Shawls were famous from Kashmir even in the times of Emperor Ashok (3rd C BC) but Sultan Zain-Ul-Abidin (1420-1470 A) was the initiator of Shawl Industry in Kashmir.
Derived from the Persian shal, which was the name for a whole range of fine woolen garments, the shawl in India was worn folded across the shoulder, and not as a girdle, as the Persians did.
Facts on Shawls
Kashmir shawls have long been treasured for their luxurious materials and splendid evocative designs. Their softness, ability to warm the body and brilliant coloration were revered throughout the Near East for centuries.
Kashmir's premier position as a producer of luxury shawls was never seriously threatened and the best, most admired, hand-woven examples have always been made there.
At the end of the 1700's manufacturers introduced large, soft woolen shawls decoratively woven with colorful patterns that were worn as a head covering or shoulder mantle. These were imported to Europe and the United States from Kashmir, India. The name Kashmir or cashmere shawl applies to both and to the source of the fine woolen fiber used to make them.
The shawls were woven in the twill tapestry technique, which is similar to weaving a tapetry. The wefts (horizontals) which form the pattern do not run right across the fabric, but are woven back and forth around the warp (verticle) threads only where each particular color is needed. They were woven with goat's fleece; the finest softest fleece, shah tus (king's wool) came from beneath the coarse outer hair of the underbelly of the wild central Asian goats. These goats grew such hair as a protective layer against the extreme cold in high altitudes, 14,750 feet in the Himalayan region. In the Spring, the goats rub themselves against bushes where it was collected. This quality of fleece was used only for the very best of shawls, the majority being from domesticated goats called pashmina. The best fleece was left natural while the darker was dyed with vegetable dyes.
Pashmina shawls are of the highest quality made from the pashmina goat from Kashmir, India. Its fleece has been used for thousands of years to make the highest quality of shawls called pashminas. Cashmere or Kashmir shawls were of a very soft fabric made from the wool of the Cashmere goat.
There are many theories about the boteh or pine motif; Paisley Museum's explanation seems perhaps the most logical. The pattern can be traced back to ancient Babylon, where a tear-drop shape was used as a symbol to represent the growing shoot of a date palm. The palm provided food, drink, clothing (woven fibers) and shelter, and so became regarded as the ‘Tree of Life', with its growing shoot being gradually recognized as a fertility symbol.
The two basic differences between Kashmir shawls and their imitators are the type of cloth and the weaving method. The Kashmir shawls being woven from hair, were lighter and smooth with a natural sheen, whilst the European shawls, until the end of the 1830's, were woven from silk or wool which made them much heavier and less fine (6,7).
In Kashmir the shawls were woven in the twill tapestry technique, which is similar to weaving a European tapestry. The wefts (horizontals) which form the pattern do not run right across the fabric, but are woven back and forth around the warp (vertical) threads, where each particular colour is needed. Woven with goat's fleece, the finest softest fleece, shah tus (king's wool) came from beneath the coarse outer hair of the underbelly of wild central Asian goats. These goats had such hair as a protective layer against the extreme cold in the high altitudes of the Himalayan region at 1,500 ft. In spring, the goats would rub themselves against the bushes from where it was collected. This quality of fleece was used only for the most expensive shawls. The majority being woven from pashmina, hair from the underbelly of domesticated goats. The best fleece was left the natural cream colour, whilst the darker pashmina was dyed with natural vegetable dyes.
The weaver, who was always a male, carried out almost all the different processes involved in weaving a shawl, often preparing the simple designs of the early period and making the cards which defined the pattern, as well as selling the shawls. With the introduction of the drawloom which required a drawboy to pull the ropes controlling the overhead harness, the weaver would call out his instructions. The shawl was woven with the underside facing the weaver so if these instructions were misconstrued, defects might not be noticed until a few hours later.
The shawl would then be clipped to remove the loose threads at the back, washed, stretched and pressed to give a surface sheen.