Early Masterpiece Shawls of Kashmir

Some Questions Concerning Kashmir Shawls

There are many questions about Kashmir shawls and their design iconography. Several of the most important being:

Where did the practice of shawl weaving originate?
What did the earliest shawls look like?
How did the famous Paisley pattern develop?

While no concrete proof exists to conclusively answer any of these queries the following commentaries will present some ideas and evidence to address them.

The Raw Material
The origin of the special weaving technique employed for Kashmir shawls, known in Kashmir as kani and 2x2 tapestry-twill in the West, cannot be understood without explaining the somewhat mysterious history of the raw materials.

Researching the first question - where did shawl weaving originate - invariably leads to the most northwesterly mountainous part of India that is now called Kashmir. The extremely fine, high quality wool used in the production of the best qualities shawls was gathered from wild as well as domesticated goats and sheep and Kashmir had a virtual monopoly on this trade. There has always been substantial controversy surrounding the presence of wild versus domesticated wool in a shawl and still today it is far easier to determine which type of animal fiber was used rather than the question of its breeding. But there is no question the under-hair, or down, from wild Tibetan goats was used to weave the most rare and valuable shawls.

CAPRA hircus is the scientific name for the type of goat able to produce such an extremely soft, fine and warm coat of under hair. This wool grows as a secondary layer beneath the animal's ordinary coarse outer coat of hair (fig.2). Herds of these wild Tibetan goats (fig.3) would spend the warm spring and summer months in the high, dry elevated cold plateaus of the Himalayan Mountain Ranges bordering Kashmir. At the onset of winter the goats would leave these areas and migrate down into the lower, less elevated valleys and riverbanks where temperatures were not nearly as extreme and far more moderate. On their return in the spring the ensuing change in locale and climate caused the coat of hair produced in the winter to molt. To help remove this now unwanted layer of protection the goats would rub themselves on rocks and trees to remove as much of the winter wool as possible.

Click figs for larger view