Why Cashmere is So Special?
Sleek, soft and seductive, cashmere is regarded as the finest natural fibre in the world. Evoking images of exquisite quality, it is synonymous with luxury and wealth. Combining the apparent paradox of warmth and lightness it has been the most prized of all fibres for centuries.
Originating in Kashmir, high in the mountains of the Himalayas, cashmere is known by its authentic name, pashmina. Much misused today, the word pashmina has been adopted to describe shawls and scarves of various blends of wool, silk, cashmere and even polyester. But real pashmina, from the word pashm, means king’s fabric and defines the finest 100% cashmere fibre that comes only from the Kashmir goat.
Pashmina is the soft downy inner fleece of the Kashmir goat. To withstand the extremes of mountain temperatures, hot arid summers and bitterly cold winters, these goats grow two coats; the outer one of coarse wiry hair to protect them from the elements, the inner one of fine soft fibre which insulates the animals from the freezing climate.
It is this inner downy hair which is used for the finest quality cashmere fibre. In springtime, before the goats begin to moult, the shepherds and their families begin the process of combing by hand this precious under fleece and collecting the fibre. No harm is done to the goats. The process is painstaking with each animal yielding only around 200-250 grams.
The cashmere fibre is collected in three colours, white, grey and brown, the natural colours of the goats. The fine hair is separated from the coarse outer fibre and then gently washed. This requires great skill and patience. Only then, when all the coarse hair has been removed can the cashmere be deemed to be top quality. The fibre is then ready for the spinning and weaving processes.
Traditionally in Kashmir the spinning and weaving is done by families and all by hand; the women spin and the men weave. This handwork is essential to make the most excellent finished product possible.
The physical properties of pashmina, or cashmere, explain its exclusivity and desirability. The fibre is extremely fine, at least six times finer than a human hair, and measures 11 microns (11/1000 of a millimetre).
When the fibres are twisted together during the spinning process, thousands of microscopic air pockets form which give cashmere its superb insulation and weightlessness.
The Romantic History of the Cashmere Shawl
Prized for centuries, pashmina shawls first found their way to the courts of the Roman Emperors; royalty alone could afford the indulgence and pleasure of pure cashmere. They were later popularised in Europe when Napoleon III gave one to his wife, the Empress Eugenie, a leader of world fashion in the 19th century. She is reputed to have had seventeen pashmina shawls, starting a craze for them, and she is credited with introducing cashmere to the western world.
As with most things human endeavour will find a way to make production easier and more commercial and at the end of the nineteenth century a Scottish manufacturer set out to develop a machine that could perform the delicate separation of the fibres without damaging them. He succeeded and so began the commercial production of cashmere and with it Scotland became a new centre for the manufacture of cashmere.
The Cashmere Ring Shawl
The jewel in the cashmere crown is the ring shawl, so called because even a large shawl measuring 200cm x 100cm can pass through a wedding ring, so fine is the cashmere. Hand spun and hand woven because the fibre is so fine that machine weaving would break it, each shawl takes around 200 hours to produce. It takes the annul output of three to four goats to produce one cashmere shawl which uses 1.5km of this precious fibre yet weighs less than 75grams.
These exclusive ring shawls are made in Kashmir using long established skills and craftsmanship which have been handed down from generation to generation. These skills have come under pressure as cheaper products, often of inferior quality, have entered the market. The Kashmiri families who make the ring shawls rely heavily on them for their livelihood and it is important to ensure that these traditional methods are preserved.
Each ring shawl is individually made and in one corner you will find, discreetly embroidered, the initials of the person who made it. Sometimes there are two embroidered initials representing the spinner and the weaver, often the husband and wife.
The designs of these shawls are myriad, ranging from traditional Kashmiri paisley patterns which have been produced for centuries to chic contemporary designs.
Exquisite, delicate and very special are hand embroidered ring shawls. Subtle designs, in paisleys and florals, are painstakingly embroidered on to the already delicate ring shawls to create unique pieces of lasting quality.
At Black we have championed the Ring Shawl since our launch in 2006 and it has become our signature item. An inspirational trip to India and a chance meeting there acquainted us with their beauty and luxury and the skill and craftsmanship involved in producing them. It heightened our awareness of the importance of preserving these unique skills and of helping to sustain the livelihoods of the Kashmiri families who make them; families who are victims of this war torn region further devastated by the earthquake of 2005. It also brings the most beautiful luxurious shawls to discerning customers who may otherwise not find them.