Cashmere Shawl



Cashmere shawl"Cashmere Shawl: A garment capable of appearing the most feminine and graceful in the world."


The cashmere shawl is of a very soft fabric made from the wool of the Cashmere goat. The pashmina shawl is of the highest quality made from the pashmina goat from Kashmir, India. Its fleece has been used for thousands of years to make the highest quality of shawls called pashminas.


We scarcely know a truer test of a gentlewoman’s taste in dress than her selection of a Cashmere shawl, and her manner of wearing it: and yet if the truth must be owned, it is the test from which few Englishwomen come with triumph.  Generally speaking, the Cashmere shawl is not their forte, in fact they are rather afraid of it. They acknowledge its comfort and convenience for the open carriage, or the sea-side walk, but rarely recognize it for what it is, a garment capable of appearing the most feminine and graceful in the world. They are too often oppressed by a heap of false notions on the subject of Cashmere shawls; have somehow an idea that a Cashmere shawl is old or dowdy ; and yet have a dim comprehension that the costly shawls which they more frequently hear of than see, must have some unimagined merits to prove an excuse for their price.      

Cashmere shawl

It was not until quite the close of the last century, that Cashmere shawls were prized in Europe. Travelers' tales had mentioned them, it is true, but that was before the locomotive age, and when travelers were few, and traveling unspeakably tedious; when soldiers went to India to hold and increase their country's territory; when a few traders made princely fortunes; but when every system of interchange was narrow and exclusive, and people were taught to be content with clumsy common wares, instead of raising them to excellence by the spur of competition.

It is said that in the year 1787, the ambassadors of Tippoo Saib left behind them at Paris a few Cashmere shawls- intended as gracious presents we presume- but which were regarded solely as curiosities, and not even much esteemed in that capacity, for we learn that they were employed as dressing-gowns, and even used for carpeting! Not till after Napoleons expedition to Egypt did the Cashmere shawl they become the rage; and a solid good resulted from that campaign in the introduction of a fabric destined to be the model of one of the most famous.

Cashmere shawl

Madame Emile Gaudin, a Greek lady and a reigning beauty, is reputed to have first worn a Cashmere shawl in Paris; but if we know any thing of the "Consuls Wife," or the "Empress Josephine," she was not very far behind, for her love of Cashmere shawls was next to her love of flowers, as more than one anecdote might be called in to testify. What scenes this history of an inanimate object conjures up to the minds eye. These leaders of fashion when the old century went out on the young Republic of France , whose Master was already found- who were they? The wives of men who were working out the destiny of Europe , guided by a chief who, be he judged for good or evil, looms on the page of history in giant proportions!   

As we have said, the Cashmere shawl became the rage. The farce of pretended equality in France was acted out, and the curtain dropped on it in preparation for quite a different tableau; people no longer risked their lives by dressing elegantly, and it was not now expected that the soubrette, the blanchisseuse, or the poissonniere should dress precisely the same as the lady of a general officer. There was wealth, too, in the land, and the enormous sums demanded for these Cashmere shawls were readily forthcoming. Sums equivalent to two or three hundred pounds of our money were commonly paid even for soiled worn Cashmere shawls, which had done duty as turbans to Mogul soldiers, or girded a Bayadere's waist, or been the sacerdotal garment of an idolatrous priest- and had very frequently been thus used by more than one generation. It is true, the durability of the fabric and the lasting properties of the dyes, permitted the cleansing of these Cashmere shawls with scarcely perceptible injury or deterioration, but still it was only the intrinsic merit of the thing, which could have overcome the natural repugnance which the known or suspected history of a Cashmere shawl must in many instances have occasioned. The Levant traders had now large commissions, and the result was that new Cashmere shawls were soon more easily procurable, but still bearing an enormous price.

A brief description of the manufacture of Cashmere  shawls will show how it is that they never can be cheap. The wool of the Thibet goat is the finest in the world, and for the best shawls only the finest even of this wool is used. The animals are shorn once a year, and a full-grown goat only produces about eight ounces of wool of this first quality. There is every reason to suppose that the climate has very much to do with the perfection of the animal, for attempts to naturalize it elsewhere have all more or less failed. 

Cashmere shawl

The loom on which a Cashmere shawl is woven is of the rudest and most primitive description- the warp being supported by two sticks, and the woof entirely worked in by the human hand. This slow laborious process permits a neatness and exactness of finish beyond the power of any machinery to rival; and when we take into account a life-long practice in the art, and- remembering the Hindu "castes," which usually limit a family to the exercise of a single craft- in most instances the family secrets and traditions which have been preserved, we cease to wonder at the perfection of the work. These Asiatic weavers, temperate in their habits and readily contented, receive a wage of from three-halfpence to two pence a day; but if their wants more nearly approximated to those of an European laborer, what would an Indian Cashmere shawl be worth, when we are informed that from thirty to forty men have sometimes been employed from eighteen months to two years in the manufacture of a single shawl!  There is something very kindling to the imagination in the thought of these swarthy weavers, attired perhaps in our Manchester calicoes, laboring patiently for weeks and months to produce a fabric worthy of rank and royalty, without other than most vague or false ideas of the scenes in which their work will be displayed.   


The borders of these Cashmere shawls are made in several pieces- sometimes as many as from ten to twenty, and are afterward sewn together to form the pattern; and by the border an Indian shawl may always be recognized from a French or Paisley one, however close an imitation the latter may appear. Every stitch of the border of the Indian shawl being worked by the hand is distinct in itself, and may be pulled out- though it is not very easily detached- without further injury to the fabric; whereas the shawl made on a French or British loom has the border formed in one piece, whence a long thread may at any time be readily drawn.

Cashmere shawl

Indeed there is no surer test by which a lady may know a veritable Cashmere shawl, than by examining the border- but if she have a fine eye for color this faculty will also assist her. The preparation of the dyes which the Hindus use is still a secret, of which they are very chary, removing their operations to a distance whenever they have reason to dread inquisitive lookers on. But the result in their fabrics is perceived in the peculiar richness and clearness of their hues, and at the same time absence of glare; the reds, blues, and greens, reminding one more of the harmonious tints of old stained glass than anything else.

London is now one of the chief marts for Cashmere shawls. It may not be generally known that London dealers send quantities of shawls to France , America , Russia , and even Turkey , a convincing proof of the enterprise of British merchants. They supply many other foreigners, especially finding a market among them for the gold embroidered shawls, which are frequently worn on state occasions at foreign courts. The duty on Cashmere shawls is now only about five per cent. Twice a year there are public sales, to which dealers are invited by catalogues sent to Paris and other continental cities.

One of the great merits of a Cashmere seems that it is really never out of date- and when, comparing even the old pine patterns with the large long shawls, the rich borders of which sweep in graceful flowing lines into the very center, we feel that they are still "of one family," and hold together- if the comparison be not too fanciful- rich and poor, in right clannish fashion.  Some of the most modern and most costly Cashmere shawls resemble in pattern that of the long French Cashmere, simply however because the French have copied the Indian design. 


The gold and silver thread employed for the embroidery of Cashmere shawls is usually prepared in the following manner; and the chief seat of the manufacture is at Boorhampoor, a city of the Deccan . A piece of the purest ore is beaten into a cylindrical form about the size of a thick reed, and then beaten out in length until it will pass through an orifice the eighth of an inch in diameter; it is drawn through still finer perforations until it is reduced to the proportion of a bobbin thread. 

Now a different plan is pursued; the wire already produced is wound upon several reels which work upon pivots, the ends of the thread being passed through still finer holes, and then affixed to a large reel which is set rapidly in motion and still further attenuates the threads. It is afterward flattened on an anvil of highly polished steel, by a practiced and dexterous workman; and by an ingenious process, a silk thread is afterward plated, or sheathed as it were by this minute wire. It is asserted that if a lump of silver be gilt in the first instance before being drawn into wire, it will retain the gilding through all the subsequent hard usage of hammering, winding, and drawing to which it is subjected, coming out to the very last a gilded thread. It is easy to understand that gold and silver thread of this pure description, unlike tinsel finery, it is not liable to tarnish.  

China crape is made entirely of silk, and that Cashmere shawls manufactured of it are generally costly in proportion to the richness of the pattern. The foundation or ground of the Cashmere shawl is chiefly made at Nankin, and then sent to Canton to be embroidered. The pattern is formed by two "needlemen," who work together, the one passing the silk down, and the other from beneath passing it up, while a third workman changes the silk for them when necessary. Thus the apparent marvel of equal neatness on both sides is accounted for, by the explanation of this simple method; but we have quite failed, from examination of the work, to detect the process of fastening on and off; with such mysterious ingenuity is this needful operation performed China crape shawls have been very fashionable of late years, and almost defying vulgar imitation, are little likely to fall into disrepute.

From: Harper's Magazine, December 1850