Pashminas in Nepal

Features Issue 15 Aug, 2010

Somewhere back in time, a semi-frozen goatherd probably reasoned that the mountain goats must possess something more than grim determination to be able to remain apparently unaffected by cold weather. On investigation, our intrepid goat herder might have discovered the heat retaining properties of the soft fleece that grows close to the animals skin - especially around the throat and underbelly, and thus the famous Pashmina wool would have been born.

It’s hard to imagine though that the fine fabric that has adorned so many elegantly dressed folk has its origins in the rather unfriendly mountain goat. Locally known as Chyangra, trekkers in the mountainous regions of Nepal would likely have come across this species of the domesticated mountain goats, especially in the higher mid and western regions of Nepal. These mountain goats are endemic to the higher Himalayas, and are domesticated by locals throughout these regions. Despite claims and counterclaims about the origin of Pashmina and the pedigree of related material like Cashmere, it can be noted that this fabric is an invention of the Himalayan people before political borders became so important. Thus Pashmina and Cashmere have no definite nationality. There is often a distinction in the process of production and the style of the final product. For example, a lot of Kashmiri Pashmina has embroidery work while those produced here tend to be plain but in the end, it’s a material that originated from the Himalayan regions of India, Nepal and Tibet.

In Nepal, this fabric has long been a part of local clothing, and Pashmina has been produced in the homes of local weavers for generations. It was only during the 90’s that this fabric suddenly came into prominence in the international market with several houses of fashion adopting it. The humble Pashmina that many Nepali grandmothers have used, and still use today, suddenly became the darling of the fashion world and demand soared and supply scrambled to catch up and cash in. During the 90’s, just about everyone in Kathmandu jumped into the Pashmina producing bandwagon and when fashions changed, many producers found themselves all wrapped up and nowhere to go.

The glut in production also had producers competing on prices and this resulted in a dilution in terms of quality. Within this scenario, unscrupulous producers and retailers have too often waylaid many an unwary buyer into purchasing material that was not quite value for money. The end result has been that Pashmina purchases are often fraught with uncertainties, and it does not help that the market has no quality assurance mechanisms in place, meaning that Pashmina purchases are more often than not made on trust alone. 

For starters, in its purest form, Pashmina was made from the fine wool of mountain goats, which dropped off naturally from these beasts. This extremely fine wool, which has a diameter of about 13 microns, was collected and woven into yarn using traditional spinning methods. The yarn was then woven into Pashmina products like shawls, scarves and blankets, in a process involving extensive manual labor. Nowadays however, most Pashmina commonly available in the market are a blend of cotton, silk or synthetic fibers. The price of a Pashmina item varies according to the mix of material used, but to an untrained buyer, this mix is hard to differentiate at a precise level.

Bhavana Gurung, who runs Manaslu Pashmina, is a third generation entrepreneur in her family that manufactures Pashmina products. In her grandfather’s time, she says, wool was sourced from the hides of mountain goats slaughtered for their flesh.  These hides were then washed and the wool removed by hand to grade and spin into yarn for weaving. The fine wool was spun into Pashmina, the rough wool became Rari, or a coarse woven fabric, and the leather was used for covering Muras, or small stools. Quality was easy to control then. Nowadays, with the exception of a few smaller producers, most use factory produced yarn that comes from China and consists of wool from animals farmed in Mongolia. The catch is that the yarn quality cannot be controlled as testing only tells producers what percent of the yarn is wool, but not what kind of wool it is exactly. Quality of the end product therefore rests a lot on the commitment of the producer in monitoring raw material and production process. In terms of assurance in this area, Bhavana feels that it is best to stick to producers and retailers one trusts.

Buyers must also have an idea of exactly how much they are prepared to pay and  in most cases, genuine products are reflected in the price. If its cheap, its probably not Pashmina, according to the proprietor of Manaslu Pashmina. Having said that, it also follows that just because it is expensive, it's not necessarily real, and here one needs to have a feel for the genuine product and be in the presence of reliable retailers.