The history of pashmina goes back centuries to the times of sultans and emperors.
Kashmir shawls were famous in the times of Emperor Ashok (3rd century BC) but Sultan Zain-Ul-Abidin (1420-1470 A.D) was the initiator of the shawl industry in Kashmir. Sultan’s rule encouraged the promotion of arts as an organized trade and the “Pashmina” or “Peshmina”, or in Persian “Pashm”, is a legacy of that period. At the time of Mughal rule in India, Kashmir overtook the North-West Frontier and Punjab as the centre of shawl making. The Mughal emperor Akbar was greatly impressed by the Kashmiri shawl and the way it was worn, folded in four, captured his imagination. He experimented with various ways of wearing it and found that it looked good worn without folds, just thrown over the shoulder.
Akbar encouraged the weavers to try new motifs, and also started the fashion of the twin shawl, where two identical shawls were sewn back to back, hiding the rough edges of tapestry weave and giving the impression of a single, reversible shawl. The royal shawls were richly embellished with precious metals and stones. Incredibly soft, and painstakingly crafted, few samples of these shawls have survived to date and are treated as priceless heirlooms.
Akbar’s successors too patronized the shawl industry in the valley, but the Afghan rule that followed the Mughal rule almost wiped out this industry of intricate craftsmanship. The Afghan governor Haji Dad Khan (1776-83) imposed such heavy taxes on the shawl industry that the artisans were forced to quit their professions.
Following the Afghan harassment and the great famine in Kashmir many weavers moved to the Punjab in north western India, where time and again attempts had been made to establish a successful shawl industry.
The centre of shawl making shifted to Amritsar. Other towns in the Punjab also developed their own ‘Kashmiri’ shawl industry due to the migration of the Kashmiri workers. Ludhiana developed as a major shawl weaving centre.
The wool for all of this was brought all the way from Kashmir but, somehow, the shawls woven there were no match to the original masterpieces from Kashmir.
The greatest boost to the Kashmiri Shawl industry was received during the British Raj. Impressed by the Kashmiri shawls, the British took piece after piece back home where they found a willing market. One particular Indian design was taken to Scotland and manufactured in a town called Paisley; the popular Paisley print has its origin in these Kashmiri shawls.
The fame of Kashmiri shawls spread to France too, and portraits of the period often show ladies wearing these colourful shawls with beautiful motifs.
Their tremendous popularity abroad ushered in enduring fame for the Kashmiri shawls.