Srinagar, India–It was in October that Shaista Bilal, a resident of the old quarters of Srinagar in Kashmir, first heard of a spinning wheel that works by a pedal, to yarn pashmina.
The 37-year-old homemaker had for years, in her adolescence, spun raw pashmina into threads on a traditional wooden spinning wheel, called yinder in Kashmiri. On that, it would take her about two months to yarn enough pashmina for a single shawl.
Once the pashmina was ready, artisans would weave the hand-spun wool into fine-quality shawls or fabric famously known across the world as cashmere, a process that would take another week.
Shaista had given up pashmina spinning almost two decades ago when she joined college and did not resume the work after her marriage. The process of spinning pashmina was too tedious and gave little financial returns to the newlywed.
Now in need of money, Shaista went back to yarn pashmina once again, this time at Me & K, a Srinagar-based luxury international cashmere brand. There she works on the new yinder which has nearly halved the time taken to yarn about 250 grams of pashmina, the amount needed for one shawl, to about 40 days from about two months.
“There is a huge difference between the two,” Shaista told Al Jazeera sitting behind a yinder fitted with a pedal, calling it “very beneficial” as it helps her spin more pashmina in less time.
“This is very comfortable because it allows you to remain seated on a bench unlike sitting on the floor. Even the women who have backaches can freely work on this.”
That is the bet that Shaista’s employer and the state government are making – that the ease of the new yinder, a quicker turnaround and the ability to earn more will help revive the fading art of spinning pashmina by hand.
A dying business
Pashmina shawls are woven from the fleece of domesticated, high altitude Himalayan Capra hircus goats, a special species of goat found in the Himalayan range in Tibet, Ladakh and Nepal.
Spinning pashmina and shahtoosh was once a household affair in Kashmir, primarily the domain of young girls and women, and in the 1990s there were tens of thousands of women involved in the process across Kashmir, said Mahmood Shah, director of the state government’s Kashmir Handicraft and Handloom Department. But because of poor wages – one rupee per thread – most women eventually left the business and there are now only a few thousand still spinning pashmina, he said.
“This spinning [of pashmina], you can say 99 percent was done by the women here. Their contribution has been immense in the trade,” Shah told Al Jazeera.
Apart from the poor wages, competition from mechanised spinning mills in Kashmir and Punjab state also played a role in decimating the handwoven industry.
For instance, while it cost $370 to spin by hand one kilogram of pashmina, the same thing could be done for a miniscule $30 on a mechanised mill, Mujtaba Kadri, founder of Me & K, told Al Jazeera.
The resulting rise of cheap pashmina shawls decimated the handwoven industry and led to the “marginalisation of women artisans,” Shah said.
Another blow to the spinners and the weavers came in 2000 when the Indian government banned shahtoosh shawls, the most sought after for their fineness which came at a premium, following reports that Tibetan antelopes were killed for their hair.
“When the ban on shahtoosh happened, it led to some degree of marginalisation,” of the spinners, Shah said. But when the mechanical spinning machines came, “the craft reached the verge of collapse,” he added.
For instance, in the financial year ending March 2021, the state exported shawls worth 1.7 billion rupees ($23.5m), a decline of more than 70 percent from the year ending March 2013 when it exported shawls worth 6.2 billion rupees.
Now the Kashmir government is trying to change things. Apart from introducing the new yinder in October, it has also increased the rates for the hand-spinning of pashmina to 2.5 rupees a thread, up from one rupee.
“If the women do not earn a decent wage component why should they do it? Unless and until it’s lucrative for them, they will not do it,” Shah said.
The government is also working on bringing in a minimum support price, a government regulated pricing which would set the starting price for a single piece of pashmina shawl at 12,000 rupees ($160) to ensure better income for the sellers.
Both the government and the sellers are betting on the new spinning wheel to help revive the art and the business.
“This new machine is a game changer,” said Me & K’s Kadri, adding it is bringing more women back to the old traditional hand spinning of pashmina “which is a good thing for this industry.”
Kadri, who has been in the shawl trade for more than two decades and exports the hand-made wrap across the world, has trained dozens of women, including Shaista, to handle the new spinning wheels that come fitted with a pedal. So far he has provided for free 40 units to women, he said. One unit costs about $80.
The Kashmir Handicraft and Handloom Department has also set up training centres across Kashmir to train women on the new spinning wheel in order to revive the “good old days” of pashmina work.
Misbranding and GI Tag
Officials at the handicraft department are also trying to restore the premium on pashmina which cannot be spun on a machine or a loom due to its fragility, they say.
To save labour costs, some traders reinforced raw pashmina with plastic fibres allowing them to use the looms for faster production.
The shawls are then soaked in a mild acid to dissolve the plastic. “And when that happens, it leads to the shrinkage of the shawl and lint appears within six months,” Shah said. “The quality of the shawls has gone down considerably.”
The US standard for good quality cashmere is 11-18 microns of thickness. The Kashmiri handspun pashmina’s thickness is between 11-15 microns.
Government officials are also trying to restore the premium of the pashmina tag. Amritsari shawls, as the machine-spun imitation shawls are called, have affected the sales of genuine Kashmiri shawls since they are much cheaper. Several traders from Kashmir have also bought into the economics and buy cheap shawls from Amritsar, or make them on their own mechanised mills, which they sell in Kashmir at high prices like pashminas.
To fight the misbranding, the local government brought in a geographical indication (GI) tag – a form of intellectual property or certification given to certain goods or products from a specific region.
Though Kashmir started GI tagging pashmina products in 2013, it is only in the past year that government officials have stepped up their efforts on that front.
Every hand-spun and hand-woven product goes into a laboratory where its thickness, quality and material is checked under a microscope and through various other parameters.
Once a shawl is found to be both hand spun and hand woven, a tag is attached with a unique eight-digit code, which is linked to a database that shows where the shawl is from, and who has made it.
“Anyone, anywhere in the world can check through that code whether the shawl is authentic pashmina or hand made,” Mohammad Younis, an official at the Pashmina Testing and Quality Certification Center, told Al Jazeera.
Shah said that people can get machine-made shawls anywhere in the world but Kashmir’s specialisation is its skill set which needs to be protected.
“The world knows us for our skill set … We have to protect [it],” he said.