kashmiri shawl painting Eduard Friedrich Leybold woman
An 1824 painting by Eduard Friedrich Leybold of a young woman wearing an embroidered Kashmiri shawl.

The Essential Guide to Kashmiri Shawls

Centuries ago, the Kashmiri shawl was a global status symbol, sought after and imitated. It remains a coveted object of beauty and luxury.

Kashmiri shawls are fine wool luxury garments whose origins are generally traced back to the 15th century and the rule of Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin — a great patron of the arts and crafts. 

In the centuries that followed, Kashmiri shawls would emerge as a status symbol not just throughout the Mughal Empire in India, but also worldwide, especially in Europe, where it was sought after and imitated.

kashmiri shawl pashmina antique
An early 19th century Kashmiri pashmina shawl. (Image Credit: RISD Museum)

The global impact of the Kashmiri shawl goes beyond the garment itself. The English-language words “cashmere” and “shawl” and even the ubiquitous paisley pattern all originate from the name or designs of the Kashmiri shawl. So while a paisley cashmere shawl purchased online or at a department store may not technically be a Kashmiri shawl, it in multiple ways bears the imprint of the Kashmiri shawl’s phenomenal global legacy.

The History of Kashmiri Shawls

Weaving craftsmanship existed in Kashmir long before the era of Zain-ul-Abidin. But he helped transform it into a world-class industry by recruiting master craftsmen from Persia, as well as Bukhara, Samarkand, and other regions of Turkestan (which includes present-day Uzbekistan and Xinjiang). 

The Zain-ul-Abidin period also saw innovations in production, including the use of the interlocking twill tapestry technique and new loom technology. The industry became a global phenomenon after Kashmir fell under the control of the Mughals in late the 16th century, with the number of state-owned looms ballooning to 40,000 looms. The Kashmiri shawl became a part of the royal apparel, writes scholar Farzana Ashfaque.

mughal kashmiri shawl pashmina
A portrait of Abd ar-Rahim, a Mughal notable, wearing a Kashmiri shawl. He was a poet and patron of the arts and served as the khankhanan, or commander in chief, of the Mughal armies during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. (Image Credit: Freer Gallery of Art)

The Kashmiri shawl has evolved over the centuries amid transformations in regional politics and the global economy. Kashmir has seen different rulers since its eponymous shawl’s invention — the Mughals, the Sikhs, and the Afghans, to name a few. And each of these empires has left its own mark on the industry. So too have foreign buyers. For example, in the 19th century, Kashmiri artisans tailored many of their designs to the preferences of European customers.

The region of Kashmir sits at the crossroads of Central and South Asia. The Kashmiri shawl’s construction, design, materials, and motifs emerge from conversations between multiple civilizations. They also reflect Kashmir’s geographical location, the strong influence of Persianate culture, and the tastes of buyers far away.

kashmir map turkestan xinjiang kashgar khotan tibet
A 19th century map of Kashmir, Tibet, and Turkestan from “Chinese Empire & Japan” by John Bartholomew. Published in 1893 by John Walker and Co. Ltd, London.

The Kashmiri shawl has been a living, fluid concept. But in its purest form, it retains some distinctive characteristics.

What Makes a Shawl a Kashmiri Shawl?

So what makes a shawl a Kashmiri shawl?

Well, for starters, there’s the geographic location of its production. A Kashmiri shawl is generally manufactured in the Himalayan region of Kashmir — specifically, the valley of Kashmir. Over the centuries, Kashmiri artisans migrated throughout the subcontinent — for example, to the great Mughal city of Lahore — and production of the Kashmiri and analogous shawls expanded outside Kashmir proper. 

kashmiri shawl pashmina wool pure
A late 19th century Kashmiri pashmina shawl. (Image Credit: RISD Museum)

The most distinctive qualities of an authentic Kashmiri shawl are its material and production technique. 

A Kashmiri shawl must be made of one of the two finest types of wool on earth: pashm or toosh.

Pashm wool — known globally as pashmina — was historically sourced from the other side of the Himalayas: Khotan and Yarkand in present-day Xinjiang and Changtang in Tibet. From these regions, pashm wool was transported via Ladakh to the Kashmir Valley. The pashm wool comes from the domesticated Chyangra goat. Pashm or pashmina is a type of cashmere fiber, but finer than typical cashmere. The diameter of its fibers measures 12 to 16 microns. The fibers of the shahmina, an even softer type of pashmina, can be less than 14 microns in diameter.

kashmiri shawl pashmina twill tapestry antique
A mid-19th century Kashmiri pashmina shawl featuring a double-interlocked twill tapestry weave. (Image Credit: RISD Museum)

The toosh wool, used to make the shahtoosh Kashmiri shawl, comes from the wild Tibetan antelope or chiru. The chiru is an endangered species and so the production of toosh wool products has been banned for decades.

Shahtoosh shawls are more rare and expensive compared to pashmina. The toosh wool is the finest in the world with a fiber diameter of 10-12 microns. There are also Kashmiri-style shawls made using raffal – a thicker, more affordable merino wool between 18 and 24 microns. And while many do not include raffal as part of the Kashmiri shawl family, they can feature elaborate craftsmanship, including intricate embroidery (enabled by the heavier weight).

What Types of Kashmiri Shawls Are There?

The most traditional Kashmiri shawl is the kani shawl

The kani shawl is loom-woven using the aforementioned twill tapestry technique and can be composed of pashm (i.e. pashmina) or toosh (i.e. shahtoosh) wool.

kani kashmiri shawl antique
An early 19th century kani pashmina Kashmiri shawl at the Honolulu Museum of Art. (Image Credit: Hiart/Wikimedia Commons)

And then there are a number of embroidered Kashmiri shawls, chief among them the sozni. You may have noticed that sozni sounds a lot like the Central Asian suzani. Both refer to local needlework traditions and share the same linguistic origin. Suzani and sozni come from the Persian word suzan, which means needle.

Other embroidered Kashmiri shawl types include the aari, kalamkari, papier-mâché, and tilla.

What Are Some Common Kashmiri Shawl Motifs?

The most prominent motif in Kashmiri shawls is the paisley pattern or buta. Both the term and style originate from the Persian boteh. As the Kashmiri shawl became a luxury garment of choice in medieval and early modern Europe, so too did the buta or paisley pattern.

buta bota boteh kashmiri shawl paisley antique
A panel from an early 18th century Kashmiri pashmina shawl featuring the buta or paisley motif. (Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Other motifs include the chinar tree, the rose flower, and the almond.

Mogulesque is a digital magazine celebrating the aesthetics, cultures, ideas, tastes, and sounds of the East in their classical, modern, and cosmopolitan forms.

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