it glides over problem areas, can be dressed up or down
and makes you feel good and luxurious.”
~ Anne Hankey
Every spring and summer, Himalayan farmers climb the mountains of Mongolia and Xinjiang in Chain to comb the fine woolen undercoat from the neck and chest of the Capra Hircus goat. These Kashmir (English: cashmere) fibers are sorted by using a comb to remove any coarse hairs, sand and loose dirt. Kashmir has always been famed for its unique and intricate craftsmanship, and its history dates back to the 15th Century!
During Zain-ul-Abdin’s 15th Century rule of the Kashmir Valley of Turkestan, the weaving of tapestry shawls was first introduced. The collapse of the Mughal Empire left many weavers unemployed. The situation however, was saved by the enormous increase in demand from Europe, where the shawls became popular in the latter part of the 18th century. The European market for shawls collapsed in 1870 due to a combination of factors such as changing tastes and competition from Paisley shawls. The economic prostration of France when she was defeated by Prussia added to the declining European market. The Kashmiri weavers either left the valley for Punjab or started producing embroidered shawls for tourists; mainly British officers on furlough in colonized India.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, foreign entrepreneurs started to commission shawls to suit the ever popular European/French designs. The Pashmina shawl was described to the West as a gift to an Egyptian court, which later gave the shawl to Napoleon, who bestowed it upon his beloved Empress Josephine. Instantly, Pashmina became the must-have accessory in France after Napoleon presented this rare shawl to Empress Josephine.
In the late 19th Century, the cashmere industry spread to Scotland because of the soft waters in the local rivers which are so crucial to the ‘handle’ of the finished product. Specialized knitting and weaving techniques were developed to include underwear. By the 1920s, Coco Chanel had discovered cashmere’s light jersey weight and wonderful tactile properties and transformed cashmere into highly desirable fashion clothing.
During the decades that followed, cashmere knitwear ‘Made in Scotland’ became increasingly popular. In the 1950s beautifully colored twinsets were made famous by the film star and Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly. Today, the luxury and exclusivity of Scottish cashmere is still highly prized.
Although the Pashmina shawl has been popular with aristocracy in Southern Asia since the 15th Century, pashmina sales in the West suddenly took off in 1998 when designers in London, Paris and New York started to include them in their fashion collections. For many centuries Kashmir was the only place the fiber could be woven into shawls, but today although the traditional Kashmiri shawls are still embroidered by hand in India, most of the worlds pashmina shawls are woven on hand-looms in Nepal’s Katmandu Valley and most are woven on a warp of spun silk for increased suppleness and strength. In recent years this silk and cashmere blend has become the passion of the western fashion world. Fashion gurus now pronounce cashmere as essential to the wardrobe as the ubiquitous little black dress.
There is much confusion regarding the terms cashmere and pashmina. Traditionally, “Pashmina” is the Persian word for pashm meaning finest wool fibre, the “soft gold” king of fiber’s. Pashmina is the original term for the pashm, once it has been spun into yarn. However, since Napoleon’s time, Europeans have used the word Cashmere to describe this fibre whilst the term pashmina has been used to describe the traditional shawl or stole that is made of either pure cashmere, or a mix of cashmere and silk, and is draped over the shoulders by Nobles and Royalty. Pure Pashmina is a luxury even in India so local weavers combine the Pashmina fibre with silk to impart durability and luster to the material.
There are hundreds of wonderful uses for a pashmina shawl from a visit to the opera to a stroll in the park; from lunch at the Ritz to dinner on the patio; from a sunrise on the French Riviera to a sunset on the Swiss Alps. It can be elegantly worn from autumn right through to spring as well as on those cool summer evenings and is so fine and light it can be folded up and neatly carried in your handbag. I like to use mine as elegant alternatives to wearing zip-up sweatshirts. Be it in the form of a shawl, a sweater, a pair of cashmere lined leather gloves, or a pair of socks, cashmere is a simple luxury that everyone deserves.
“God, I love it! It’s a cashmere-acle!”
~Carrie, Sex and the City