A journey to learn about the wonderfully soft wool known as Cashmere.
Pashmina locally known as Lena Cashmere comes from a particular type of goat called Changra that lives in the high altitude regions of Ladakh in northern India and in neighboring Tibet at a height of over 5000 meters. Nature has provided the goats with their thick under coat to protect them from the extreme cold of winter. There is almost no rain in this arid region.
They are raised in herds by caring shepherds who comb the fleece out by hand in the spring. The heavy coarse outer hair is then separated from the fine soft Cashmere under coat.
They graze on the sparse vegetation of the region where no chemicals have ever been used and their water is provided by mineral enriched streams coming down from the high mountains.
Changra goats are not to be found in Kashmir itself, as they cannot tolerate its damp climate but for centuries their fine Fleece has been brought over the high passes from their natural habitat in the high arid Changtung plateau. From here, it has always been brought over the high passes in to the fertile Kashmir valley, as it is only here that exist the talents to prepare and weave it into wonderfully soft luxurious shawls.
It must be emphasized that there is no killing of the Changra goat in obtaining its fleece.
No type of mechanical shearing can be done as this action would break the very fine fiber and make it impossible to spin. After the combing, the fiber arrives in to the Kashmir valley in untidy bundles, which are then handed over to the highly skilled women with centuries of expertise behind them. It is first sorted out and the coarse outer hair of the fleece removed .The carded soft Cashmere is then made in to loose little fluffy balls in preparation for spinning.
It is only the women of Kashmir who have the traditional skill of spinning the incredibly fine yarn which again must be done by hand to avoid any breakage. Thus Women play a very important role in processing the yarn for weaving. It is a highly respected skill which exists only in Kashmir.
This is an ancient skill which has been perfected over the centuries. Spinning is done by hand on the traditional charkha wheel. It is a highly skilled job to spin the fibre in to a gossamer fine yarn.
After spinning it is then wound around another wheel locally known as Pritz. The spinner holds the spun yarn in one hand and turns the Pritz to feed the yarn on to it to give it a slight twist. From there it gets transferred in to hanks.
It is now ready for weaving in its own natural colors. Before weaving the warps are coated with rice water to give the yarn enough strength to be woven, this is washed out afterwards.
The yarn can also be hand dyed in hanks in a copper vessel that is placed upon a wood fire. The dyer then checks it to be sure that the color is evenly distributed. Where possible we use natural dyes, which we intend to extend through the whole range.
The fine yarn is now ready for weaving, traditionally done by men. The warp is then passed through the shifts and laid out on the loom. The loom is made of wood.
The wefts are passed through the warp with two or more shuttles these are made of local mulberry wood. The weaver sets up the loom according to the design requirements. The number of weft shuttles used depends on the weave pattern. It can be left plain in its natural colours Ivory and browny grey the two colours of the Changra goat. Or it may be dyed plain, after weaving in any colour required, or it may be embroidered in a multitude of different designs.
For embroidery the pattern is first created on blocks hand cut out of the local walnut wood, a skilled job now becoming more and more rare. However all block printers have a huge archive of blocks which have been handed down from generation to generation. If a new pattern is required then it has to be first drawn and then taken to the block cutter to get a fresh block made.
The blocks are first dipped into a paste made of rice and a natural gum, which is then stamped as, needed according to the pattern required on the cloth. The gum comes out on washing.
Then it goes for embroidery, there are several types of embroidery each has its different techniques. Numerous embroiderers in the valley use different techniques such as Kanikar and Soznikar. The very fine local silk thread is taken from the mulberry trees that grow in the Kashmir valley.
Those we work with are mainly in Srinagar or in the numerous little villages around. In the hands of the best artisans, the effect is like a mosaic of tiny jewels streaming out behind his hand.
Another type of embroidery is called Ari after the name of the hook with which it is executed. The artisans and women work sitting on the ground with the shawl to be worked on draped over their knees. They hold the thread underneath the cloth. Then they pass the hook through the cloth and pick the thread to the top thus forming a continuous chain as they work along following the pattern that has been stamped or traced on the shawl. This is also known as chain stitch.
This type of embroidery is quickly executed but is never done on fine Cashmere but on various other qualities of wool and locally made thick cotton that is often used for home furnishings.
Kani Weave Shawls
The famous Kashmir shawls that were the height of fashion in the late 18th and 19th centuries were woven in special technique. The pattern was woven as part of the shawl in a very fine twill tapestry technique known as kani from the kan which is a kind of a stick pointed at each end around which is wrapped the yarn.
Kani weaving is a very ancient technique that has survived in Kashmir. We are helping to keep it alive and are delighted that several young artisans have joined us in the revival. It is very time consuming work where one shawl can take between 2-4 years to finish. It requires absolute concentration and patience because mistakes cannot be rectified.
A graph pattern is first prepared by an artist. All the artists are steeped in the pattern traditions of Kashmir though more contemporary versions are now appearing.
This graph is then translated into a special weaver’s language called Talim, which describes the pattern and the colours to be used by each weaver. In the past these instructions were chanted by a master weaver. However, this
practice is now very rare .These days the design is drawn onto draft paper which shows where and when each color is required.
Finally whatever the process of patterning every shawl is finally washed in the rivers that flow down from the high mountains. The natural minerals in this cold water also add shine into these beautiful entirely natural products .Here they are being washed in the Jehlum river as it runs through the old city of Srinagar. They are then hung out to dry, before steam pressing in a mechanical roller. This is the last step in the preparation of Lena shawls.The same effect cannot be achieved with the use of a hand iron. This whole process keeps the characteristics of the cashmere shawl to its best.
They are then carefully folded. At this moment, the shawls are ready for the market. Beautiful, smooth and soft. It must be pointed out that in all the processes each step has to be followed individually and personally with great care.