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Woollen textiles of India

Ninoshka Alvares-Delaney

We live in a country rich in its arts and crafts that have been inherited from a diverse history and varied culture. India is the only country that still produces traditional hand-woven textiles along with all the natural and organic processes involved. We can boast of embroideries, dyeing, printing and weaving processes that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Each and every region of India contributes in creating a myriad of textile tradition. The hilly region of the country produces a rich variety of woollen textiles. The pashmina and shahtoosh shawls of Kashmir, shawls and woollen garments of Himachal Pradesh and other North Eastern states provide excellent examples of world famous woollen Indian textiles.

Let’s take a look at some of the most famous woollen textiles produced in India that are sought after the world over.

Pashmina: Is a fine type of Kashmiri wool. Textiles made from it were first woven in Kashmir and it is probably the source of the word Cashmere which is what Pashmina is known as in the West. It exemplifies luxury and has been worn by elite men and women across the globe. It is unique for being soft, silky and warmer than other wools. Pashmina is derived from the mountain goat breed known as Capra hircus. Pashmina fibres are fine and anywhere between 12 and 15 microns; therefore they are hand processed and ideal for making lightweight apparel like fine scarves, shawls, wraps, throws and stoles. Unlike in other fine wools wherein the fleece is sheared, the pashmina fleece is collected by combing the goat when it sheds its under fleece in spring. A classic pashmina wrap is hand spun and hand woven and can cost anywhere from `10,000 onwards. Although there are many synthetic scarves sold in the market as ‘pashmina’, a real pashmina is sold at an exorbitant price due to the amount of expert craftsmanship that goes into creating each shawl, as well as the rarity of the pashmina wool.

Shahtoosh: Another specific kind of shawl produced by craftsmen and women of Kashmir is the shahtoosh that is woven with the down hair of the Tibetan antelope called Chiru. It is the world’s finest wool with the lowest micron count. These shawls were originally very few and could only be woven by master artisans who could weave the delicate hair which measured between 7 and 10 microns. Shahtoosh shawls are so fine that a large shawl can be passed through a wedding ring, leading to them to be known as ring shawls. The shahtoosh shawl is now a banned item with possession and sale being illegal in most countries due to the Chiru being an endangered species. However, the weaving of shahtoosh shawls continues in secret in Kashmir due to a high demand by western buyers. The estimated market value of one shahtoosh shawl in the western market is around $5000 to $6000.

Kullu shawl: Kullu shawls are hand-woven shawls indigenous to the Kullu valley of Himachal Pradesh. Crafted from yak’s wool, sheep’s wool or pashmina, this shawl is well known around the world for its simple and elegant designs, fine woollen fabric and manufacturing quality. Typical, Kullu shawls have geometric designs on both ends. Some may have floral designs which may run all over and are traditionally made in bright colours. A Kullu shawl can be priced anywhere between `800 and `10, 000 or more depending on patterns and density, and the wool type and quality. Despite its high cost, hand-woven shawls are very popular due to their beautiful elegant design and warm woollen fabric. Kullu shawls are not only an important part of the heritage of Himachal Pradesh, but also a major source of income for thousands of locals who earn their living by weaving part time or full time. Kullu shawls have been facing a very tough competition in recent years from cheap factory-made shawls produced in other parts of India, especially Ludhiana. It has been eating into the market share of the Kullu shawls and badly impacting the valley’s economy, further discouraging weavers who have been working on this craft for decades, making this beautiful art die a slow death. To avert this crisis, the state government has assigned a Geographic Indicator (GI) to Kullu shawls, thus restricting the sale of power loom made shawls in the name of Kullu shawls.

Until next time, stay stylish!

(Ninoshka Alvares-Delaney is a fashion designer and is available at www.ninoshka.co.in)

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