By Mikolaj Zadecki
Pashmina is the best. As far as textiles go, this is the finest, lightest, softest, most cashmere of cashmeres. It’s The material which reminds us that God had a softer side.
It’s gently combed out from under the shedding winter fleece of a specific type of mountain goat, which thrives at above 13,000 feet, in a faraway mountainy corner of the world. That corner is the disputed region of Kashmir. The disputers are India and Pakistan, and they’ve been disputing now for 70ish years. In 1947, with the world picking up the pieces after WWII, nobody wanted any more wars, so they established a sort of border that split the region sort of in half, and settled into a sort of permanent dispute. To be clear, I’ll be talking about the Indian side here. During this time the people have been marginalized, oppressed, set upon by “terrorists”, exploited by politicians and businesspeople, and generally left out of the economic development enjoyed by many in India to the south. That’s probably mostly bad. A bright spot has been the preservation of an ancient craft based on this wonderful wool. The best products are produced from the best wool, which can be collected only by hand, can be spun only by hand, can be colored or embroidered only by hand. Power looms? No way. Pashmina is a delicate, fragile thing. This is what we deserve to have around our necks.
They also pick apples in Kashmir. Millions of tons of high altitude apples. These are also wonderful, though not quite as rare and wonderful as their wool. Half the people in Kashmir pick apples. There are maybe 4 million apple picking persons in the country, versus 350,000 artisans, of which only a fraction, 5-10%, make the Pashmina stuff that we’re talking about here.
But back to the wool and the artisans. They make scarves, shawls and rugs mostly. It’s painstaking, delicate, passed-down-from-grandmothers type of work. Grandfathers too, in Kashmir. The best shawls can take 3 months or a year for an experienced weaver to make – if you factor in some delicate embroidery. That’s crazy. There are a few out there so good and so old that they’re considered important pieces of cultural history, ones so stunning that they’ve earned grand names and are showcased in grand old museums. The Mandala Chandar is one such example, and it’s beautiful, sure, but it’s also got a Wikipedia page, and on that page it’s described as a ‘highly unusual tantric moon shawl with a mandala to the center from which radiate zoomorphic tendrils, filled with multicolored millefleurs on a pink ground.’ So, yeah. Pretty awesome scarf.
[The Mandala Chandar (c. 1840) is one of the most intricate, beautiful Pashmina products ever made. It no doubt took years to complete.]
China competes with Kashmiris in the cashmere space, like they compete with everyone on everything everywhere in the world. But you know what? The Chinese stuff doesn’t measure up. That’s why Kashmiris use the word Pashmina –- to showcase the unparalleled standard to which their craftsmen adhere. Sure, they’re both called cashmere, but it’s certainly not the same thing. Don’t believe me? Then I should point out that the fineness of the Kashmiri pashmina hair, from the goats of the highly regarded Ladakh area will generally have a micron count between 9-12, while that of China, and other sources of cashmere, is 16-22. That Kashmiri number will give you the space to fit 160 yarn threads per shawl, which results in a fabric with softness that is hardly imaginable. That’s the only kind of cashmere I’m allowing around my neck. On the Chinese side, as well as elsewhere, there’s a group of clearly bad guys who spin nylon into the yarn, to reinforce it enough to run through the dreaded power looms. Ayesha, a 70 year-old longtime Pashmina user from Ladakh, has something to say about the results: “We used to pass it down from one generation to another. But today if you use a [crappy] Pashmina shawl several times, it loses its charm. The durability is gone, it’s no more.” In the mountain city of Srinagar, they consider the high quality stuff not only warm and soft and sustainable, but an expression of the finest art, something that should last for lifetimes if treated with care and made authentically.
I read about a guy named Abdul Hamid Shah who embroiders these pieces. He’s one of the guys who spend 3 or 6 or 12 months creating these rare wonderful shawls. When he does, a shawl trader gives him 35,000 Indian rupees for his shawl. That’s a lot of rupees, but it’s not a lot of dollars. It’s 490 dollars. The true masters spend even longer, creating even more beautiful products. Kali met one such man in Srinagar, who’d been embroidering a pashmina stole for a wedding for about two years. Just “a few months left,” he told us. This type of thing would retail for around $12,000.00. People go crazy over weddings. However, others in this line of work can earn as little as 1,000 rupees a month, which means annual earnings of $192. So yeah, it can be tough to scratch out a life doing this work. Like the folks we’ve seen in Cambodia, many people are choosing to move away or work in other jobs for the security and regularity that option provides. (Some of them become apple pickers.)
This is where we come in. We go to the source to meet the artisans. We choose partners whose integrity and transparency align with our standards. And then we put them on the internet. Read more on our artisans page.
The political situation has changed recently in Indian-controlled Kashmir. You may have heard about it. Whereas it’s enjoyed significant autonomy under the original arrangement with its neighbor to the south, decades of civil unrest from the muslim minority, served alongside terrorism and sprinkled with a bit of subversion, gave the Indian government a helpful excuse. Under the leadership of nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with a vote in parliament and the stroke of a pen, the Indians were able to do away with that autonomy, and now are in the process of integrating Kashmir into greater India. This summer, with the new policy as a cudgel, Modi—the head of state I would most like to see on Dancing with the Stars—sent in a ton of army guys. They barricaded the streets, imposed strict curfews, put local authorities under house arrest, cut phone/internet access, and imprisoned a bunch of locals they had labeled as agitators and suspected bad actors and fomenters and the like. Walking the streets, it’s all shutters—the shops remain closed. There is still no internet, and limited phones to this day.
Pakistan was understood to be contributing to the aforementioned fomenting. It’s a handicraft of their own, exported liberally to Indian Kashmir. Not that the Indians haven’t fomented in Pakistani Kashmir; they’ve no doubt done their own mean work, but let’s stay in India.
In the new Indian Kashmir, presumably there will be less fomenting, and less unrest, less economic uncertainty. This is expected to attract outside investment, which was not really a thing up till now. That could take some time, but that’s definitely good. And it’s supposed to be a thing that comes with support from Delhi, by which I mean government money. What does this mean in practice? I don’t know. A lot of change is coming, but it’s still unclear how things will turn out for the average Kashmiri. And what about the Kashmiri artisan?
If we can learn from history (don’t be optimistic), the last time there was massive unrest happening in the country was in 2010, and at that time the livelihoods of these good handicrafting folk took a nosedive. Something about riots by a marginalized group—classic geopolitical oppressed people stuff. It’s important stuff, it’s not something I take lightly, but I’d prefer to focus on something else here. Look at the thingy below. It concerns that time period and the production of these Pashmina things, among others. It tells a good story, one of consistent growth in the production of quality handicrafts, shawls and soles among them, until 2010. And from that moment it’s basically the graphical representation of a nosedive. Production go down, exports go down. Go down bad.
See graph here.
Since crafts are one of the three principal industries of Kashmir (the others being tourism and apple-picking), this last time around had a devastating effect on the poor, many of whom supplement seasonal farm work or apple-picking with Pashmina handicraft work. As you can guess, these poor folk got poorer. This time around, the mini police state that’s sprung up (which Kali experienced firsthand in Srinagar) for the aforementioned governmental ‘transition’ has resulted principally in shuttered businesses and a severe curtailment of contact with the outside world. But the thing is, nearly all of these products are exported, so demand from the outside world goes a long way towards feeding these people. Adbul Shah, who sometimes makes one shawl a year for a measly 500 bucks, talks about business having dried up. He needs those 500 bucks. He’s not alone.
So this is the thing: Pashmina is awesome. The stuff (scarves and shawls and wraps) made from it by the people of Kashmir: also awesome. People in our part of the world should have it around their necks. History tells us that leaders will always play geopolitical games for their own personal benefit, and their games often result in the marginalization (or worse) of particular communities.
These artisans of Kashmir are certainly among the marginalized, yet in practicing their craft they have a chance to empower themselves. And that’s where we come in. You knew I was going somewhere with this.
For people like us in the first world, living consciously doesn’t just allay liberal guilt about living well while the developing world faces such shocking problems. It allows us to make an impact in distant corners of the world. Kashmir is a place that fits that bill. The things that these people make, they make with their hands, they’ve made them for 5000 YEARS, and they are the softest most wonderful scarves on the face of the earth. They are the highest expression of wearable artistry in the solar system. They should be on your neck, on days where the temperature dips, and on days where you just need to be wrapped like a fluffy burrito in the most ineluctable softness. On those days, Chinese power-loom scarves just won’t do.
More importantly, and finally: while it’s tempting to focus in like this, to take a snapshot of this geopolitical situation, and the particular challenges of the Kashmiri artisans, it’s critical to remember that this is just one problem in the developing world. And it’s not just one problem, it’s a series of problems, it’s a compounding, collapsing set of dominoes, a self-perpetuating collection of interwoven problems, afflicting good, hardworking people, in a greedy, heartless kind of world. The world is intractably hard. It’s hard, and especially so for people with no political or economic might. We’d like to reach these people, tell their stories one at a time, and offer them a chance. Not to collect charity from bleeding hearts, but to sell their fine stuff to folks who appreciate fine stuff. I couldn’t help thinking that this short version of their story could mean something too. So please buy a scarf. You can do that here.