How to Save The Kashmiri Shawl

“On 5 August last year, I was finalising the itinerary for my upcoming trip to Kashmir. The same day, the Indian government revoked its special (limited) autonomous status, which the Muslim-majority state had held since joining the Union in 1947. The government then imposed a security lockdown, cut communication lines and restricted travel. I’m neither a reckless risk taker nor an irrepressible optimist, but I didn’t cancel my trip. I knew it was foolish to hope that the situation in the Kashmir Valley – a place whose borderland status between India and Pakistan has seen it become a violent battleground over the decades – would stabilise in time for my journey a mere month away, but I was obsessed. The reason? A piece of fabric so weightless and yet so warm that it seems to defy all laws of science. I wanted to meet the artisans and learn how real Kashmiri shawls were made. The escalating conflict only increased my resolve for a glimpse of this rare art that is under threat of vanishing.”

The article “How To Save the Kashmiri Shawl,” which appeared in last week’s issue of Financial Times magazine, is the result of my journey to India. I was determined to use whatever means I could to talk to the artisans and to understand why this craft is so meaningful to them. As I’ve learned, weaving has a venerated status in Kashmir. As a crossroads, Kashmir developed its culture through interactions with other people and traditions, and the Kashmiri shawl is the perfect example of this intricate synthesis.

Unfortunately,  Kashmiri shawl weaving is an endangered art form. The ongoing conflict in the Kashmir Valley, the fake pashminas and the lack of support mean that the artisans suffer. Slowly the workshops close down and the generation of people who know the craft dies out. It takes incredible skill to weave a fine shawl–and inhuman patience, because an intricate example can take years to complete.

Nevertheless, many artisans and people passionate about art continue to keep this art flourishing, and my story is a tribute to them, to their craft, to their dedication. I went to India pessimistic about the future, but by talking to the artisans, in Kashmir and other parts of India, I felt hopeful. Their work is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and its irrepressible yearning for art and beauty.

The article is now available online: How To Save The Kashmiri Shawl

P.S. Many of you’ve asked me where to look for the authentic Kashmiri shawls. Kashmir Loom is a small outfit based in Srinagar and Delhi. I was impressed by their artisans’ work. Not affiliated with the company in any way.

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46 Comments

  • jean: this shawl is unbelievable. the ones in the “ft” article too.

    “yearning for art and beauty” one of my majors in college was fine arts. this is where my urges lay. but how could i justifiy something optional when so many people lack basic needs? i still ask this to some degree, but i think there is a yearning for art and beauty also.

    thank you. March 6, 2020 at 9:24am Reply

    • Victoria: Art is not optional. It’s part of culture, identity, our sense of self. That’s what the artisans in Kashmir say about their work. March 6, 2020 at 10:54am Reply

      • Vanessa: I couldn’t agree more, Victoria, for me that captures the very essence of Keats’ lines “beauty is truth,/and truth beauty”. And thank you for the wonderful article 💐 March 6, 2020 at 9:06pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you so much, Vanessa. March 12, 2020 at 5:21am Reply

      • jean: i agree. that is what i have come to believe because of the feelings that i have. but i still feel conflict. March 7, 2020 at 9:10am Reply

        • Victoria: Then use your interest in art to raise money for the social causes that matter to you. March 12, 2020 at 5:22am Reply

  • jean: oops. justify. March 6, 2020 at 9:24am Reply

    • Lydia: Thank you for these wonderful articles and for highlighting such a precious art form.

      The situation in India these days is very troubling. Did you ever read Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie? I always think of those characters when I hear anything about Kashmir. The portrayal of a lost world of beauty, culture, and peace destroyed by political/religious violence is so sad. March 6, 2020 at 2:11pm Reply

      • Lydia: PS My comment ended up in the wrong spot, but I do find Jean’s question interesting.

        I agree with Victoria’s response. The arts are necessary, not optional or frivolous. With them, even with a functional art form such as shawl making, we reach for something that transcends our daily animal reality. Bread *and* roses. March 6, 2020 at 2:24pm Reply

        • Victoria: Exactly! You’ve put it so well. March 12, 2020 at 5:19am Reply

      • Victoria: I did. It was one of the books I read before my trip. March 12, 2020 at 5:17am Reply

  • Tara C: They are absolutely gorgeous and I’m happy to hear there are people fighting to preserve this art. What does a real kashmir shawl cost? March 6, 2020 at 10:33am Reply

    • Victoria: It depends on the complexity of the design and the size, so anywhere from $200 for a plain shawl without any decorations (of high quality weave) and starting at $1000 and up for a decorated shawl. March 6, 2020 at 10:59am Reply

  • Marsha Smith: How wonderful, Victoria! You bring so much beauty to the world. March 6, 2020 at 11:19am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for your kind words! March 12, 2020 at 5:14am Reply

  • Sherry: Thank you Victoria for this enlightening article about a dying art in the war zone of Kashmir. Exquisitely written as usual. I hope one day you can publish a book of all your fascinating travels? I appreciate the rich history, the vivid descriptions of the shawls, I wish I was there to see how it is made and touch the velvet fabric… I hope this brings awareness of the dire situation in the preseravation of this heirloom. Too many REAL arts are dying in the DNAage of mass production of souless cheap copies.

    I applaud you for traveling into such a conflict infested zone and bring this art to our attention. A treat to the eyes and mind (and escape from all the depressing news all over the world). March 6, 2020 at 11:41am Reply

    • Victoria: I very much hope to put it all together into a book, so thank you for your encouragement. In general, I have to thank everyone who comes here and shares their thoughts–you bring so much positivity and support. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. March 12, 2020 at 5:16am Reply

  • rickyrebarco: Wow, that shawl is simply stunning! I recall Kashmiri shawls being a very big deal in “Vanity Fair’ and in some Dickens novels. I would love to own one, but I would think that an authentic one would cost thousands of dollars and would be worth every penny. Thanks for sharing this beautiful artform. I love all your posts about fabric, weaving and embroidery artisans. March 6, 2020 at 2:14pm Reply

  • Sandra: That is one of your best article Victoria.
    Finally, how did you find Kashmir? Did you feel safe? March 6, 2020 at 3:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: Unfortunately, because of the timing it wasn’t possible to explore Kashmir the way I wanted. It’s a stunning place, though. March 12, 2020 at 5:20am Reply

  • Klaas: ‘If we don’t maintain our culture, we have no prospects for the future’.

    Never better said…… March 6, 2020 at 5:56pm Reply

    • Victoria: I found it very moving. March 12, 2020 at 5:20am Reply

      • Klaas: And so true in times when so much culture – and so many cultures – are under threat…. March 12, 2020 at 5:39am Reply

  • Karen A: Beautiful. Thank you. March 6, 2020 at 8:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: And thank you for reading! March 12, 2020 at 5:21am Reply

  • Brenda Benson: Beautifully written and that gorgeous photo of a shawl to die for! Do you have any thoughts as to where to look for one of these? (dreaming about having the funds to buy one) March 7, 2020 at 10:03am Reply

  • Aashiq Hussain Shah: Art and craft never die … actually because of the prevailing situation in my motherland Kashmir, known as the paradise on Earth. Lot needs to be done to save this art and artisan. March 7, 2020 at 12:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for your beautiful words. March 12, 2020 at 5:26am Reply

  • Syed Javid Ali: Thanks so much for bringing up some most relevant information about one of most desirable craft beauty from the beautiful valley.
    It really takes a lot of courage to cover so important story under such dangerous situations.
    Hats off*****
    Best regards to you & all. March 7, 2020 at 1:59pm Reply

  • Syed Javid Ali: Thanks so much for bringing up so relevant facts about the most desirable craft from the beautiful valley.
    It really takes a lot of courage to cover a story under such dangerous situations.
    Hats off***** March 7, 2020 at 2:07pm Reply

    • Victoria: Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to do all that I wanted this time, but I hope that next time it will be. Kashmir is a unique place. March 12, 2020 at 5:26am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Thanks for a beautiful article, Victoria. Kashmiri shawls are gorgeous, their patterns and colours not to mention their warmth. As a child, I remember my mother wearing hers in the cooler months. It was mainly cream and turquoise coloured – very beautiful and elegant indeed. More generally, I always love the bold mix of colours on the shawls – perhaps more than anything else (your selection of photos shows this very well). March 7, 2020 at 3:44pm Reply

    • Victoria: I love cream colored shawls with pastel embroidery. They look so elegant to me. March 12, 2020 at 8:22am Reply

  • Imtiyaz Ali: I have worked with artists who are my friends since my childhood. So got chance to see this art very closely from last 30 years. Before 3 years I and my few Pashmina artisan friends who worked very hard to get Geographical Indication for Kashmir Pashmina started a solo website http://www.KashmirPashminaGi.com to save geniune Pashmina. I wrote a small book which is on Kindle and the Blog portion has lot of information about Kashmir. We also made documentary films on pashmina in 2015 which are on YouTube by channel name Solomon International Arts Canada. March 7, 2020 at 11:40pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! You’re doing a very important work. I will look for the films. March 12, 2020 at 8:23am Reply

  • Fleurycat: Dear Victoria,

    I read your article with great appreciation and interest. Thank you! I also recently read a fascinating article exploring the death of true Egyptian cotton in The New Yorker).
    Traveling to SE Asia after a 30 year absence, I was shocked and disheartened to see so many beautiful cultural hand crafts: ikat, batik, embroidery, basketry and more, replaced by tourist driven facsimiles cheaply produced elsewhere. I saw printed versions of traditional Chiang Mai embroidery being sold to tourists as sarongs, polyester silk scarves, and so forth.
    But I also discovered and visited IKTT in Siem Reap, dedicated to preserving the complex double ikat (warp and weft) from Cambodian golden silk. Angkor Artisans is another more commercial fair trade organization which trains Cambodians in a variety of crafts and produces very beautiful silk goods in both traditional and contemporary designs, and their are others in Nepal, Thailand, Lao PDR, and Vietnam trying to keep these traditions alive. I met an amazing woman in Luang Probang who left the design industry in Singapore years ago to create her own business, Caruso Lao and is producing unbelievably sophisticated objects and textiles based on traditional designs but taken to another level. The online photos do not do her work justice! In Vietnam, even in the busiest cities (Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City) beautiful basketry and objects made from bamboo are used in every aspect of everyday life, and while young girls where jeans, of course, I also saw women of every age proudly wearing the Ao Dai, which is so beautiful.
    One can understand that continuing these traditions, which are extremely time consuming is a challenge, and if little practiced appeal to young people, which is why they need supplementary support.
    However in response to the idea that these pursuits are trivial I would like to share the idea behind a program I saw a number of years ago exploring design: It is easy to forget that everything we use was designed by someone. And the marriage of beauty and function gives everyone pleasure. I have spent my whole life defending being an artist and valuing the arts. But we need all of our talents in the Sciences as well as the Arts to keep this world alive. March 8, 2020 at 1:54am Reply

    • Fleurycat: I meant to say: of little practical appeal. March 8, 2020 at 1:58am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for your thoughts. I agree wholeheartedly. By the way, when I was in Cambodia a couple of years ago, I met a family of Kashmiri artisans who moved there and established a shop in Siem Reap reproducing Kashmiri embroideries.
      I also reject the idea of art being optional, especially when I see it being used an excuse by the politicians to cut educational programs, art events, and other things that enlighten and bring joy to people. My early years took place in circumstances that for most people in Western Europe would be characterized as poor, and yet we would economize on the basics, but always save money to buy books and go to the theater. Perhaps for this reason I remember mostly positive things from my childhood. March 12, 2020 at 8:25am Reply

  • Fleurycat: Cursed auto-correct:?Wear jeans, of course! March 8, 2020 at 1:56am Reply

  • Ruth Susarla: I have bought a couple of Kashmiri shawls in Hyderabad ,India in an Exhibition of Indian Handicrafts and Handlooms.They are extremely beautiful March 8, 2020 at 5:55am Reply

  • Fleurycat: Victoria:
    Thank you so much for your reply. I’m sorry I missed the Kashmiri embroidery in Siem Reap.
    You always shine light on so many things I value. My father was a professor in the Sciences, but he always exposed us to books (weekly trips to the public library), music, art, dance and other cultural events. It was highly influential. Because he taught at a large University and there were many foreign students there were some really interesting events. Our Japanese Babysitter taught us how to fold Origami. We did the same with our daughters. They sat through classical Indian music concerts and heard world music from a young age. The Arts enrich our lives, regardless of the direction your life takes. Anyone who denies this suffers from a paucity of imagination. March 12, 2020 at 10:52am Reply

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