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Woollen Wonders


The Tibetans believed that they would be struck down by divine wrath if they sold their produce to anyone other than the Kashmiris. And so, for centuries, asli tus or Emperor Akbar’s param naram, (extremely soft) fleece derived from the soft underbelly of mountain goats and sometimes from mountain sheep shepherd dogs and ibex, shed at the approach of summer, made its way from Tibet and Ladakh to Kashmir to be woven into the finest pashmina (Persian ‘pashm’ – any kind of wool and shahtoosh shwls with delicate brocade patterns and silk edgings. Along the way, it inspired stories about the legendary fineness of the Kashmiri turbans, coverlets, loose overall wool garments and the ring shawls of Mughal fame which were so fine that they could be drawn through a thumb ring.

Art historians hold contrary views as to the origin of wool weaving in Kashmir but one school of historians quotes numerous evidences of its existence even in the pre-Christian era. The tiles of Harwan, showing the portrait of the lady in transparent robes provides archaeological evidence that the hands of the ancient Kashmiris were not alien to the art of weaving. A French author has recorded the existence of Kashmiri woolen shawls in Caesar’s court worn by beauties 2000 years ago. Hanshu, the history of the early Han dynasty, written prior to the Christian era, says of the Kashmiris: “They were skillful in decorative work, engraving and the art of inlay and at weaving woolens.” In the 7th century A.D. Huien Tsang found that the products of very fine wool were exported to northern India. Hindu epic the Ramayana mentions that Janaka, king of Mithila included many Kashmiri shawls in his daughter Sita’s dowry, on her wedding to Rama. And the Mahabharata mentions that the Kurus presented the Pandavas with 10000 shawls on their ascending the throne of Indraprastha.

The Ain-I-Akbari mentions Emperor Akbar’s ardent admiration for the Kashmiri woolen shawls though it throws no light on the styles. The Emperor kept his wardrobe well stocked with colourful shawls covered with fine flowers and vase motifs showing the influence of the Indo-Persian as well as the Mughal naturalist schools. The flower motifs later came to be knows as butas. In 1668 the historian Bernier recorded that the decorations were limited to the borders less than one foot in depth. For the loose overall coats, the decorations were limited to the neck and armholes. The Hindus apparently favoured the feuille mort or dead leaf motifs. Emperor Akbar introduced the fashion of wearing the shawls in pairs (doshala), stitched back to back so that the under-sides were not visible. Shawls from Kashmir had by then became renowned the world over and were sent as gifts to distant countries.

Shawls during the Mughals period were woven with gold and silver threads. Manrique records, in 1630, that the finest examples of woolen Kashmiri shawls had ornate borders with fringes of gold, silver and silk thread. The shawl was generally a male garment and the nobility wore the finest shawls. Princes wore them like cloaks either muffling themselves or carrying them on their arms. The choicest shawls were white when off the loom but later dyed any hue, designed and ornamented with coloured flowers and intricate decorations. Around this time, 300 vegetable dyes were in use. Blues and purples were form indigo, orange and yellow from carthamus, saffron and red form logwood, crimson from cochineal, and black form iron fillings.

By the third quarter of the 18th century, Kashmir or Cashmere shawls had become synonymous with fine woolen wear in India, and were famous in all the fashionable circles of the west and trade was well established with China, Afghanistan, Turkey etc. Shawl brocading in Kashmir used the twill or the tapestry weave. Weft threads, inserted by the wooden spools or tojils without the use of shuttles, were used to form patterns that did not run the full width of the cloth but were woven back and forth round the warp threads only where each particular colour was needed each shawl required a high degree of specialization from the naqqash or designer and elaborate designs were woven on two or three looms, those with a large area of pattern taking as long as 18 months. Various parts of the shawl were woven separately and handed over to a needle worker (rafugar) who joined them together with the expertise that made it impossible to detect the stitches with the naked eye. In 1821, W.Moorcroft recorded the use of eight looms for a patchwork woolen shawl made up of 1500 separate pieces. Amli or needlework imitations of Kashmiri shawls, required a vastly reduced outlay and far less skill. They escaped the government duty levied (26 per cent of the value of a shawl in 1823) and made enormous profits. By 1830, from almost no rafugars or embroiderers, there were around 5000 of them drawn from those whose lands were confiscated by Ranjit Singh in 1819 when Kashmir was invaded and annexed to the Sikh kingdom.

By 1821, the total produce of asli tus was less than one sixth of the total shawl wool bulk and only two looms specialized in weaving asli tus. Second grade fleece from domesticated goats were now used to make the shawls. An epidemic among goats reduced the quantity of wool derived from herds kept by the nomadic Kirghiz tribes and imported through Yarkhanl and Khotan. Supplies seldom met the demand and goat fleece became expensive, consequently encouraging adulteration and a drastic fall in standards.

Shoulder mantles became fashionable wear in western Europe in the second half of the 18th century – they were mostly muslin, but the Kashmiri shawl sailed form Bombay in 1765 and arrived in London form India. In 1774, Warren Hastings even tried to export Ladakhi goats to Britain but most of them perished even before landing in England. Soon paisley imitations of the shawl were exported from India. During the reign of Ranjit Singh, agents from Europe who came to see the shawls, in view of the demand in Europe saw tents doubled with Kashmiri shawls. The Russian price Solykoff, in1842, wrote “we not only walked on Kashmiri shawls, while sitting down I perceived alleys, ceilings, streets, as far as the eye could encompass, covered with them, even horses prancing on them. The interior walls of the Golden Temple were lined with them.”

It was during the Sikh period that Allard and Ventura, Napoleon’s former generals were recruited into the Raja’s army. Allard was the first link between Paris and the shawl weavers of Kashmir. Since the exit of many weavers to Amritsar, Ludhiana, Sialkot, Gujarat, Patiala, Kangra, Shimla during Gulab Singh’s oppressive reign, these centres had developed into subsidiary centres for the making of the Kashmiri shawl with dyeing and finishing facilities. With the famine in Ranjit Singh’s period, most of these centres, including Islamabad, Lahore, Agra and Patna, began to produce imitation Kashmiri shawls. In the plains the weavers often adulterated their fleece with sheep wool. During the period 1850-60, Fresh designers who arrived in Kashmir to improve the designs to their specifications, spurred the export to Europe to an all time high. But the woolen industry suffered with the arrival of the Jacquard loom, the Franco-Prussian was of 1870-71 which closed the French market, and the famine of 1877-1879. Despite of the agony and ecstasy of the woolen industry Kashmir the northern areas of the country which had a long tradition of spinning and handweaving kept up. Their production of blankets, shawls and carpets. Traditional artisans in the hilly ranges of the Himalayas continued the use of homespun woolen yarn for production of khadi caps, mufflers and blankets. Due to the severe winter in the northern parts for around three to four months every year, the demand for wearable and non-wearable woolens was regular. The artisans living in these parts used to produce woollen goods mostly for their own use by using handspun woolen yarn. Today, finer varieties of shawls and tweeds are produced in Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh and the border districts of Rajasthan, the medium varieties of shawls, tweeds, blankets, mostly form indigenous wool are produced in the plains of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan and the coarse varieties like kamblies and ghongadise are produce in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

India now has an estimated sheep population of more than 45 million, producing around 40 million kilograms of raw wool. It is the sixth largest sheep rearing country possessing approximately 4.1 per cent of the world’s sheep population and producing about 1.1 per cent of the world’s wool. The Indian wools are generally known for their resilience as carpet wools. Until recently the wools was mostly used for producing coarse varieties of woolen goods like blankets. In recent times efforts were made both in Rajasthan and the Kashmir valley for improvement of the quality of wool by selective cross breeding. Around 20 per cent of the wool is now being used for producing apparel goods.

Financial support is now being provided by various handloom and handicraft promotion bodies, and by the Government of India to market the surplus produce of the traditional artisans like the lohies in the Kashmir valley, Haridwari kamblies in Uttar Pradesh, dhoblies in Gujarat, ghongadies in Maharashtra and kamblies in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Similarly, the art of pashmina and shahtoosh weaving in the Kashmir valley was revived by promoting new artisans. Today, consistent efforts have ensured that around 200-300 weavers re engaged in this art in Kashmir. Due to the sealing of the Tibetan border, the inflow of the pashmina and shahtoosh varieties of fleece stopped almost completely. Artisans dependent on spinning finer count of yarn were threatened with unemployment. Today, Merino greasy wool is imported from Australia by quasi government bodies, processed into wool tops and made available to the artisans. The artisans of the Uttarkhand area and other states also receive Nepali wool sold at the Uttar Pradesh border districts.

In the meantime the other sectors of the wool industry in the country have moved on to blends and other material that serve as winterwear without being wool itself, like wool poly-vastra, acrylic and jute blended-wool. The Central Sheep and Wool Research Institute in Rajasthan, has been working on developing mohair cloth.

Most of the woollen goods produced in the organized industry re exported to foreign countries, mainly the U.S.S.R., which imports hosiery from India. The major portion of the woollen readymade garment industry in the organized sector is concentrated in the northern states, especially Punjab. 40 per cent of the handwoven cloth in the state comes from Amritsar. Spinning mills in Jalandhar provide quality yarn to weavers based in Amritsar, Kapurthala, Hoshiarpur and Gurdaspur.

Tailoring, embroidery and cutting are done in Tand and Bullowal in Hoshiarpur and in Patiala district and in Chandigarh. Producers from the cooperatives meet orders form government agencies as well as export houses and emporia. Knitting centres exist in Amritsar, Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Gurdaspur. Ludhiana and Mohali have readymade woollen garment industries set up with the help of the Government of India and are using modern machinery for auto mass cutting, buttonholing, button stitching, overlocking etc.

Over the past decade, the woollen readymade garment industry in the country has undergone a seachange in patterns, colours and designs. As most of the hosiery and readymade woollen garments from the organized sector were exported, the goods available for local consumption were not very interesting in design or pattern. However, the entire garment industry in the country has undergone a change over the last decade or two and mittens, earmuffs, mufflers, scarves and pullovers, knee length socks and sweaters, have magically surfaced in captivating geometric designs, more modern patterns and electric colours.

Dhariwal in Punjab and Ludhiana, the ‘Manchester of India’ are famous for the hosiery and knitwear garments industries. There are 5514 units registered and are providing employment to 60495 people. They produce goods worth Rs. 1.9 million annually, the bulk of which is exported. At every stage of manufacture, the specialized jobs form processing and dyeing the wool to knitting, cutting, stitching and even sewing on buttons and labels are done by thousands of individuals in their homes where they have installed the facilities for that particular process. The manufacturer’s job is basically reduced to co-odinating between one processor and another who charge piece-meal rates. This facilitates the investment of far more capital in the industry and the returns are also widespread.

Modernization is primarily the major reason why the industry, especially the organized sector in both the private and the government-run bodies, has been able to spruce itself up with the latest international designs and patterns.

Winterwear now also features a wide range of blended wool fibres heavy cotton, padded nylon jackets, parkas and windcheaters. In the major cities, as well as in minor towns. The coming of the Tibetan camps still signals the arrival of the colder season, like the swallows signaling the coming of summer. The common belief that the Tibetans sell garments made of pure wool has been reversed. The camps of the long exiled Tibetans no longer herald the coming of the finest wool in the world but blended yarn is passed off as the param naram. In the meantime, winterwear manufacturers out do themselves in colour and fashionable cuts of both Indian and occidental winterwear coupled with household names in wool like Oswal, Dhariwal, Lal mli, Greatway, Raymonds, OCM and other. The chains of garments countrywide like the Inter Shoppe and others also offer the brightest in winter clothing at reasonable prices. And winter no more strikes that cold, chilly drab grey finger in the heart of the man-on-the-street. He now has a wide choice of colourful blended wool material and winter wear in the most vibrant of colours to warm up with.



Come September-October, hundreds of households all over the country get busy hoarding up for winter. November finds housewives and women all over the north and the hilly country in the south, east and west busy knitting yarns of a million different colours and textures in buses on their way to work, at lunch time, in coffeeshops, restaurants, market places and parks. You can get cheap woollen garments from the Tibetans who descend to the plains, hawking collies on the pavements and sidewalks of most Indian cities.

Besides the usual pullovers, shawls and sweaters one can buy Kashmiri woollen kurtas called phirens. Wool yarn from Ludhiana, Dhariwal, Amritsar and other places like Kanpur is sold by the grades, by the weight or by rolls. Wool can be bought from any number of wool shops in the cities.


Are you looking for catchy designs and the latest patterns? Then the capital’s many trendy fashion and readymade garment chains are the places to head for. The genuineness of wool is guaranteed here. These chains are in all the big cities of the country. Most of these chains also hold discount or bargain sales in mid-summer. Among the steady stand-bys and old reliables in winterwear are Oswal, Raymonds, Dhariwal, OCM, and Lal-Imli.

Genuine wool wear at reasonable to high prices can also be bought from the state emporia. The best buys in Kashmiri shawls and kurtas as well as other woolen wear are available at the Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab emporia. The softest blankets and rugs can be picked up from the emporia of the north-eastern states. Soft woollen carpets with delicate floral handwork generally in softer shades are another Kashmiri speciality.


If quality is of prime importance, then winterwear is better bought form the established, reputed wool and garment chains. Formal wear in the best tweed, can range anywhere form Rs. 1500/- at the cheapest to a fine ensemble t Rs. 6000/- to 7000/- Pullovers are priced anywhere between Rs. 450/- to Rs. 700/-. Rough woollen shawls in rainbow colours can be bought for Rs. 40/- to Rs. 80/-.

Chequered, striped, patterned and plain mufflers, socks and gloves can be bought from Rs. 20-25/- to Rs. 50-55/-. Kashmiri shawls are available at the Jammu and Kashmir emporia all over the country. Peshmina for Rs. 1000/- and above Shahtoosh Rs. 10000/- approximately.