Where is our Pashmina Handicraft?

Pashmina a prince of specialty hair  fibre is one of the finest natural fibres.  It is a fine type of wool. The name comes from Persian ’Pasmina’  meaning made from wool. Pashmina, still regarded as  a status symbol, is known as cashmere in the west because Europeans first encountered this fibre in Kashmir. This wool comes from a different number of breeds of the cashmere goat  such as Changthangi or Kashmir pashmina goat  and  the malra from the Ladakh region. In  the  moulting season of spring the goats used for pashmina naturally shed their undercoat which grows  in winter. This  goat has a 4 to 20 cms  long outer coat of course fibre . The down coat is made up of fine soft fibre called cashmere 2.5 cms — 9 cms in length. One goat sheds approximately 80-170 grams of fibre  a real pashmina shawl requires. The undercoat is collected by combing the goat  and not by shearing as in other fine wools. Combing is done manually on specially available wooden combs and  obtained in the form of a loaf. Loaf is subjected to spinning on the traditional charkha so as to make yarn  and is collected on small bobbins. Spun yarn is then doubled on hand reeler.

Its products are available in a range of scarf 12 × 60 inches,  to wrap/stole 28 ×80 inches  to full sized shawl of 36 × 80 inches and throws as well. The traditional producers of pashmina wool in Ladakh region are known as Changpa. These are a nomadic people and inhabit the Changthang Plateau of Tibet which has a highest altitude of 14,800 feet above sea level and a harsh winter temperature  dropping down  to  even 40  degree Celsius. They rear sheep for meat and pashmina goats for wool. It is well known for its fineness, warmth, softness, aesthetic value, elegance and timelessness in fashion. One difference between pashmina and the  generic cashmere is that of fibre diameter.  Pashmina fibres are   finer and thinner (12-15) microns than generic cashmere fibre of (15-19) microns and therefore, ideal for making light weight  apparel like fine scarves. This trade is done worldwide. China accounts for 70 percent of world cashmere production, Mongolia 20 percent, the remaining  10 percent of production is in Australia, Afghanistan, India, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, United States of America, the central Asian Republics and elsewhere.

In Kashmir the founder of the pashmina industry is traditionally held to be the 15th century ruler of Kashmir Zaiun-nul- Aabedeen ra  who introduced weavers  from Central Asia. However, others  consider Mir Syed Ali Hamadani ra who came to Kashmir  along with  700  craftsmen. Sans contesting the position of  pioneer  it is an irrefutable fact that this trade has a more than 600 hundred years old history in Kashmir. Raw pashmina   comes from China, Mongolia and Ladakh to  Kashmir where manufacturers develop it into a finished product. All steps from combing , removing impurities, guard hair, de-hairing,  aligning fibres are traditionally done by hand by wage-based specialized crafts women who  alone act as spinners and  men as weavers. The major centres of pashmina are  in the old district of the city of Srinagar (presently districts of Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal). It takes approximately 180 hours to produce  a single traditional pashmina stole of 70×200cm. Lakhs of people are associated with it and earn their livelihood gracefully contributing to the economy pari passu as the trade is labour intensive and 20-25 spinners (women) are required to feed one weaver. This  craft has been awarded Geographical Indication Mark/Label in 9/2013. GI Mark is a stamp which  when put on any pashmina product certifies that   it is of  real pashmina material  which is (i) hand spun, (ii) hand woven and, (iii) below 16 microns. It is done at Craft Development Institute (CDI) at Bagh-i-Ali Mardan Khan Nowshera Srinagar. It is said that Testing & Quality Certification Centre at CDI lacks the Enforcement Wing. Under the  J & K Handloom Act 1985 only handloom products  are to be promoted and not power loom products. 

However,  with the introduction of motorization and mechanization in the trade by the wild capitalism more than 4 lakh (un-officially) people are stated to have been rendered jobless. Local artisans allege that scores of influential  traders have introduced spinning machines  and power looms  despite a ban imposed upon their use. It is said that more than 40 power looms ,mostly located in industrial areas, meant for producing count ruffle, are actually producing pashmina shawls clandestinely. Once the cloth is ready carbonized acid is spread on it which majorly affects its quality & life. Power looms are following a practice of using nylon with pashmina which is against the traditional values of this craft. This  craft, one of Kashmir’s oldest handicraft legends and legacy, is threatened by its imitations as the high priced hand made fibre looses markets against its cheap machine made namesake. The laws protecting the genuine pashmina shawl are observed more in breach than in implementation as the machine made rival is giving  a run  for its money to the original hand made pashmina. Lakhs of artisans in the state directly/indirectly associated with and  dependent on this highly famed and expensive Kashmiri Pashmina shawl sector are living in penury as they earn minimal wages despite undergoing long & continuous hours of work.The delicate/sedentary work has also affected their vision, hurt their knees, developed back & neck pain resulting in hardships in making their both ends meet. The courtesy  has been the apathy of the successive  state governments  which have failed  to frame long term welfare schemes for them. Moreover, the spurious pashmina gives a bad name to the original hand made  Kashmiri pashmina which was known for its superior quality all over the world. Although march of machines can not be stopped  yet the impurities in stuff, deficiencies in size and fake manufacturing should have been guarded against and  pristine purity  & glory of the original Kashmiri shawl upheld. The mammonites  adultering  the wool stuff/size  and projecting machine made shawls as handmade ones  has brought disrepute  to the people and doom to the trade. Moreover, the supply of shawls not conforming to the  ordered design has cast slur upon the craftsmanship   disturbing the exchange value  with reduction or withholding of supply orders also. To augment employment, economy and exchange the trade needs immediate and healthy revival. Any further  procrastination  will render more and more people job/income less. The Department of Industries & Commerce,  The Handloom  and The Handcrafts Departments/Corporations are to join  their heads & hands to retrieve the trade & traders from the abyss of its bone & backing breaking times. Pray this velvety touch and queenly look handicraft will again rejuvenate in the kingdom of shahtoosh.

[The author is a former Sr. Audit Officer  working as Consultant in the A.G’s Office Srinagar.]