A Community of Culturists in Cashmere Valley

The thudding of looms and spinning of fleece into yarn keep alive a precious weaving legacy and a fledgling textile tradition in Srinagar’s Eidgah.

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A drape dries in a collard field at Eidgah, the hub of pashmina-weaving in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. Photo by: Satarupa Datta

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Away from the humdrum of Srinagar’s downtown, we came across a maze of brick houses with wooden shutters by the lush collard fields. “This quiet locale called Eidgah is home to the pashmina weavers,” Usmaan said. Usmaan runs Kashmir Walks, a company that champions the timeless Kashmiri arts and crafts to the world by introducing the otherwise faceless master weavers to their patrons. I was on a craft walk with him to meet the weavers at work.

We arrived at Jan Mohammed’s house. He is an award-winning pashmina master weaver. The attic doubled up as his workshop and hanks of dyed pashmina yarn hung on display racks. As he ran the de-haired pashm on an upright wooden comb, it became easy to understand why pashmina earned the moniker ‘soft gold’. The combing filters the pure pashm off their prickly overcoat, leaving the most valuable dregs of ultra-silky strands. “Only 400 grams of wool in total are permitted from a single pashmina goat annually,” Usmaan said, confident in his knowledge of the fabric.

On the first floor, ladies with a fine flick of fingers were spinning the airy puffs of fleece into yarn. This hand-spun comes as delicate as a tenth of the width of a strand of human hair. The next course of action was dyeing. Jan Mohammed claimed that the skilled dyers, or rangers, only use natural colours that include indigo, lac and kermes, logwood, safflower and saffron for shades of blue, red, dull red and yellow, respectively. They achieve a wider colour palette only by combining different dyes.

While we talked about the making of pashmina over an aromatic glass of kahwa, I ran my eyes over a few pashmina shawl collections and immediately my heart desired one as I rolled my fingers on them.

 

A Community Of Culturists, In A Quiet Corner In Cashmere Valley

Pashmina washing at the banks of the Jhelum (1); Combing filters the pure pashm from the prickly overcoat, leaving the most valuable dregs of ultra-silky strands (2); weaving at the loom(3). Photos by: Satarupa Datta

 

In the vicinity, all have in-house looms. He invited us to one where fifth-generation artisans carry on old techniques of weaving by hand with the finest yarn sourced from the rare, high-altitude Changthangi goat. It qualifies as pashmina only if the tapestry achieves a fineness of 10 to 15 microns in diameter.

I looked silently as the weaver plied his trade like a pianist raising the shuttle by hand and pressing the paddle simultaneously with his feet in a consistent rhythm. The thudding of the loom continued to reverberate and melded with the azaan. Amid such a mishmash of sounds, here echoes the backstory of pashmina: 

During the 13th century, the Sufi saint Mir Syed Ali Hamdani, travelling on the Silk Route with 700 craftsmen from Persia, discovered the Changthangi goat in the high-altitude Ladakh. He saw the superlative quality of the wool and gifted sets of woven socks to the then-king of Kashmir. Impressed by the warmth of the wool, the King provided patronage to the craftsmen and in no time pashmina weaving took over the valley. Akbar, a connoisseur of pashmina shawls, promoted the intricate jamawars and kanis during his rule.

At the embroiderer’s workshop, a person, his head low over the folds of the shawl in his lap, was working on sozni, a style of  needle embroidery. He was creating a reversible pattern decorated in two different colours—one side of the shawl is the mirror image of the other. The more intricate sozni embellishments that cover the whole body are graded as jamawars.

I crooned with delight when the weaver pulled out one kani. Patterns—luscious flowers and twining leaves of chinar, paisley or ambi derive inspiration from the lush mountains and valleys of Kashmir. What pushes kani into the repertoire of rare weaves is how differently coloured weft yarns are introduced at intervals, sometimes 10 to 16 times within a single line of weaving, by employing small wooden sticks, called kanis in Kashmiri.

As natural-born designers, Kashmiri artisans conceive beforehand how multiple colours would work well together, with the help of a written guide, taleem—a mathematical coding system that includes colour ratios and points at which the coloured wefts shall meet with the warp threads. Woven thread by thread like a carpet, a kani weaver typically dedicates two to three years to each collection that reaches a price bracket of ₹50,000-5,00,000.

 

A Community Of Culturists, In A Quiet Corner In Cashmere Valley

The kani sozni is an embroidery style where fine needlework lends the fabric the appearance of tapestry. Photo by: Satarupa Datta

Today, pashmina is known the world over as cashmere. The dapper Kashmiri designer Zubair Kirmani, has gone on to showcase the handcrafted heritage weave before an international clientele with his own unique design language. Khatamband, an Islamic architectural craft  featuring carved wooden panels in geometrical patterns, are central to his design bank.

His label Bounipun has a series of signature shawls and stoles, deep-rooted in tradition and at the same time modern and beyond the traditional craft. His digital prints on delicate pashmina stoles, carry khatamband motifs, through which splashes of colours overrun. His collections have already found presence across fashion outlets in France, Spain and Italy.

While chatting to him on the phone, we agreed that urban consumers are becoming more inclined towards choosing handwoven, ethically made garments over high-street brands. He spoke clearly of his plans of revolutionising pashmina in other drapes like jackets that are ideal cutouts for the fabric. His latest endeavour is heavy embroidered pashmina frames as home collectibles that too celebrate the history and intricacy of pashmina in equal measure.

In 2015, the Indian government granted a GI (geographical indication) tag to the prized fabric  to guarantee purity. GI certification also meant a state license to J&K as the only destination to carry out the centuries-old trade—this is good news for the industry. But this step is only one amongst others requisite for continuing the time-tested craftsmanship, Kirmani shared.

As we picked our way by the Jhelum, every ghat had dhobis washing off the finished shawls, which, with every thrust up, swayed like big kites and left us wondering about pashmina not just as a fabric but a story untold—a story of its weavers who’ve poured their love, imagination and hard work into creating it.

 

Also Read | The Pashmina Trail: In Pursuit of Ladakh’s Soft Gold

 

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  • Satarupa Datta is a travel/culinary writer based in India. Long years of writing travel scripts for television helped her discover the traveller within. Her work has appeared in Whetstone Magazine, Goya Journal, Outlook Traveller, Matador Network, Intrepid Times, The Culture-ist, and other new-age digital publications.

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