It’s not that many years ago that none of us had heard the word “pashmina” and yet in the last couple of decades it has become a staple of the fashion industry worldwide. In modern terms the word “pashmina” has come to define any large scarf, stole, wrap or shawl but in reality pashmina is a very, very fine natural yarn that has been used for thousands of years by the native people of the high altitude Himalayan ranges. The yarn is harvested from the underside of the Capra Hircus goat, namely the underside of the belly and the neck. The goats live over 4500 mts above sea level and as a consequence of the extreme cold at such altitudes they have evolved very fine fur which has amazingly efficient insulation characteristics. This yarn is generally in the region of 12 – 14 microns thick and is incredibly soft and light. Due to the extreme climate where these animals live it is not possible to shear them, after all their insulation is essential to their survival. Because of all these factors the only way to harvest the yarn is to brush the underside of the goat and this only yields about 3 – 6 ounces of yarn every 6 months. In fact if you go way back in history the yarn was collected from scrub and bushes where through the natural malting process it had been snagged from the animals. Traditionally these fine fibres are spun into a yarn by hand in the Himalayan villages. This yarn would be used undyed to produce exceedingly warm shawls of a grey/brown colour. They say that to wear a real pashmina shawl is like having a warm hand on your back. The fibres vary in thickness and value with the outer most hairs, known as the “guard hairs”, being coarser and thicker, whilst the inner most hairs closest the animal’s skin are the finest and softest. Men in Himalayan villages have worn long heavy shawls made from the guard hairs for centuries and continue to do so to this day. The finest hair is spun into the most valuable yarn and reserved for some of the best and most expensive shawls, many of which are intricately embroidered.
The word “Pashm” comes from ancient Persian and loosely translates into the English word, “Wool”. Some say that the word Pashmina means the wool of the kings. Indeed the price and scarcity of real pashmina shawls put them out of the reach to all but the richest in society. The finest examples were, and still are, outrageously expensive. An expertly embroidered shawl might take more than two years to make and cost £5,000 to £10,000. For centuries and right up until today these would be used in dowries of the wealthiest brides and as family heirlooms. Pashminas were special.
So that is a very brief overview of “Pashmina” but where are we today? Back in the 1990’s the fashion industry, always on the look out for the next “must have” accessory, “discovered” Pashminas and these became all the rage and the definitive must have accessory. In fact, there were plenty of plain coloured good quality pashmina shawls on the catwalks of Paris, Madrid and London, and they weren’t cheap. However the economy was buoyant and Pashminas took off placing huge demands and what was a very limited resource. The price in the UK for a real pashmina stole or shawl ran to several hundred pounds, but of course everyone wanted one, or more, so the fashion industry re-invented the meaning of the word Pashmina and within a couple of years it became a generic term for a large stole or a shawl. Any stole or shawl became a Pashmina irrespective of what it was made from and so we had Pashminas for the masses. Of course it is still possible to buy the real pashmina but even that industry has changed markedly. Now most of the yarn is harvested from huge herds on the Himalayan plateau and Mongolian plains managed by huge corporations. It is all very far from the cottage industry of yesteryear.