours even. In order to make a shaded shawl, the dye master and his assistant must stand above the dye pots for about an hour holding one end each of the shawl while the colour seeps through - a very time consuming process. When the shawls come out of the dye pot they are washed again and hung outside to dry. They are then passed to the fringe experts, who roll the tassels on their legs and can “fringe” eight shawls a day if they are nimble. After yet another washing and drying, the shawls are ready for ironing and inspection.
Pashmina cashmere is graded according to quality, the most luxurious being the coveted Grade A- Diamond quality.
Ninety per cent of the world's hand woven Pashmina shawls are woven on a warp of spun silk to five added strength. However, pure Pashmina shawls (with no silk) are Made and can be so fine that they can be pulled through a wedding ring hence the term 'Ring Shawl'.