MY LOVE FOR HANDWOVEN CASHMERE SCARVES

Growing up in India, I had heard the term pashmina many times. My mother and aunts owned light embroidered Kashmiri pashmina shawls. In fact, it went without saying that if anyone had to buy a shawl in the family, it had to be cashmere or a fine wool shawl from Kashmir. At times, my mother would also go to the Khadi Udyog and pick up a traditional handwoven piece. I know she used, and kept those shawls for decades. As I grew older, I learned to appreciate traditional weaves from India that weren’t exactly as attractive to me when I was little. When I was young, I used to get excited when my family traveled abroad and got me clothing and accessories that were most probably mass-produced- but I was happy because it had “the U.S tag” attached.

In today’s fast fashion world, the terms handwoven, hand spun, handmade, hand stitched or hand embroidered have all become trendy words that attract discerning clientele as these are not easily available. Customers are ready to invest in a superior quality handmade piece. They appreciate a beautiful story behind their luxury product. This post discusses a few topics related to one of the most luxurious fabrics in the world- cashmere, also known as ‘soft gold’ when referred to the finest cashmere (pashmina). This particular world of cashmere involves a community of goat herders, pashm collectors (a Hindi or Persian term for cashmere raw material), yarn spinners, color specialists, pattern-makers and master weavers. It is this process that follows fair trade principles where it collaborates with revered craftsmen that makes a cashmere scarf a time-honored luxury piece.

The photo below is a typical image of popular tourist destinations in India or Nepal selling fake pashminas.

Typical image of popular tourist destinations in India or Nepal selling fake pashminas

So How Can a Cashmere Scarf Cost $20 and at times over $1000?

Well, it’s the same concept that- you get what you paid for (most of the times). Finest cashmere is called pashmina in India, but it is a term not recognized by the textile industry, and hence has many connotations. If you ever travel to Nepal, India or China, you’ll see completely synthetic 100% viscose or rayon scarves and shawls being sold with the ‘pashmina’ tag, but, if you’re a smart consumer, you’ll know that it’s impossible to find a cashmere or real pashmina piece for $5–20 anywhere in the world (unless you have some miraculous luck at an auction or a flea market ;)). Pashmina has just become synonymous with the word scarf these days. For conscious buyers, it means a lot more. It is not just Asia that creates fake cashmere, and while most buyers may think that everything that comes from Europe is usually 100% authentic, if you dig more, you’ll find that the British and French were the first to set up cheap cashmere manufacturing units. They wanted to rapidly produce affordable knockoffs in mid-1800’s but this idea of cheap cashmere shawls soon failed and they had to shut shops. Here is an interesting article on Wall Street Journal that talks about the journey of a Kashmiri shawl. Unfortunately, without having to travel anywhere, you can visit a few Etsy stores online that stock 100% acrylic/viscose scarves as handmade pashmina scarf. On a few occasions, I have written to customer care of shopping portals like Etsy and Amazon informing them that their marketplaces should not be stocking such inferior quality scarves that use wrong fabric terminology. Shop owners are deliberately misleading customers, but people continue to buy from these shops that have thousands of positive reviews (customers pay $6–10 for a scarf that probably cost $0.10 a piece). Everyone is looking for a bargain and why not, but, I have a problem when sellers use terms like handmade, 100% pure and false fabric compositions to make a sale.

So how exactly can a cashmere garment range between $20 to $1000? When you buy a relatively lower-priced cashmere scarf or a garment from a shop at your local mall or an online website, it’s most likely mass-produced and has other fabric components mixed in it. Due to the nature of customer demand for lower-priced items, there is yak or sheep wool blended with cashmere passing it as genuine or 100% cashmere. Of course there are exclusive boutiques around the world (India, Britain, Italy amongst others), that sell fine cashmere pieces but these will usually come attached with higher price tags. More often than less, I also see ‘100%’ and ‘pure’ terminology used as a sales trick. These terms are repeatedly abused because a regular customer is not going to a lab to get their fabric tested. I have personally experienced this in many shops in India and United States (most garments are made in China), when I had no clue what exactly ‘pure cashmere’ was. When cashmere yarn is mixed with synthetic fibers, cheap wool or even short hair cashmere yarn, it will fetch lower prices and shop keepers and the so called ‘government regulated’ shops in various countries use this as a false sales gimmick. Have you noticed that the word cashmere attached to a certain fabric at a high-end store can be priced between $150-$600 in a particular season but as soon as the retailer is getting close to the next fashion season, the cost of the same garment comes down to $30-$90 which is comparatively much lesser. These cashmere garments were probably never made of pure cashmere in the first place, and certainly do not follow sustainable ways of sourcing the luxurious yarn.

Cashmere Manufacturers from Different parts of the World

The biggest manufacturers of cashmere are China and Mongolia and this is exactly what puts great pressure on these markets to produce cashmere that is made quick, in abundance and cheap. It’s not just the production but the whole process of creating a cashmere garment that is more important to true cashmere lovers. A video I came across recently about Mongolian herders was quite disheartening. What these nomadic herders really enjoyed doing at one point has become quite a gamble for them. This has also resulted in mass-breeding of goats that has caused overgrazing of lands and a vicious poverty cycle which is far from being fair trade (a concept I lean towards more and more). You will also hear a senior herder in the video say that he’d like to produce higher quality yarn but that is not possible anymore. Check out — A Cashmere Story. Some of the finest cashmere in the world comes from the Changthangi goats found in the Ladakh region (Kashmir, India). This quality of cashmere is mostly white but can also be black, brown or gray. What we at Gartika call fine cashmere ranges between 11 to 15 microns and the average fiber length will be between 55–60 mm. Here’s a tip for you — always ask for the micron quality of your cashmere scarf or shawl. If the retailer is an authentic seller, they will most probably be able to give you a range for this count.

Happy Goats Make Fine Cashmere Scarves

It’s true. It’s not just the sourcing of the raw material but in actuality the whole process of manufacturing cashmere that makes it sought after. When manufacturers start mixing all kinds of cheap fibers or use low quality yarn, this beautiful fabric loses the very nature of it being luxurious. In the Ladakh region of Kashmir, some herders still practice eco-friendly ways of collecting pashm. In spring, the tough Capra Hircus goats start rubbing their bodies against big rocks to get the fur off their bodies. During this time, pashm collectors walk around the high terrains of the Himalayas collecting the fur. When this eco-friendly process is not always possible, herders use wool combs to comb the fur out during the molting season (this process does not hurt the animal when done gently). Some herders may choose to shear their goats which then produces poor quality cashmere yarn because the length of the fiber is much shorter. The purest cashmere yarn is made out of goat hair that comes from under the belly or the neck area of the goat. I believe a shepherd who cares for the goat pack, and follows sustainable ways of being in this trade will always produce higher quality cashmere yarn. Jammu and Kashmir region doesn’t mass-produce cashmere and that is the reason that at Gartika we are able to control quality, while responsibly sourcing our raw material. Most of our goats are wild and not domesticated which I personally feel makes a big difference. I have compared and checked many cashmere fabrics and realized the difference is in texture, heft, luster without it being chemically treated (unfortunately, many big retailers sourcing their material from mass-producers don’t realize or care whether the fiber is treated with harsh chemicals). I feel when goats are happy and graze around freely in the mountains, it makes the whole cashmere manufacturing process a pure delight which needs no chemicals.

The Capra Hircus Goat- Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/2n9mP8J

Interesting Facts Behind Handwoven Cashmere Scarves for Women and Men

Once the fur is collected, it needs to be separated from grime, dirt and vegetation, all done by hand. Once the fluffy fur is separated, the process of yarn making starts. This is usually done in factories, but a small group of hand spinners do this on a wooden spinning wheel (widely known as the Gandhi charkha in India). Scroll down to the bottom of the page here to see a 45 second video that beautifully showcases the hand spinning process by Najar, one of Gartika’s oldest cashmere weavers. On an average, each Capra Hircus goat gives between 200–400 grams of wool every year. Once the fur is woven into yarn, it can either retain its natural color or be dyed into a different color. Using the right dyes is also important. At Gartika, for our cashmere scarves we only use low-impact dyes but quite a few times we also retain the original fur color. In the hands of master weavers, the art of weaving begins. This step is very important that gives our scarves a quality that is difficult to describe in words. Most mass-producers of cashmere garments do not pay attention to herders, the pack of goats, the quality of fur, and then hire big factories to spin and weave cashmere. The more I hear about this process, the more I want to talk about how important it is to revive ancient herding, spinning and weaving practices.

Gartika’s Handwoven Cashmere Scarf

Elegant handwoven cashmere scarves for both men and women at Gartika are anywhere between 11–15 microns making it couture quality cashmere. We handcraft fashionable pieces using traditional and sustainable ways which can never go out of style.

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