Cashmere shawls were first introduced in Europe around the late 1700s. Joan Hart, a textile expert of today, wrote:
“The artist Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun first noted the shawls at a party in 1795 in St. Petersburg where she entertained her guests with “tableaux vivants” using cashmere shawls as props. … The shawls were already being shipped far and wide during the eighteenth century. And like the chintz production of the Coromandel Coast, the shawls were designed for specific areas: for example, Persians loved the striped shawls, Russians loved the long shawls.”
France was the first to embrace the Kashmir shawl craze and it began after Napoleon Bonaparte and his men brought cashmere shawls to their wives around the time of his Egyptian Campaign. Once introduced “a furor sprung up among the women of the Empire, and no toilet was considered complete without the graceful folds of an oriental shawl.” Even the Empress Josephine was smitten by the lovely shawl and was alleged to have possessed between 60 to 400 of them, although “it is said (the authority being Mde. de Remusat) that one of the many weaknesses of the Emperor Napoleon was that he never wished to see the same shawl twice on the shoulders of his empress, and on more than one occasion in a rough manner tore the repeated shawl from her shoulders and dashed it in the fire.”
These lovely shawls originated from a region called Kashmir but spelled by Englishmen Cashmere. The shawls contained fine, soft, and delicate wool provided by goats, which was defined in an 1885 glossary as, “Textile fabric, made of the downy wool at the roots of the hair of the Thibet goat; first made in the valley of C[ashmere]., in N. India.” In fact, the shawls were woven either wholly or partially from domesticated or wild goats and classified respectively as pashm shāla or aslī tūsh.
The making of the Cashmere shawls involved a myriad of people and the process required to create one was detailed in an 1892 book.
“Girls begin to spin at the age of ten, and one hundred thousand females were employed in the occupation in Cashmere. About one-tenth of the number were supposed to spin for the purpose of obtaining shawls for their own use and nine-tenths for their livelihood.”
After obtaining the yarn, it was divided by whiteness. The whiter and finer the wool the more easily it absorbed the color, which in turn also produced a more brilliant colored shawl. Therefore, because the goat’s wool was whiter it was preferred over sheep’s wool. In addition, the finest wool was used in the center and the seconds, called Phiri, was coarser and therefore used for figures and flowers because it also gave a raised look. The next step was dying, which was completed by dyers who obtained their jobs through hereditary lines.
“The dyer prepares the yarn by steeping it in cold water and professes to give sixty-four tints. Each color has a special name; for instance, the scarlet is termed Gulinar (pomegranate flower). The best red is derived from cochineal, imported from Hindustan. Logwood is used for other red dyes. Blues and greens are dyed with indigo or coloring matter extracted from European broadcloths by boiling.”
Safflower, a thistle-like annual, and saffron (a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocus) were grown in the provinces. They provided the various tints needed to produce orange and yellow colors, along with one color that was a permanent vegetable dye called datisca yellow.
The earliest examples of Cashmere shawls sported plain grounds with borders or ends that featured large floral sprays, flower vases, and large cone-like ornaments. The various terms used to describe the shawls and patterns at this time are below along with a brief definition:
- Alfidar – white ground with green sprigs
- Butha – generic term for flower but applies to the large cone-like ornaments that form the most prominent part of the Pala. Each Butha also consists of three parts — the Pai (foot) that is usually a pediment of leaves, Shikam (body), and Sir (head). The head may be either erect or curved. In addition, the Thal is the network that separates the different Buthas.
- Dhour – running decoration that is situated in the inside of the Haschia and the Zanghir, enveloping the whole field.
- Doschale – long shawl
- Haschia – border at each side that runs the length of the shawl
- Jamawars – striped shawl
- Kunjbutha – corner ornaments or decorations
- Kussaba – square shawl
- Mittan – center of the shawl
- Pala – embroidery at both ends
- Poor Mittan – center of the shawl that is also covered with work
- Schamlas – shawls worn about the waist
- Zanghir – decorative chain that runs above and below the principal mass of the Pala and confines it.
Shawls had been long popular before the introduction of Cashmere ones. A history of how shawls were created and why they first became popular was provided in the Cumberland Pacquet in 1778:
“The SHAWL was imported amongst other curiosities, from Otaheite. Queen Obereria’s niece, in climbing up a bread Fruit Tree, had the misfortune to fall. … This accident occasioned the dislocation of her shoulder. To hide the deformity, which none of the College of Te-he-out-am-whu … could remove, the Prince of Kik-law-mouter-pong … engaged in mortal combat … and, with all the triumphs of that country, laid at the feet of the said Princess his pocket-handkerchief, stained with blood. … She, as an acknowledgement of her esteem, threw it over her shoulders, and appeared in all public places … with it. It became a prevailing fashion there.”
Once the Kashmir shawl began to appear, it made a popular fashion statement and before long the demand for them would become insatiable. To demonstrate the shawl’s popularity, I’ve provided a poem published in late 1700s that shows how women could be seen everywhere wearing the colorful article:
- “Down to the rump each lady hangs
- A rage of twenty shades;
- Brown, green and yellow, red and white,
- For widows, wives, and maids.
- Thus, like peacock gaily drest,
- From Street to street they crawl,
- While every passenger exclaims,
- ‘Lord bless us! what a Shawl!’
- ‘D—d frightful, or d—d fine!’ they cry;
- A different tale I sing;
- Frightful or fine it matters not;
- —The Shawl is — quite the Thing.”
Poems were not the only thing that demonstrated the popularity of Kashmir shawls. Hart maintains:
“From 1780 to 1830, there is a sudden profusion of portraits of women throughout Europe with Kashmir shawls wrapped around them. … An artist who could skillfully depict a face and a shawl design was able to make a living. After the French Revolution, women stopped wearing the brocade and damask heavy dresses of the eighteenth century. They adopted a simple muslin dress, with empire waist and with a long draped skirt. Because their shoulders were exposed in these dresses, the shawls were a welcome wrap to keep them warm, and they added color which conjured the warm and sunny Orient.”
Among some of the artworks that show cashmere shawls is a portrait completed by French artist Jean-Baptiste Isabey. He was a student of the famous Jacques-Louis David and produced what is called “The Grand Staircase of the Musée Napoleon.” This painting was created between 1804 and 1814. It shows two elegantly dressed woman wrapped in shawls standing before an Indian gentleman dressed in his best finery. In particular, the green shawl is detailed and that is perhaps why Isabey served for several years as a designer for French shawls.
Some other examples of cashmere shawls is an oil painting of a German Princess completed by the Flemish painter François Kinson. He finished the painting in 1828 and it shows a white shawl with an intricate pattern. Shown above is also the famous socialite Madame Récamier wrapped in a cashmere shawl as she lounges on a chair. In addition, there is also a famous lithograph from 1802 that depicts French women dressed in a variety of shawls and wearing them in different ways. Of these varying ways La Belle Assemblée noted in 1806:
“Large shawls of silk or mohair were also much worn, and in various shapes; some in the form of a flowing mantle, appending from the shoulders, with a hood; others à la Turque; others again square. But the most elegantly simple style of either the shawl or Egyptian mantle that arrested the fancy, were those of plain or japanned white muslin, with a large Egyptian border of deep green, in tambour or embroidery.”
The making of a Kashmir shawl with an intricate pattern could take months or even years to complete. Therefore, to fill the extraordinary demand for these shawls, imitations were attempted. Initially, however, Kashmir shawls had a distinctive smell that could not be copied, but once it was learned that patchouli was the secret scent, it was added to the imitation shawls and sometimes sold as the real thing.
Imitations were manufactured in Norwich, an historic city in Norfolk, from about the late eighteenth century until about the 1870s. Paisley shawls were also woven in Paisley, Renfrewshire, resulting in the traditional paisley pattern. According to the Metropolitan Museum, “To ensure that the latest India designs reached Paisley first, agents in London copied shawls as soon as a ship arrived from the East, and promptly sent the drawings on to Scotland. Paisley also pirated successful Norwich patterns, and by 1830 Norwich was beginning to suffer from the competition.”
Advertisements for imitation shawls also appeared regularly in newspapers. Here is a typical advertisement that a person might see in 1803.
“P.J. KNIGHTS, Norwich and Cashmere Shawl-Manufacturer to her Majesty.
P.J.K. takes the liberty of informing his Friends and the Public in general that having received a supply of Cashmere Yarn (the same material from which the real India Shawls are made) he perfumes, from the superior mode of English Manufacturing, to produce a Shawl Cloth by no means inferior to the real India Shawls, and Patterns to correspond; which are now ready for sale at his Shawl Warehouse, No. 4., Gentleman’s Walk, Norwich, where he requests the favour of the Ladies inspection of the above Shawls, and any others received that be immediately executed on any Cloth or Pattern from 2 to 20 guineas.”
The demand for the shawls remained high and production continued to increase into the 1830s and 1840s. Kashmir shawl suppliers could not provide enough shawls to meet the high demand. Moreover, because of the shawls’ popularity, in 1844, the French Industrial Exposition had among its many displays, shawls of all kinds. This exhibit opened in the Champs-Élysées and was held from 1 May to 29 June, and the shawl displays was described as one of the most visited and “most splendid” exhibits at the exposition.
One likely reason shawls were included, was, as exposition literature put it, “the [shawl is perhaps the] most universal article of dress in the world, and, from its extreme beauty, is an object of admiration of all countries.” In addition, the exposition was covered by The Art Journal, which mentioned a M. Rosset, who had visited India and maintained a monopoly on shawls in the Punjab area. Of his display it was noted:
“A M. Rosset … exhibited both in fineness of texture and brilliancy of colour, fully equalled the best products of Asia, and far surpassed them in exquisite and tasteful designs. … His success is unrivalled; and not oriental sovereign could display shawls of more exquisite material and richer colour than those which he displayed. … Not be limited by space in his own warerooms, he was enabled to display there to great advantage his varied productions, from the cheapest shawl to the richest Cashmire; and there was scarcely in Paris any exhibition which better merited a visit.”
Throughout the 1850s more expositions were held. Paris, London, and Vienna held them and all included shawl exhibitions because of its high popularity. However, by that time, of all the imitation shawls being manufactured, those in France were declared to be the finest imitations. This resulted in French manufacturer’s attempting to distinguish their products from other imitations by signing and stamping their shawls with notes about prizes that they won at expositions or competitions.
When Paris held its 1867 Universal Exposition shawls remained popular and continued to be highlighted. Of course, the most popular and finest shawls were still those made in the “oriental Eden” of Kashmir. However, although such shawls might be the finest, French imitations were declared to be second in “importance” and “interest.” A description of these fine imitations stated:
“The French Cashmere has none of the softness of the India; it has a smooth, firm texture, hard and cloth-like to the touch without the knottiness of the hand-worked Cashmerian, and the folds which it makes are more angular; but the designs are very beautiful and the colors exceedingly brilliant and varied.”
As manufactured imitations achieved greater success it affected Kashmir weavers. Traditional designs were either replaced or adapted for European tastes and the Kashmir weavers found they could not compete and were forced to produce shawls of less quality and to imitate paisley designed shawls. These changes along with global issues nearly caused the collapse of the Kashmir shawl industry by 1870.
Nonetheless, the Kashmir shawl that started it all survived for a time. European woman remained fascinated by it and it was still in demand in the 1880s. The Greenlock Advertiser noted of Kashmir shawls at that time:
“A very curious change noticeable in ladies dress as the summer season closes … is the reappearance of the Indian Cashmere shawl. It is now seen everywhere during the cool evenings at the château, and visiting, travelling, and sporting. Parisian ladies wear them at weddings, visites obligatories, or in any other circumstance which may, in spite of the season bring them back to the capital. The Cashmeres of the Campagnie des Indes are now becoming the fashion of the day. All ladies and their admirers admit that a Cashmere shawl is the most rich, elegant, and becoming part of a toilette; but fashion is so exacting that they could not decline to wear the horrible ulsters, smock frocks, manteaux, and great coats, lately invented to make them look like ugly men. An Indian Cashmere is one of the principal items of the corbeille de mariage, and it is a great vexation for the young bride to have to abstain from wrapping herself in its rich folds merely to obey la mode. Ladies being of course, more elegant now than in former years, instead of wearing their shawls in the old style, have them turned into elegant mantles, and burnous, which display their graceful shape while retaining its Asiatic and tasteful appearance.”
Unfortunately, the demand for shawls would not last. The colorful soft shawl continued to decline in popularity throughout the late 1800s. Sir Walter Roper Lawrence, an English author who served in the Indian Civil Service, mentioned its slow demise in 1895:
“The shawl industry is now unfortunately a tradition – a memory of the past. The trade received its deathblow when war broke out between Germany and France in 1870, and I have been told by an eye-witness of the intense excitement and interest with which the Kashmiri shawl-weavers watched the fate of France in that great struggle – bursting into tears and loud lamentations when the news of Germany’s victories reached them.”
-  J. Hart, “Kashmir Shawls: The Perfect Exemplar of a Textile Shaping and Being Shaped,” Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings Textile Society of America.,
-  M. R. King, Old Cashmere Shawls: How They are Made and why the Art is Lost (Cincinnati: R. Clarke, 1892), p. 6.
-  M. R. King. 1892, p. 6.
-  H. P. Smith, Glossary of Terms and Phrases (London: K. Paul, Trench, 1885), p. 103.
-  M. R. King. 1892, p. 13,
-  M. R. King. 1892, p. 13.
-  Cumberland Pacquet, and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser, “To the Printers of the Cumberland Pacquet,” October 13, 1778, 4
-  Cumberland Pacquet, and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser, “For the Cumberland Pacquet,” October 6, 1778, p. 4.
-  J. Hart
-  La Belle Assemblée v. 1, pt. 1 (London: J. Bell, 1806), p. 280.
-  “Kashmir to Paisely,” Metropolitan Bulletin, p. 121.
-  Norfolk Chronicle, “Saturday, Jan. 29,” January 29, 1803, p. 2.
-  Reports of the United States Commissioners to the Paris Universal Exposition, 1867: 1 v. 1 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1870), p. 108.
-  The Art Journal v. 6 (London: Virtue and Company, 1844), p. 246.
-  Reports of the United States Commissioners to the Paris Universal Exposition, 1867, p. 108–9.
-  Greenock Advertiser, “The Cashmere Shawl,” September 25, 1880, p. 3.
-  W. R. Lawrence, The Valley of Kashmír (London: H. Frowde, 1895), p. 375.