We are located in Thamel in Nepal just outside Kathmandu, where we are is on company visits at CASHMERE CULTURE who manufactures original pashmina shawls and scarves.
Where does it come from: a brief history of Pashmina Wool
Pashmina, or cashmere, is a remarkably practical use of an animal by-product that would otherwise be unused. Each year, the mountain goats known as changra in the Nepali language, shed their fur in preparation for the heat of the summer months. Out on the remote locations where the goat farmers make their home, the goats are carefully brushed during this moulting season, and before the precious fur can be lost, it is collected and gathered for use. It’s a slow, painstaking process, as is much that goes into the making of a fine pashmina shawl or stole, but it is sustainable, and ensures that this industry will continue to both produce beautiful things and provide employment to the many local people who depend on it, for many years to come.
This hair, or fur, is where it all begins. While the mountain goat does live in Nepal, and there are farms in the far-flung districts of Mustang and Manang, the majority of the wool used in this factory originates primarily from Inner Mongolia, and from there it is usually processed in China, where there are machines more amply suited to cleaning, refining, and transforming the delicate fibre into a useable wool thread. I am shown two rolls of wool thread: the Nepali one is coarser, more uneven, and—though I cannot see it—I am told there are tiny pieces of dandruff scattered throughout. Nepal simply lacks the machines for thorough cleaning and fine spinning. Some customers do request the Nepali wool, which makes for a more rustic product, an effect which can be desirable. The rolls of creamy coloured thread from China, by contrast, are smooth and even, clean and blemish free. When I am shown two shawls, one made of each wool, it is easy to spot the difference, even to my untrained eye.
After the wool is combed, it is twisted into thread—in Nepal, this is done by hand, but again, it results in a more uneven, less reliable product: hence, the wool used here is generally bought from China already spun into fine thread of a consistent gauge. The wool used at this factory is generally 16 microns, and there’s also the fascinating factor of TPM to account for—twists per metre. The raw fabric of pashmina is highly breakable, but it becomes stronger by twisting, and while a higher TPM makes the thread and resulting shawls more durable, a lower TPM produces a finer, more delicate and soft product, which while beautiful and desirable is also, however, easily breakable. The employees here put to use all their learned skills and considerable years of experience to ensure that a perfect balance is struck—a middle twist, as they explained it to me—so that the end result is an item that is both soft and delicate, but also durable and useable, a quality product that can last for many years with proper care, as some of my pashmina shawls have. Properly twisted wool also means that the end product will not get that pilling that comes from using one of inferior quality. The standard twist on the rolls they purchase from China is 200 twists per metre. It’s an amazing degree of precision and attention to detail that runs through the whole production process.
Skilled craftsmen and machines from the past
The courtyard is filled with sunlight, and creamy, undyed pashmina shawls are fluttering in the wind. I’ve just entered through the gate of the newly built factory, as the previous location was damaged in the April 2015 earthquake, and it was necessary to move the whole operation to a new building.
Inside, the rooms and open spaces are bright, clean, and well organized. I’ve visited many factories during my time in Nepal, but this one, though small, seems a positive place.
A large, open room forms the centerpiece of the factory: it is filled with contraptions that look like something out of a lost time. They are machines, operated by foot and hand, that weave and spin and turn these impossibly thin threads into something strong and beautiful. But first, to a side room, where three women are sitting, spinning the thread from the large rolls onto small bobbins that slide through the weaving looms. They use a simple machine to accomplish this, an ingeniously repurposed bicycle wheel and chain mounted on a specially constructed steel frame. Why make something complicated if something easy will work? The empty bobbins lie scattered around their feet, and in front of them, a bowl full of neatly filled ones. It’s simple, but it works.
In the large room there is a huge wheeled contraption that fills the larger bobbins, dozens at a time, which form the base cross threads on the loom—what the women are filling are the smaller ones that the weavers will handle, tossing back and forth across the clicking machines.
These weaving looms are hand and foot powered, simply because this is the way it has always been done, though when reflecting on it later, I realize that nearly everything in the factory—with the exception of the ironing and use of lights—is done without the need for electricity. While this may have something to do with the scrupulousness of the craftspeople in their desire follow traditional methods, it is also supremely practical in a country where the electricity can be, and often is, switched off for up to twelve to fourteen hours a day.
Kumar Shrestha has been a weaver for at least ten years. His expertise is apparent, though the other young men weaving, who appear to be in their twenties, are also doing an excellent job. A series of complicated holes punched into sheets determine the predetermined final pattern, the end design. Stripes or check—it all starts here. The noise is fairly loud, but rhythmic, and almost seems to have a music of its own in the repetitious clicking and clacking. While working, the men display an unbroken concentration as they focus on the finely tuned machines in front of them. Kumar adjusts the gears on the side of the machine as he weaves a delicate herringbone pattern, while the tuki—or bobbin—slides back and forth under his experienced fingers. It’s fascinating to watch and somehow it makes me happy to know that in these days of high-end technology and modern robotics, there are still those who put time and effort into practicing an ancient and time honored craft with such a beautiful and long-lasting result.
So Many Details go into the Final Product!
After the roll of completed fabric is removed from the machine, it is taken to another room where there are women seated, carefully examining rolls of freshly woven pashmina under lights mounted on a special frame. They are checking each inch of the fabric for flaws or holes, and carefully repairing any found, by hand, with needle and thread. It’s slow, painstaking work; yet essential to guarantee the final quality of the finished product. As of yet, the shawls have not been cut into individual pieces yet, though you can see the demarcation for that, that when cut will become the tassels or fringe on the edge of the finished piece. The pieces will never be “perfect,” I’m told, but they will get as close to it as is humanly possibly. In fact, after the dyeing is finished there is even a second mending check.
After the mending room, the shawls, now cut into their individual pieces, go to be washed and dyed. For something so delicate, it’s surprising to see them boiling vigorously in large pots, like a supernatural brew in a cauldron. The young women are stirring the large boiling pots that hold both the shawls and the chosen dye, if any—some are kept in their natural colourings, according to the wool. I’m amazed that something so I consider so delicate can be boiled hard and stirred so. Another woman is carefully rolling up a beautiful blue piece out of its pot and onto a cylinder: this process, I am told, results in the beautiful gradations of colour found in some shawls. I’m in awe. – Both of the skill I am seeing all around me, and the relative simplicity of the techniques used to create such beautiful things.
Outside near the large pots is also the factory’s resident chemist, who blends dyes and pigments together just so, to produce the beautiful and vibrant colours needed for the dyeing process.
After the shawls are dried on the clotheslines in the bright sun, they are brought to another room for careful ironing; amazingly, the average weight of a shawl produced here is a mere 56 grams.
Finally we move to the last station in the factory, where Saraswoti Rai sews on the labels by hand and Rama Ghimire carefully packages each one up. These women are the final step in a journey that began with goats munching grass on faraway mountainsides. And again, as at each stage in the process, the pieces are painstakingly checked for flaws or defects, to ensure that only pashmina that is as good as it can possibly get is shipped on to its final destination.
As I prepare to leave, I feel unexpectedly privileged—there are several beautiful pieces of pashmina that I have owned for many years now, but now I have an appreciation for the time-honored process and effort that went into making them that I never had before. Now, I can appreciate their quality, beauty and durability with a whole new depth of understanding. It’s not just a piece of cloth, but something that with proper care and respect can last your lifetime or beyond. So much went into its making—fifty-one people work in this factory alone, and are integral to production, and that doesn’t count the farmers—having a pashmina in my possession is not just a joy, but an honour.