Warm, soft, elegant: that’s a perfect description of how you feel when you wear those beautiful fringed scarves which are known as pashminas. However, softness and colors are not enough for a pashmina to be a real pashmina. Born in Persia with the meaning of ‘made of wool’, the name ‘pashmina’ literally translates ‘soft gold’ in the language of Kashmir. Then, ‘pashmina’ does not refer to a finished garment, but rather to a fabric with specific properties: 100% superfine cashmere.
Pashmina is a type of cashmere wool, but the pashmina fibers are even finer than normal cashmere fibers, ranging from 12 to 15 µ. They come from special breeds of the cashmere goats: the Changthangi goat, which is domesticated in the Ladakh region of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is the most important in India. As we said, however, the name ‘pashmina’ has Persian origins: according to historians, it was only in the 14th century that, astonished by the qualities of this superfine wool, an important Muslim personality coming from Persia suggested to the king of Kashmir that they start a pashmina shawl weaving industry. Since then, pashmina has become a status symbol of the Indian and Asian elites, and later on of the European and Western upper classes as well.
The value of Pashmina lies not only in the natural beauty of the animal’s fleece, but also in the manufacturing process. The fiber is indeed so fine and delicate, that it needs to be spun and woven by hand. After being combed and harvested in springtime, the wool is sorted according to its fineness and color, which can be white, grey mixed with brown or brown. Finer, longer and white fibers are most prized. Fibers are then transformed into yarn with the use of manually operated traditional charkha, locally known as yander – that is spinning wheel – and finally handwoven and dyed. In addition, designing and embroidery work enhance the preciousness of pashmina fabrics. Sozni (or suzani) embroidery is typical of the Kashmir region. The motifs depicting natural flora and fauna or geometric designs are created in satin stitch and often require more than one embroiderer transforming both sides of the cloth into a colorful painting or elegantly decorating the borders of shawls. The embroidery is applied following a traced pattern which is first filled in starting with individual motifs of flowers, then finished with defining the outlines and finally the continuous lines that connect these motifs.
Blankets, hats, gloves and many other products can be made of pashmina. In the West, however, pashmina has become synonym of ‘scarf’ by extension, because we got to know this fabric mostly in the form of scarves, shawls and stoles with a range of different sizes, for which India has always used the majority of pashmina wool. The demand for pashminas increased dramatically in the mid-90s, when the difference between a real pashmina and any other scarf – even if nice but with lower value and price – got lost. Fabrics made of other types of wool, often superfine merino wool, or even made of viscose, are sold under the name of pashmina. A pashmina, they say, is delicate enough to pass through a ring of your finger. Anyway, you can tell a real pashmina from the product label: the fiber content must be 100% cashmere, or a 70% cashmere/30% silk blend, but 50/50 is also common. For this reason, the Government of India has recently awarded pashmina the Geographical Indication (GI) patent in order to treasure the unique nature of this extraordinary wool.