Winter mornings in Delhi are bliss.
Outside my window, the sun is shining brightly above tall peepal trees – their heart-shaped leaves rustling in the breeze. The air is cool, blowing down from the snowy Himalayan peaks further north and bringing respite after months of roaring heat.
In the park opposite, ladies of a certain age are taking their morning walk. They follow the rectangular path, chatting animatedly, wearing elegant Indian kaftans over practical trainers. And to ward against the morning chill, inevitably, their shoulders are draped with lovely shawls.
This morning, one of them is wearing a particularly fetching piece... russet flowers embroidered on white wool... punctuated by ochre arches along the border. Judging by the evenness of the embroidery, however, this shawl is probably machine made... and represents another nail in the coffin of an art dating back more than 600 years.
Like so many ancient crafts in India, hand-woven Kashmiri shawls – or 'Pashminas' as they’ve become known the world over – are disappearing. Once, they graced the shoulders of emperors, princes and noblemen and were the rage of European nobility... or were lovingly collected for wedding trousseaus... today, they are being replaced slowly and inevitably by mass-produced shawls in synthetic materials.
So when I heard about Aditi Desai... a woman who has been collecting, restoring and studying hand-made shawls for 30 years, I arranged to meet her, hoping to finally understand what a ‘pashmina’ really is. We arranged to meet at a gallery where she was exhibiting some of her private collection. Before leaving home, I grabbed a few of my own so-called ‘pashminas’ to show her. I was curious... was anything I owned hand-made or even worthy of the term ‘pashmina’?
On the short auto rickshaw ride over, I thought of the shawls of my own youth. My mother owned some jamawars – a term whose definition escaped me. As a child, I’d often watch her dress up in rich silk saris, hand-crafted gold jewelery encrusted with emeralds and rubies, and her shawls. But even as I played with her exquisite things, I understood little of their history or craftsmanship.
I arrived at the gallery to find a queue of people, like me, all clutching shawls – some family heirlooms which had been mouldering unloved in closets for decades.
I watched from afar as she ran her palm across each shawl presented to her, appraising the material as well as the pattern... patiently explaining which were made under Mughal, Afghan, Dogra or Sikh rulers of India.
All around the gallery hung pieces from her own collection. One of most stunning was a star 'Kani' or tapestry woven shawl – its delicate veins of maroon, blood, white and grey decoration offset by the empty star-shaped field of black right in the middle.
Her oldest piece dates back to the time of Emperor Jehangir who reigned in the 1600s. One shawl was acquired from an Armenian stall holder in New York City. Another was bought from a Russian emigre outside Geneva.
As I inched closer, I heard delicate old ladies admit to Aditi how, in their ignorance, priceless shawls had sometimes been cut in half, altered irrevocably, or permanently stained by mothballs in monsoon damp cupboards. But she’s seen and heard it all. “I’m the shawl doctor,” she joked before dispensing advice on how to gently treat stains.
Finally, I found myself at the front of the queue and was able to piece together Aditi’s story and the history of the so-called 'Pashmina'.white and grey decoration offset by the empty star-shaped field of black right in the middle.
She was 12 when she bought her first shawl. Her family lived in a large bungalow in north Delhi, surrounded by colonial buildings that the British had only recently abandoned after independence in 1947. As the fortunes of Indian royalty waned in the new republic, their priceless heirlooms flooded the market. Every few weeks, a Kashmiri man would arrive in Aditi’s street by horse drawn carriage. He would unload a giant bundle tied in white cloth, and try to entice the neighborhood ladies to buy vintage Pashmina shawls. Aditi was hooked.
So what exactly is a pashmina, I asked her, eager to learn as much as I could. She gave me a funny look. “It’s the lightest, softest, warmest wool in the world,” she says. “Finer than Cashmere. It comes from the Himalayan Pashmina goat and traditionally was collected by nomadic tribesmen. Kashmiri women then spin the fibers by hand... A master artist would sketch the design and weavers used a talim, a special shorthand code, to execute it.”
“Recognizing a Pashmina is like knowing the difference between a real and fake diamond,” she continued, trying to react kindly to my ignorance. “Most hand-made shawls take at least a year to create.” Right, I replied, slightly lost for words. “The word pashmina comes from 'Pashm', which is Farsi for wool,” Aditi went on. “And shawl comes from a Persian word meaning covering...”
Her own shawl, she explains, is from the late Mughal period, when central Asian emperors ruled the subcontinent, and can be dated by its simple flower motifs. The word ‘paisley’ refers to a Scottish textile town, but the paisley pattern itself came into vogue during the reign of Afghan kings – and was probably inspired by the shape of their native almonds. And a Jamawar, I finally learned, is a silk and wool brocaded shawl with a unique decorative style.
Indian kings wore the richest shawls, Aditi tells me. But when they presented examples to European kings as gifts, they were scoffed at as too womanly and promptly handed over to the ladies. That’s how shawls became all the rage in the west around the late 18th century ... so much so, that the first British shawl – based on Kashmiri design – was produced in Edinburgh in 1790. For 150 years, farmers and textile designers even tried to naturalize the Pashmina goat in Europe, an effort which eventually failed. Aditi points to several French-made shawls on display - and even one made in Norwich.
I hand over my three pieces of what are probably ‘tat’. She runs her hand over the first one- a camel brown shawl with pink and light green embroidery. “This is rather fine sheep’s wool,” Aditi informs me. “The embroidery is not fine, but it is hand-made and an unusual design.”
The second shawl is my favorite, bought from a Kashmiri vendor in east London. It’s extra-soft and light... off-white with fine embroidery just a shade darker than the fabric. Plus I paid a lot for it. I hold my breath as Aditi inspects it. “Hmmmm. This one has definitely been passed off as Pashmina,” she says as my face furrows with disappointment. “It is very fine wool, probably mixed with silk... but it’s definitely not Pashmina... and it’s not hand-made.”
“How can you tell?” I ask. “Look at the back,” she says turning it over. “The stitches are perfect, not a single loose thread. Definitely machine-made.”
My third shawl is less of a disappointment. It too, is mere Kashmiri sheeps’ wool, but very fine. And the border is hand-embroidered. It’s worth about $30. The same shawl in real Pashmina would have been worth about ten times as much.
“If you knew the difference, you’d only pay slightly more and have something extremely special to give to your children someday,” Aditi points out. “And you’d keep the craft alive.”
She tells me that half the weavers in the Kashmiri town of Kanihama, where 'Kani' tapestry-woven shawls are made, have stopped working in the past year. “Imagine,” she continues. “It takes them an entire year to make a shawl, yet retailers from Delhi pay them $750 per piece... That works out to just over two dollars income per day!” She has a point.
I leave Aditi better at recognizing hand-made shawls... but still unable to tell a real pashmina from ordinary wool. I reckon the Pashmina goat won’t be too affected by my ignorant buying habits. Whereas thousands of Kashmiri weavers still count on buyers like me for their survival.
This piece originally aired on 'From Our Own Correspondent' on BBC World Service Radio on January 1, 2013. Listen to the audio version above. To contact Aditi Desai, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.