India: Kashmiri – The Fine Texture

Kashmiri shawls are globally famous for their fine texture and embroidery. Woven on handloom from a rare variety of soft wool and embroidered by artisans who have perfected the needlework over generations, these shawls are considered to be a status symbol.

The word shawl is derived from the Persian word shal and is worn folded across the shoulder. The production of Kashmiri shawls started in the 16th century Mughal with Emperor Akbar providing it a great impetus. In fact, he is known to have influenced the weaving, dyeing, design and even draping of this garment. In his court, high-quality shawls were and gifted to favoured diplomats and courtiers.

In the late 18th century, Kashmiri shawls found their way into the wardrobes of the Europeans through men who worked for the East India Company. The shawl, with its exotic origin from a distant land, not only became a high fashion product but a status symbol due to its exorbitant cost. Towards the end of the 19th century, Kashmiri shawls began to show a more pronounced influence of European designs.

The best quality shawls from Kashmir are made of Pashmina, the wool from a species of the wild Asian mountain goat. The fleece was grown as a natural protection for the animals against the severity of the winter in these regions. The soft and fine fleece used for Kashmiri shawls grows under the coarse, woolly, outer coat, in the underbelly of the animal and is painstakingly collected from the shrubs and rocks as these animals rub off their fleece when the summer approaches.

The finesse of these shawls is the result of an enormous amount of hard work and skill. The fine fleece is extracted from the fleece collected leaving out inferior fleece and hair which usually constitutes only one-third of the total weight. The women then spin the fleece into yarn and men ply the loom to weave the yarn into a shawl. The undyed shawls are made vibrant after dyeing with natural pigments. Shawls with embroidered patterns are called amlikar or amli which require time as well as skill. On a plain Pashmina shawl, design motifs used are inspired by nature like a leaf or a flower.

The design outlines are further highlighted with silk or woollen threads. Depending on design intricacies, different styles of embroidery are used. While the aari style is often used to produce larger and more traditional Kashmiri designs using thick needles, sozni is preferred for intricate and finer designs using thin needles. Patchwork is one of the most important characteristics of Kashmiri shawls wherein patterns are woven on looms in long strips.

These are around 12-18 inches long and one to two inches wide. Created on primitive looms, these design strips are then cut to the required length and hand-sewn together with almost invisible stitches. Pieces may be separately woven, cut up in various shapes of differing sizes and sewn together to lend it different variations. Thereafter, it is elaborated with embroidery. However, there is a difference between these two types. Whereas a patchwork loom shawl is created from separate narrow strips, a patchwork embroidered shawl comprises of a number of irregularly shaped pieces joined together, each balancing the shawl’s predominant colour.

– Lakshmi Prabhala

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