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July 2022

Welcome to the Ladakh. The average sea-level-lubber might need an oxygen cylinder in this frigid, high and dry Himalayan plain. It’s a deeply fractious place where both a thick skin and a thick coat is essential. Currently administered by India as a union territory, formerly of the Jammu and Kashmir states, here the inveterate Changpa nomads rub shoulders with the Indian army. Shia Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus all co-habit what was once a vital trading route though the precipitous Himalaya. Borders here are liquid. China’s Tibet, India and Pakistan all vie for control.


Amongst this nervous state of affairs the Changpa, subsiding in their mobile yak-fur tents, persist in herding the most precious of goats, the Changra (locally known as the Lena, and popularly understood as the Pashmina). These goats are pretty remarkable. We understand the average billy goat to be a pretty tough beast. Yet consider a lifestyle averaging 5000m, sub-zero temperatures, and about as much vegetation as a truck driver’s plate.

With 10,000 years of genetic selection this caprine variety survives the cold by producing an exceptionally fine and dense down hair around its core to retain heat. Once a year the herders lay them on their side and comb the down out from amongst the guard hairs. A harmless and respectful practice. Typically one animal yields between 150 and 400gm each year. It’s worth noting that there are over 20 other varieties of cashmere goat that produce the bulk of the worlds cashmere fibre but few as fine as the Changra.


From here, the Changpa trade the unrefined wool into neighbouring Kashmir where after some refining through combing, an ancient spinning practice done only by highly skilled women, employing traditional Charkha spinning wheels, produces a fine gossamer yarn. This spinning practice is incredibly delicate work as the yarn breaks easily and it can only be executed by hand if it is to be so fine. It has been done this way for centuries. The yarn is then gently twisted a little further onto a ‘Pritz’ wheel and from there is sent to the weaver in hanks.


In contrast shawl weaving is done only by men. A shawl is entirely hand loomed using very fine, smooth and hard mulberry wood shuttles (a spin off of the local silk production) and a wooden loom. Note that the hanks of yarn can also be dyed prior to weaving or the natural grey/brown or ivory colour of the yarn can be used as is. The longitudinal warp yarns are coated in rice water to strengthen them before weaving and it is washed out afterwards. The cloth can be dyed at this stage too or embroidered in a multitude of different techniques but most require a hand carved block print to work from. Some embroideries are even two faced, an enormously exhaustive and exigent craft. Embroidery is typically done in silk of it’s luminous and lustrous appearance.


Some scholars think the shawl weaving practice was brought to Kashmir from Iran by Syed Ali Hamdani and Badshah Zain-ul-Abidin some time in the 14th century. Other historians think that it was a practice born in Kashmir. What is known is that by the 16th century under General Akbars reign of the Mughal Empire, woven lengths of pashmina cloth were tailored into jama, the habitual dress of Mughal men. Incredibly ornate hand embroidery grew in diversity and technique and peaked in the 19th century. Form here, the pashmina shawl has built a special place as a great luxury in the Western wardrobe. British men serving in India would gift pashmina throws to their loved ones upon returning home, thusly they became an object of fashion.

With its distinctive caressing warmth and unique cloud-like softness a throw made from the Changra goats fine down has become a fixture in its mountain home and abroad, with the genuine article still made in its ancient routine.



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