The Kashmir shawl

Sometimes it is only upon reflection that one can trace a creative inspiration path.

The beauty and history of ‘The Kashmir shawl’ is one of the most iconic fashion symbols, so it should come to me as no surprise that the Zephine design which graces the front cover of Yarntelier Volume One is a beautiful shawl knitted in Cashmere Lace and has its inspiration firmly rooted in the story of the shawl.

‘Kashmir shawls’ have been woven in Kashmir, the northern most state in India, located in the foothills of the Himalayas since at least the 15th Century.

According to tradition, the founder of the shawl weaving industry was Zayn-ul-ʿĀbidīn, a 15th-century ruler of Kashmir who introduced weavers from Turkistan. Kashmir shawls were and continue to be woven and embroidered using the fleece from the changthangi, ladakh or pashmina goat, a special breed of goat indigenous to high altitude of the Himalayas, this fibre is also known as Cashmere.

The decoration of the Kashmir shawl is very specific, the earliest examples have a plain ground with end borders featuring large floral sprays, flower vases, and pinecones, incased in a teardrop outline. Each shawl was handmade and because of the intricacy of the patterns they would take months to weave and embroider with each shawl uniquely beautiful and highly desirable. In the late 18th century European traders travelling in India saw the Kashmiri shawls and impressed by their beauty and softness took them back to Europe. In India the shawls were worn by men, but in Europe women saw the shawls as the perfect fashion accessory to accompany the new ‘Empire look’ of light muslin dresses.

The ambassador of this fashion was the wife of Napoleon, Josephine de Beauharnais. A Kashmir shawl supplied not only warmth and aesthetic drapery, but also a protective layer when wearing these light muslin dresses. The cashmere yarn was lighter, softer and warmer than anything available in Europe at the time, and the pattern motifs were deliciously exotic to Western eyes. Kashmiri shawls were also the perfect status symbol as they were extraordinarily rare, and prohibitively expensive. The shawls soon became a fashion trend and between 1790 and 1879, they were an indispensable accessory for all stylish women, many paintings of noble women between these dates have them posed with Kashmir shawls to indicate their status.

At the same time in Europe the textile industrial revolution was just beginning, as the fashion for these shawls spread the importation of real Kashmiri shawls became limited. As a result many ‘Kashmir’ style shawls were woven in France and Britain. In 1812 in Paisley, Scotland weavers were responsible for innovations in the hand loom process, adding an attachment which increased the number of colours able to be woven from two to five, perfect for the design detail required for the shawls. Up until the 1820s, weaving was a cottage industry, but the introduction of the Jacquard loom in 1820 meant that weaving moved into the factory and Paisley became the main manufacturer of shawls, as a consequence ‘Paisley’ is the name that we now most commonly associate with the ‘tear drop’ design motif from the original Kashmir shawls.

Now, on reflection the inspiration for my Zephine shawl, with its organic repeating pattern detail at the hem and knitted in Cashmere Lace, has its design heritage firmly rooted in the beauty and history of the original Indian woven ‘Kashmir Shawl’. 

Louisa Harding