Professor Aldred Barker, a professor of Textile Industries at Leeds University, deemed Kashmir as the producer of the most narcotic and beautiful fabrics the world has ever seen.
In one lecture on the textile industries of Kashmir, published in The Journal of the Royal Society of Arts in February of 1932, Barker attributed the mesmerizing spinning and weaving skills of the Kashmiri craftsman to the Vale of Kashmir’s tranquility and seclusion – far removed from the maddening hurly-burly of India’s plains and cities. “The surroundings of Srinagar,” wrote the Leeds professor, as he toured the countryside from Dal Lake to the gardens of Shalimar, “are so beautiful that it would be surprising if some sort of artistic craftsmanship were not developed there.”
The future fashionistas in Professor Barker’s Leeds textile class learned how Kashmir artisans worked wool in three distinct ways. The simplest required scrubbing the goat’s back, before shearing the wool, and spinning the fibers by hand on a “katwa.” A second approach, called “carding,” involved working the wool with a vibrating fiddle-string to produce a finer texture. Lastly, in “pashmina,” the artisan combed the fiber by hand with a “kangi,” to separate short from long fibers, so he might manipulate and transform them in myriad, cushy, and dreamily colorful ways.
Long before Aldred Barker began extolling Kashmiri textiles, it’s important to note, sumptuous Kashmiri fabric had been wound in fly turbans in Cairo, stitched into the magnificent jackets of unclassifiable beauties in Tehran, glorified in the soft, warm coats of Turkestan’s demi-gods, embellished sashes of Bodhisattvas across Tibet, and draped the swervy hips of dancing girls from Calcutta to Rome. The French painter, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, also contributed hugely to the Kashmiri mythos. One art critic, Robert Rosenblum, describes Ingres’ early preoccupation with nudes and serpentine Kashmiri shawls as creating “a hothouse ambiance of dense and indolent luxury.”
Novelists in Victorian Britain were equally feverish and fashion-obsessed. The writer, John Keay, declared, “Instead of English tweeds revolutionizing Eastern fashions, Indian cottons were about to invade English domestic life. Napkins and tablecloths, bed sheets and soft furnishings, not to mention underwear and dress fabrics, quite suddenly became indispensable to every respectable household. A new vocabulary of chintzes and calicoes, taffetas, muslins, ginghams and cashmeres entered everyday use.”
The word “cashmere,” in fact, is derived from the 18th century English spelling. This sleight-of-hand conveniently deprived Kashmiri textiles of their geographical home, and disassociated the term from any nasty, violent memories of the East India Company and British colonial occupation. At the same time, Cashmere became forever linked with all fabrics sensuous, divine, and greatly to be desired.
Technological innovation quickly allowed Cashmere to rival Kashmir. The Scottish town of Paisley, near Glasgow, burst upon the Stage of Style with its own buta motifs. Adorers of Paisley fabrics roared headfirst into the Future, announcing their designs to be as immutable as their ancient predecessors in the unchanging East. French designers, with their entre-nous “cachemire,” flourished as well, suggesting their fabrics transmitted all the Mughals’ royal and sacred connotations. By the 1990s, even American clothiers were manufacturing their own cashmere exoticisms, and cultural meanings reverberated across the entire event horizon of History. In the Universe of Fashion, old desires may be replaced by new ones, but Kashmir and Cashmere have long attracted loyal friends.
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Leading image Grand Odalisque, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1814)