The superfine cashmere shawl is a lifesaver in every moment of your travel: to keep you warm under the plane's freezing air conditioning, to wipe your eyes while watching a heart-wrenching movie, to hide from a former date you accidently bumped into at the gate. Not to mention, the touch of class that a beautiful cashmere throw adds to the basic little black dress you always pack.
Never out of season, always in our bag, the word ‘Pashmina’ comes from the Persian term ‘pashm’ (meaning wool), and the real Pashmina wool comes from the Changthangi goats of the Himalayas. The goats, which live in a cold environment, developed a protective skin and wool for survival.
The history of the pashmina
1. The cashmere wool industry dates back to pre 14th-century Persia
Only small communities in Nepal and across Persia crafted the woollen scarves until the late 14th-century when the poet and scholar Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani introduced Himalayan goats’ wool to Kashmir, where the word ‘cashmere’ comes from. Their wool is extra thick to insulate them from the cold weather in the mountains.
Hamadani helped develop a weaving industry in Kashmir. The ruler of Kashmir, Zain-ul-Abidin, also had an important role to play: he introduced weavers with more advanced techniques from Turkestan.
2. Napoleon Bonaparte’s 18th-century campaign in Egypt brought pashminas to Paris
The scarves reached Western Europe following the 1799-1802 French campaign in Egypt. The general-in-chief sent one back to Paris, and its popularity put plans in motion for the French fashion industry.
Bonaparte’s wife, the Empress Josephine, began wearing pashmina-style shoulder shawls, sealing their reputation as the height of fashion amongst the upper class. In particular, they would wear scarves with elaborate patterns for significant political and religious events.
3. Scotland, France and Italy were the main European cashmere manufacturers in the 19th century
In Scotland in 1830, a £300 reward was offered to the first person able to spin cashmere using the same system as the French. Captain Charles Stuart Cochrane received the prize in 1833.
He collected the information he needed on a visit to Paris in 1831. His discovery triggered the beginning of a large-scale Scottish cashmere industry after he received a patent for the process and then sold it to a manufacturing company.
4. The first commercial cashmere dehairing machine was invented in 1890
This greatly simplified the production process. These machines remove guard hairs from the material, which would make it feel too coarse and not soft enough.
In addition, the invention of the mechanised Jacquard loom rapidly accelerated the manufacturing timeline. It allowed for mass production of elegant patterns and helped increase the supply of cashmere pashminas.
5. The American Industrial Revolution secured cashmere’s global popularity
Once cashmere reached North America, its world tour was complete. Uxbridge, Massachusetts, one of the first textile centres in the Blackstone Valley, became known for its production of cashmere wool.
By the mid 20th-century, cashmere manufacturing had become a large-scale business.