Getting the Rough End

  • Shah Uzrat
  • Publish Date: May 26 2017 8:15PM
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  • Updated Date: May 26 2017 8:15PM
Getting the Rough End

How the mushrooming of power looms affects Kashmir’s traditional Pashmina industry


Muhammed Shafi, 63, inherited the craft of Pashmina shawl weaving from his father. It is a vocation that has sustained the family for generations. Now, though, the mushrooming of mechanised looms threatens their livelihood.

“The income my father earned from this trade was enough for a decent living. That encouraged me to take up the craft and, gradually, I became quite enthusiastic about it,” says Shafi, who has been in the trade for over 30 years now.

By the time Shafi started to earn handsomely, however, mechanised looms were already making hand-woven shawls unviable. “The machines proved a setback to our trade. Now earning a good amount is a dream for us,” Shafi rues.

Pashmina shawl weaving is a uniquely exquisite craft of Kashmir. Pashmina, as the name indicates, is wool obtained from the Pashmina Goat. Traditionally, the wool is spun into yarn on a spinning wheel by women; the yarn is woven on handloom.

“The Pashmina shawl represents the splendid and luxurious culture of Kashmir all over the world,” says the cultural historian and critic Zareef Ahmed Zareef.

Only now, the craft may be losing its authenticity as competition from power looms is fast rendering manual shawl weaving near unprofitable. Shafi explains why: “It takes up to two months to produce a shawl on a handloom, while the machines produce ten shawls a day. Obviously, the market favours those who work at a rabbit’s pace.”

That’s not all, however. More worryingly, power looms are reportedly churning out fake Pashmina shawls by the hundreds.

The impact of the mechanisation of their craft has been so profound, Shafi claims, that nearly 100 artisans in his Khaiwan neighbourhood in Narwara, Srinagar, have abandoned the occupation in the past few years. “The women who would spin the wool are now hardly found anywhere.”

Shafi says they have been protesting for four years to press their demand for a ban on electronic looms, but “our woes are falling on the deaf ears”.

“We want the government to completely ban this fake shawl generating industry, as it is gradually eating away our tradition, our source of income and our skill,” he says.

To check production of fake Pashmina shawls, the Jammu and Kashmir government had, in 2008, installed a Graphical Indication testing lab at the Craft Development Institute in Srinagar. Artisans could have their shawls labelled with a unique mark certifying the piece’s authenticity and identifying its maker.

“In this lab, we are supposed to label 300 plus shawls per month but only 30-40 shawls are labelled because people aren’t aware about this unique identification mark,” says Younis Farooq, Manager, Pashmina Testing and Qualification Certification Center.

Also, artisans are reluctant to test the purity of their shawls, Younis adds, “because few people today have real pieces”.

“Hardly ten per cent people must be having real Pashmina because even the material for weaving the shawl is not pure. The manufactures usually purchase the material from China and Mangolia, which is very cheap and of low quality,” Younis adds.

Today, nearly 95 per cent of Pashmina shawls are made on mechanised looms. Most of these machines won’t weave Pashmina yarn unless it is mixed with other fabrics. Usually, nylon is added to lengthen the Pashmina yarn and the mixture is treated with hydrochloric acid to thicken the thread; silica is used as a softening agent.

“Machine-made shawls have a lifespan of up to ten years because of the presence of other fabrics like nylon. They affect the quality of the shawl and it loses its softness with every wash,” says Zameer Syead, coordinator of PTQCC. “The unique feature of a real Pashmina shawl is that it grows softer by the day, and it can last as long as the universe.”

Is there a way to preserve the authenticity of the Pashmina shawls in the age of the power loom? “The government has to plan a campaign to make artisans as well as customers aware of the GI labels so that people are able to check for themselves whether a shawl is authentic,” argues Rouf Ahmed Qureshi of Narwara who happens to be a former president of the Kashmir Karigari Union from Narwara.

As for banning mechanised looms, that may not be wise, reasons Nazim Khan, the state’s director of Industries and Commerce. There are at least 45 registered power looms which together employ 40-odd people, he says. “If we shut all these units, then we will stop progressing. Power looms do not only help meet the market demand, but also create avenues for employment generation.”

That, however, does not mean that power looms have a free run. The state’s Handloom Development Department monitors them, at least the ones that helps set up. “We identify handloom beneficiaries who are in need and provide them new looms, or incentives for modernisation of looms,” says an informed official from Handloom Development Department.

“We have also organised them in cooperatives and developed websites where they can directly sell their products with detailed information,” he said. “This eliminates the role of middlemen who exploit these artisans.”