Unrivalled for lightness and warmth by any of the imitations produced in Paisley or Paris, a genuine Kashmir shawl was greatly prized by the Victorian lady of fashion.
The Kashmir shawls which were imported to Europe from the late 18th century onwards were true works of art. There
were two types of Kashmir shawl those which were woven and those which were embroidered. Of the two, the woven shawls were the most prized - and the most expensive. In the 19th century, the money paid for a fine woven Kashmir shawl - over £100 would easily buy you a house.
Picture shows Kashmir long shawl (detail), circa 1840-1850,
National Museum of India.
The reasons for the high price were the scarcity of the wool and the time involved in the weaving. True 'pashmina', as the finest quality 'cashmere' wool was called, came from the underfleece of mountain goats, the soft wool that
grew in winter beneath the animal's coarser coat. Most of this wool was imported into Kashmir from Tibet, where it was collected in the spring.
The incredibly fine yarn was woven on a loom with as many as 100 warp threads to the inch by a method known as 'twill-tapestry'. The pattern was formed by the weft threads alone.
Working side by side, two weavers might require a year or more to complete a single shawl with a complicated pattern, but as demand from Europe escalated, shawls were increasingly made in sections on several looms and seamlessly pieced together.
Such methods of production obviously could not meet the demand for cheaper shawls in the
Kashmiri style. This became possible in ~ Europe with the perfecting of the automatic
punched-card controlled Jacquard loom, which meant that by the 1820s 'cashmere' shawls
could be produced anywhere in Europe. In Britain the industry centred on Paisley, the Scottish town which has given its name to the characteristic decorative motif of Kashmiri shawl-weaving. Paisley shawls (and most French ones) are easily distinguished from those made on traditional Kashmiri looms by
their neatly trimmed reverse side. Genuine Kashmir shawls have an unsightly tangle of k ~ots and ridges on the reverse side.
The decline in shawl-making in Kashmir dates from the 1870s. During the FrancoPrussian War, the all-important French market dried up, but there were reasons of fashion as well as politics. A large Kashmir shawl had looked most attractive over the hooped crinoline, but the bustle, which came into fashion at the end of the 1860s, made the shawls look faintly ridiculous. The final blow came with a terrible famine in 1877 which forced most of the Kashmiri weavers to leave their homeland for the plains of north-west India. Some small reversible shawls continued to be made and can occasionally be found.
SHAWL COLLECTOR'S NOTES
The collector of old Kashmir shawls is often frustrated by the scarcity of examples surviving from Victorian times, and even when something remarkable turns up, the damage done by time and moths can be very disheartening. The fabric may have perished along the lines where the shawl was folded, when consigned to oblivion in a trunk in the attic.
More readily available are the Paisley and 'Kashmir' shawls produced in Britain and France from the mid to late 19th century. Using specialized jacquard looms, European factories were able to produce fine and intricately patterned shawls which looked similar to the oriental designs. Although British Paisleys sold for less than the expensive Kashmir shawls, prices were higher than most people could afford - it took a month to design the intricate pattern of each shawl and a week to weave. Consequently, in good condition, they are still fairly pricey.
The typical shawl from Kashmir was usually a long, rectangular piece of cloth with a plain central area but with a narrow floral border on each of the two long sides and a deep border with one, two or three rows of
botehs at each of its fringed ends. Paisley and European shawls, by contrast, are more likely to be square in shape, with either an all-over oriental design or with a small, relatively plain centre and deep, intricately patterned borders in rich colours. The most flamboyant of these shawls are bordered with a series of 'fringe gates', decorated
square or rectangular sections in a series of contrasting colours.
What attracts enthusiasts to genuine Kashmir shawls is not so much the fantastic decoration, which could be reproduced quite effectively on mechanized looms, but the quality of the material. Many substitutes for cashmere were used during the 19th century, but nobody could escape the fact that the higher up the Himalayas a goat lives, the finer its fleece becomes in order to survive the extreme cold. True 'pashmina' is unbelievably light and warm compared to its heavier European imitations However, many more of the latter survive and these can make a very attractive collection.