Collecting guide: Kashmir shawls

Woven from the hair of pashmina goats that thrive on the high plains of Tibet and Nepal, luxuriously soft Kashmir shawls have been worn since antiquity. In Asia they were favoured by royalty — when they reached Europe, even Napoleon took note…


Why are Kashmir shawls prized by collectors?

Kashmir shawls are highly prized for their fine wool, skilled weaving and embroidery, and soft texture. Antique shawls were an item of luxury, often worn by royalty or nobility and passed down through generations. In the 19th century Kashmir shawls were also exported to England and France — it is said that Napoleon Bonaparte gifted Kashmir shawls to both his wives.

How were Kashmir shawls made?

Until the 19th century, all Kashmir shawls were made by hand. It took between six months and a year to make one shawl. These antique shawls were made from pashmina wool, taken from the underhair of pashmina goats living in the high-altitude plains of Tibet, Nepal and Ladakh. This highly sought-after wool was imported into Kashmir — which lies on the borders between India, Pakistan and China — separated by colour, spun into yarn and woven on a loom.

Before the 17th century the pashmina wool was not dyed, and so Kashmir shawls were white, brown, grey or black. Later, it became more fashionable to colour the wool with natural dyes of dark blue, red and saffron yellow.

When were Kashmir shawls made?

Kashmir shawls have been woven since the 1st century AD. Although it is extremely rare to find textiles that survive from antiquity, fragments of Kashmir shawls, dating to the 3rd and 6th centuries, have been discovered in Egypt and Syria.

Most of the Kashmir shawls now in museums or private collections date to between the 17th and 19th centuries — the earlier examples rarely survive intact, and often only the borders remain.

What are the common patterns or motifs?

Floral patterns are an enduring motif and were particularly popular in the 17th century, when the Mughal emperors favoured flower designs in their textiles, architecture and works of art. Paisley patterns (boteh)  are also popular, with their designs becoming denser, more elaborate and more abstract in the 19th century.

The moon shawl — such as the one below, featuring a circular design at the centre of an embroidered background — was extremely popular when Kashmir shawls were exported to Europe in the 19th century, and became a common export design.

How do you wear a Kashmir shawl?

Traditionally in India, both men and women wore shawls. The style depended on the embroidery: if the shawl has patterns all over, it would be draped over the shoulders or wrapped around the body. If only the borders are woven or embroidered, it would be worn around the neck like a scarf, or tied around the waist.

When shawls were exported to France and England, they were worn exclusively by women. Paintings from the 19th century show high-society ladies wearing Kashmir shawls in a variety of ways, as accessories to the latest fashion trends.

How do I identify a Kashmir shawl?

You can identify an authentic, antique Kashmir shawl by the skill of the work and the softness of the pure Pashmina wool. It is said that pure Pashmina is so fine and smooth that you can run an entire shawl through a finger ring with ease.

Modern Pashmina-wool shawls are now often mixed with other wools or synthetic fibres to make them more affordable. They feel comparatively less soft, and their embroidery is usually less fine.

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How do I care for my Kashmir shawl?

Depending on their condition, some shawls can be worn while others are best left for admiring — an old or fragile shawl or fragment can be hung on the wall in a frame or a stretcher. 

More durable shawls should be worn, or periodically taken out of storage to be enjoyed, because keeping them folded for long periods can damage their fibres. Store your shawls individually wrapped in cotton clothes, in a dry place away from direct sunlight. Clean them with cashmere detergent. Very fine pieces should be cleaned by a specialist restorer, and cared for in the same way as a suzani textile.

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