The warmest and most luxurious of all the animal  fibers, finer even than the best merino wool, comes principally from a Central Asian Species of the mountain goat, the cashmere or shawl goat, Capra hircus. The name is misleading for although the cashmere shawls which made the name famous were woven in Kashmir the fiber came from goats in Tibet and Central Asia. In Nepal the shawls woven from cashmere hair are referred to as Pashmina shawls, "Pashm" being the Persian word for 'wool'. Persian goat fibers although much coarser than the true cashmere, are sometimes marketed as cashmere, they are, however, not used for Nepalese shawls.

As the Pashmina  shawls have become a major trade item in the Kathmandu Valley, where the fibers are processed and woven, some details of this intriguing industry may be justified. Also a number of cashmere goats are found in some of the northernmost parts of Nepal, for example Mustang. In some areas these cashmere goats are crossed with the local breed. This has increased their milk yield but unfortunately has adversely affected their fiber production: even the pure-bred goat will provide little more than115 gm(4 oz) per year of the soft white,  gray or buff-colored down, which is found under the long, coarse outer hair. This down is combed out during the spring. It may also be shed naturally at this time and be rubbed off by the animal against the rocks and shrubs, from where it can be collected.

Cashmere down has been a valuable trade item between Tibet and Kashmir for centuries and the monopoly of the trade was fiercely guarded. From Kashmir woven and  embroidered shawls were exported to many parts of the world and gained the reputation that some were so fine they could be pulled through a finger ring. In Europe, where they became high fashion in the eighteenth century, they stimulated the search for this luxurious materials. Turner (1800,356), who considered the shawl goats the most beautiful species of the whole goat family, discovered to his dismay that 'upon removing them to the hot atmosphere of Bengal, they quickly lost their beautiful clothing". Moorcroft, who was employed by the East India Company as super indent of a stud for cavalry horses, went trekking at considerable trouble and danger from India through Nepal to Tibet in search of both horses and shawl  goats. Some of the goats were sent to Scotland but the venture failed. Nevertheless, his trials with Tibetan shawl wool played a large part in establishing the shawl industry in Britain. Moorcroft's handwritten letters, now held in the British Library's India Office Collection (MSS Eur F38//-G30/45) contain particularly interesting information on the preparation of the fine goat hair. In one letter dated 18 July 1820 he gives a detailed description of how rice flour was prepared and then mixed with the hair to clean it:

1.

 The husked rice is socked in water for twenty-four hours.

2.

The water is changed and the rice is socked again until it is soft enough to be squeezed into a flour.

3.

The water is poured off and the rice is 'reduced to flour by being bruised and rubbed with a smooth clean hard stone in wooden dish of a circular from.

The picked wool is laid on the rice flour in the dish and lightly refused into into it with the hand then turned upside down and again flattened and squeezed, upon this the flour is sprinkled and patted in it. The wool is next pulled to pieces and again lightly beaten in the flour and turned until the whole of it has been well mixed.

The cleaned wool is opened up with the fingers so that no knots or lumps remain and then formed into 'thin loose flats about three inches long, two broad and three quarters of an inch thick'. These are stored in a covered earthen dish until ready for spinning If, however, the wool is not spun within fifteen days, the old flour is' lightly dusted out and fresh flour added by which the wool is rendered still whiter...The flour that hangs loosely in the flats flies out in spinning and loose hairs that are left here and there in the wool are detached at the same time of themselves'. One wonders to what extent this was wishful thinking as the total separation of the hair the wool seems to cause difficulties until the present day. But this process, according to Moorcroft ,had the added advantage of improving the color of the wool and 'keeping the fibers individually apart...in a loose open state favorable for spinning....while washing with soap and water would render the shawl wool harsh, knotty and difficult to spin".

At the present time the processing of Pashmina in Kathmandu involves first of all the cutting of the down and hair from the skin. A few cashmere goats are brought down to  Kathmandu during festival times including  Dashain, when goat meat is much in demand. However, most of the Pashmina used for weaving shawls comes from the skins which are traded in from Tibet/China. After cutting, the tufts comprising down and long hair are carefully put over a bamboo comb ,near the point where the long hair joins the down, and the hard hair is pulled and combed out leaving the soft down on the other side of the comb. Much patience and skill is required to ensure that none of the long hair remains with the down - an almost impossible task. The down is separated into colors, carded and spun on the Charka (Spinning wheel) . The hard outer hair is used mainly for ropes and rugs.

Pashmina goat cross-breeds in Dolpo in Dolpo provide milk and textile raw material (rough outer and a little soft inner hair). They are also used as pack animals (Jest 1993, personal communication). Other goat breeds, including Sindal, are kept mainly for meat and manure, rarely as a source of textile raw material (Oil and Morel 1985, 2) in some northern parts they are used as pack animal.

Experts from Nepalese Textiles
By Susi Dunsmore
1993 Susi Dunsmore
Published by British Museum Press
A division of British Museum Publications LTD
46 Bloomsbury Street
London WC1B 3QQ


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