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The Fabulous Shawls Of Kashmir

When the rays of the setting sun strike against the flower decked palace walls in the rose pink city of Jaipur, it is trading time for the shawls of Kashmir and the Punjab. Shawl merchants know those oblique light rays penetrate most deeply into the yarns, bringing to vivid life the leashed dye colors.

The old flame design (cone or river loop) leaps to life under the setting sun and plays as fire over the woven shawls. The symbolic five headed cobras, dear to Indian hearts, all but come alive and weave upward from their silk and woolen borders. The flowers of the garden pattern bloom so richly in their four garden beds quartering the shawl, you can all but smell their perfume.

This vibrant color is more deep and brilliant in the woven shawls than in the pieced shawls, or the embroidered or the appliqued shawls. All are soft and lovely.

History hints they were sent as tribute to ancient Assyria. Alexander's women and warriors carried them from the Punjab to Babylon and Macedonia. Mogul emperors presented them to kings and queens. Even in modern times the treaty of Amritzar between the British and Golab Singh included "three pair of Kashmir shawls" yearly. Victoria's court adored them. Their price was above rubies.

France, England and Scotland imported the goats and tried to make these Kashmir shawls, to avoid import duties and Mogul tribute. In fact machines were devised to reproduce Kashmir patterns. Victoria even lent her Kashmir shawls to the Paisley Shawl Company of Scotland so it could copy her patterns in its Paisley shawls, which has confused many an inexperienced shawl collector in America, as to which is India made, which Paisley.

Wool from the Shawl Goats of Tibet

The wool for Kashmir shawls came from the "shawl goats" shepherded high in the Himalayas and sheared but once a year. After the shearing the shepherds made little combs by tying up a bundle of twigs and combed the goats backward (from tail to head) as more aown came off that way.

Each goat gave about half a pound of down. This was bundled and tied in large packs and roped to the goats being driven down into the valley of Kashmir as a practical way of getting this bulky product down the precipitous mountain paths. Often the merchant who had brought up the finished shawls took charge of the goats carrying this wool down as he was eager to get supplies to the shawl makers.

In the valley of Kashmir, along the loops of the Jhelum river and its bridge of shops at Srinagar, capital of Kashmir, and in other cities of the Punjab, the wool merchant sold off bits of this downy wool to the women spinners. They sorted it, meticulously separating out the hair and grading the wool into four or five lots, then cleaned it with a paste made of rice flour. The finest would be used for the best shawls. Some of the coarser would be used for shawl borders so the pattern would "stand out."

The Making of Kashmir Shawls

Only women, and girls over ten, spun the yarn for Kashmir shawls. Work was from dawn till dark, or even by moonlight as candle light or grease for lamps cost far more than the spinners could afford. But the yarn had to be ready to turn for the few rupees when the yarn buyer came by ringing his bell.

The buyer took this soft white yarn to the dyer. The whiter the yarn the better the price, for the more brilliant the dyes would "take." In the past those dyes were locally made from vegetable, animal, or more rarely, mineral sources. Red came from cochineal and madder, blue from indigo, yellow from saffron, and so on.

The secrets of the dyer and his pots were myriad, inherited through generations of experiment and experience. The little hanks of yarn he turned over for the men weavers rivaled both. the brilliant and the muted colors of nature.

Originally the lone weaver set his loom on the ground, dug a hole for his legs, and, by controlling cords fastened to his feet, he pulled the warp threads apart, then he threw the shuttle through. It took him 18 months to three years, and more, to make one fine shawl.

From the days of the Mogul emperors, however, much of the weaving has been done in loom houses or factories. There two or three men worked at a loom, following directions read off by a boy apprentice who called out the number of threads for the pattern, and the colors. The weavers took shuttles of the proper colors and worked out the directed pattern.

Akbar the Great Wore a Pair of Shawls

From the time of Akbar, who always wore two shawls together so only the right. side would show, Kashmir shawls have been made in pairs. They were woven in one piece, or in two sections, or in many pieces which must later be put together, or as yard goods which could be "cut to length."

Generally the finest shawls were those woven in one piece. They took two men at the loom. The first threw the shuttle as far as he could. The second sent it on through the loom, then returned it to his partner, so each wove his own side.

Two section shawls were sewed together. And pieced shawls, made up of many woven sections, as many as 1500, were sold in a bundle and later sewed into a shawl with almost imperceptible fitting and stitching, often further enriched with elaborate embroidery.

Shawling by the yard or gaz was either plain woven or striped. In the striped every other line was a stripe of flowers. Borders or fringes were sewed onto a cut-off section of this yard goods to make a completed shawl. The flower striped type of shawling was called Jamewar. Plain white shawls with green springs were called Alfidars. The very elaboration of pattern in the finest woven shawls often made the centers draw out of line. Sometimes yard shawling was used to replace these precious centers in these finest shawls for Western traders refused to buy shawls 'that would not "lie smooth."

Hand embroidered shawls, exquisite as jeweled mosaics or fine patterned cloisonne enamels or intricate petit point, were less valued in the East than their fine woven shawls. For one thing, the tight needlework in the bright patterns did not let the light gleam through to intensify to full glory the embroidered colors. What was worse, the stitching was done by women.

Wide, elaborately patterned borders were generally made separately, then sewed on the shawl. They were often woven on a silk warp for strength and to let the wool yarn pattern stand up above the flatter silk ground.

Kashmir Shawl Shapes and Colors

Originally the shawls of Kashmir were long, about three and a half yards, by five feet wide, with narrow side borders and deep "head" or end borders. The full beauty of these elaborate ends showed in the draping. The square shawl was made to double into a triangle and drape in points over the wide hoop skirts of our great grandmothers. The half shawl or adabkat, outspread, showed half right and half wrong. Folded in a diagonal, however, it showed both right sides though the under one dropped its point way below the other over our grandmother's skirts.

Merchants bargaining at sunset sip their tea and wax poetic over their marvelous shawl colors, generally meaning red, the color of life, the beloved color of the East. But the deep bronze brown of earth too is a favorite; and saffron, the color of the sun. To some in the East blue is a mourning color; and green a religious color which has restricted use.

These bright patterned shawls of Kashmir have streamed West beginning with the East India trade. But factory made yard goods, paper patterns, sewing machines, and mass production have promoted ever changing styles in Western costumes. So the stream of India's fine shawls is a trickle now. The ancient hand looms are all but stilled. But attic trunks and old bureaus occasionally release one of these precious shawls. Art lovers collect them as wall hangings to make enriching backgrounds for old chests or tables, brass candlesticks, silver bowls, or vases of fine crystal.

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