How to buy a Pashmina?

pure pashmina shawls

I collect pashminas, other Eastern (and some African) shawls. So, I thought I would write a post that shared by passion for these luxury items and perhaps, give you some insight into buying them.

Pashminas were made popular by the fact that famous Parisian fashion designers started showing them in their collections in the late 1990’s. However, pashminas (and other eastern shawls) have been a part of traditional wear for centuries. They were worn by the ancient kings and queens of India and surrounding countries and are well-documented in the history of these nations. I discovered pashminas by accident. South Africa has hot days and cold nights – and I hated carrying around a jacket, hat, etc. to compensate for changes in temperature. I took one of my mum’s shawls (which she’d bought on a trip to India 29 years before) folded it and shoved it in my handbag and I was hooked. It was the perfect garment – beautiful, soft, easy-to-wear, just warm enough, covered my head in wind or rain and fitted into a handbag. And everyone remembered them. My collection now stands at 165 shawls.

So, here are a few interesting facts that I’ve learnt along the way. Don’t be intimidated by deciding how to wear a pashmina. Just do what’s comfortable. However, the traditional way is to open the shawl fully; throw it behind your shoulders just like you would a jacket before putting it on; then the trick is to move it off-center – so one side is shorter than the other, put the shorter side over your left shoulder, take the longer side across your right shoulder and throw it over your left. This creates the flattering, draped effect. If you’ve made one side longer, it will not fall off your shoulder but you can pin it with a tie pin (so that it doesn’t damage the fabric) if you want to secure it in place. Please see other ways to wear a pashmina.

Pashmina is a high-quality cashmere wool. It is of a higher quality than normal cashmere. It is obtained from the undercoat of a specific-type of goat that lives up in the mountains of the state of Kashmir, an Indian state that is disputed territory. The origins of cashmere are well-documented and I have other things to say, so don’t want to dwell on it – suffice to say they aren’t shorn like sheep but naturally shed the undercoat in summer, which is collected and hand-spun into garments.

So, if you’re buying shawls at trade shows, fairs, etc. and express an interest in the more expensive pashminas – someone is inevitably going to offer you a Shahtoosh. Shahtoosh is softer, more lush, and more luxurious than any other type of wool. It is also contraband. Contraband shawls? Really? Yes, really. Shahtoosh was banned in India in 1973 and most countries around the world followed suit soon after. This is because Shahtoosh is not obtained from goats but from antelope that live high in the mountains. They are wild – so they are hunted, killed and their wool is harvested. It’s not pleasant. I really felt awful when I put the Shahtoosh around me. Well, at first, I was impressed – but then I realized what it was and felt like I’d killed something and wrapped it around me. However, you may feel differently. I realize we use leather and silk everyday.

A ‘real’ pashmina should be made in India (Kashmir) or Nepal. It should also be 100% pashmina or 80% pashmina/20% silk or 70%/30%. Any more than that compromises the integrity of the shawl. Okay, so you should look for a label that says all of the above – however, I’ve bought many beautiful shawls that don’t say any of the above. So, how do you know? Here’s a few basics:

If its 100% pashmina, it shouldn’t have any sheen at all. Hold it up to the light and turn it a bit on both sides – if there’s a shine, it has silk in it. Remember that 100% pashmina actually looks less impressive (on first sight) than those mixed with silk but is more valuable. Silk is used to make the garment more durable, more wearable and more affordable. So, a rule of thumb is ‘the more shine, the more silk.’

Pashmina can also be mixed with less high-grade cashmere or other wools (that are not as fine). Probably, the best way to test for this (except for feel) is to use an age old test from the bazaars. You should be able to pull the entire pashmina through an average man’s wedding ring – if you can pull it through – it’s the absolute, real deal. However, these days, you do find 2 ply, 3 ply and 4 ply shawls. These are genuine Pashmina and have been made thicker for practical reasons (better protection against the cold). Whilst these pashminas are still light-weight and you should be able to tell them apart from fakes – if you are buying from a fair or stall and want to be sure you’re not getting a shawl mixed with lower grades of wool, I would stick to the one-ply.

One of the big problem is that pashmina has also become a common term to refer to any shawl-like fabric. This is a generalization of the term that detracts from the value of the original and confuses buyers. If it has viscose or polyester, it’s not a pashmina. Likewise, cotton or silk shawls are not pashmina – although they have their own appeal.

Pashmina shawls are often embroidered. Given how light-weight the original ‘ring’ pashmina is – you can imagine that the embroidery, which is also done by hand, is impossibly fine and patterns are exceptionally close. In fact, if you’ve done embroidery at school level, you will know what it involves and wonder how it’s possible for a person to make this? More interesting is that like Persian carpets, sometimes two people work on the shawl, making it even more intricate and detailed. Again, if you want the genuine, hand-woven stuff – you should check for slight imperfections. Only machines can make completely uniform stitches and machines can’t make knots at the end of threads. So, seek out imperfections – although you will have to look carefully. Some pashminas (usually bought in the more fashionable stores) are beaded.

Cashmere shawls are, of course, very beautiful. But they have their own beauty – which is different from the feel of pashmina. Many people say that cashmere is exactly the same as pashmina. Cashmere and pashmina do come from the same type of goat. However, my understanding is that it is a matter of the fineness of the wool (pashmina is 19-21 microns0, whereas cashmere is (15-20 microns). Pashmina is so fine that it can only be produced (at every stage) by hand and woven by hand. So, you will certainly find that there are differing views on the Internet. But what I can tell you is that there is a difference in grades of cashmere and you can feel it when you wrap it around your shoulders.

So, I found that I needed to have my fill of pashmina before I could move onto buying the slightly heavier cashmere shawl. I’ve found that cashmere has two advantages – it’s simpler to buy (less confusion) and it can be more extensively embroidered and herein lies its beauty. It is also hand embroidered – often across the entire shawl in beautiful and complex designs. If pashminas epitomize elegance, then cashmere shawls are a statement in style.

Water shawls are a new product, i.e. they are made from a pashmina/blend silk but are dyed and woven in a particular way. The defining characteristic of water shawls is that they are a different color on each side. They are very soft to the touch but are much shinier than traditional pashminas. I enjoy them and they do make you feel very beautiful when you wear them but they don’t have the sense of history of the pashminas and cashmere shawls.

There are also many beautiful shawls from Tibet, Nepal, India, Russia and Africa among many other parts of the world. And if you love shawls – you should explore them and not restrict yourself simply to pashminas because of their status as an item of ‘fashionistas.’


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