From the looms in Kashmir to haute couture boutiques the world over, the warm undercoat of pashmina goats is a highly valued luxury fiber.
It is hard to imagine that a goat foraging on the desert-like terrain of Changthang can lead to the creation of one of the most exquisite textiles in the world.
Situated in the high reaches of the Himalayan and Karakoram mountains, in Eastern Ladakh, are the wide-open plains of the Changthang (also known as ‘northern plains’). Herded by nomads, residing in black yak-hair tents, often at altitudes as high as 18,000 feet in icy cold winds, the trade in the fiber these goats yield is beset by controversy and intrigue. Setting the price involves much speculation. Debates and deals are often struck even before the fiber have been combed off the goat’s back.
Pashmina is recognized as a luxury fiber. It commands some of the highest prices in the world of textiles because of its extreme softness, elegance, and luster. The appeal of pashmina also lies in the romance and mystery surrounding its origin and its association with remote nomadic populations. The terms “pashmina” and “cashmere” are often used and applied to a wide variety of textiles. Unfortunately, “pashmina” has become a generic term, ranging from cheap viscose to some of the most prized and sought after textiles in the world.
Pashm comes from the fine winter undercoat or down of a particular variety of domestic goat, which is known as ‘Pashmina goat’ or Changra (literally “Northern goat”) and also shawl goat. The growth of pashmina is stimulated by the intense winter cold of windswept plateaus, situated at high altitudes, such as Changthang. Typically, pashm is combed out of the goats during June and July. During the winter, the pashm lies close to the goat’s skin, insulating it from the bitter cold; it is only when the winter is over that the pashm rises above the goat’s skin and can easily be combed out. Good quality pashmina is determined by a long staple length and small diameter.
Pashmina has long been a significant factor in economic and political struggle throughout the regions of Ladakh, Kashmir, and western Tibet. While western Tibet was the primary source for the supply of pashmina, Kashmir was home to a significant shawl producing industry. Ladakh, lying between these two regions, had a strict monopoly over the trade in pashmina. Though it was known that areas within Ladakh’s Changthang also bred pashmina goats, it was said that the finest wool came from Rudok and Ngari in western Tibet.
All trade along Tibet’s borders suffered heavily after the extension of Communist China’s rule over the country in 1950. However, it continued to operate, albeit under strain, until it came to a standstill in 1959, following the flight of the Dalai Lama to India and the total occupation of Tibet by China.
With the complete closure of the border between Ladakh and western Tibet, the Kashmir shawl industry had to turn elsewhere for its raw material. Quite naturally, they turned to the pashmina producing areas within Ladakh. People involved in the trade of pashmina soon adjusted to their changed circumstances. While some palace traders continued with the business, new contenders also entered the market. Only Ladakhis, acting as middlemen, are allowed to purchase pashmina from these areas directly. Over the years, as a result of a growing demand for pashmina and spiraling prices, the government of Jammu and Kashmir has attempted to control the pashmina trade in many ways and break the nexus between the nomads, Ladakhi middlemen, and Kashmiri traders.
Pashmina is one of the main economic assets that Ladakh possesses. It is the lucrativeness of the trade in pashmina that attracts local and international attention to Ladakh’s pashmina-growing areas. It is the trade in pashmina and its spiraling prices that continue to make life in Changthang worthwhile for nomads. As long as there is a demand for pashmina, their future in Changthang is secure.
In a nutshell, pashmina is the material woven from the downy undercoat of the pashmina goat. It is the highest quality cashmere. Therefore, all pashmina is cashmere, but not all cashmere is pashmina.