Pashmina which became Kashmir’s first global introduction is now facing the death-knell fate of the Kashmiri silk. As an important part of Kashmir’s identity and economy, Pashmina needs a complete makeover and new approach to salvage its glory.
Change is unavoidable and imperative for the development of a society. The tongas of Srinagar were replaced by cars, Dhanjibhoy’s courier service by telephones, the local milkman by Khyber and Safa Sheer and so on. The consumer shifts to the alternative that saves time and/or money.
Kashmir’s handloom industry needs to change and not seek protection from the government. The government on the other hand needs to know that a total wipe-out of the handloom industry (Kashmir’s weaving culture) over the next decade or so is imminent unless policies and proper strategies are devised and implemented.
From personal experience, I feel that the government has an intention, but clearly not the market knowledge required to do so.
As a market maker in this business, I present a case based on logic and economics with solutions that private players and the government can work towards, so that handloom products have competitive advantages over their industrially made counterparts.
Without competitive advantages, the valley’s handlooms will gather dust and eventually be scrapped along with an important part of Kashmiri culture and identity.
Let’s break it down by each stage of Pashmina crafting from the fibre to the fabric:
The Pashmina Goat
God has been kind to the people of Kashmir. The Pashmina goats in Ladakh produce the finest quality of raw Pashmina fibre in the world. It’s very rare at less than 0.1% of the global supply. The fineness of Pashmina fibre from Changthang in Ladakh is usually between 12.5-14 microns while the best fibre from China is around 15 microns.
In fact, the crème-de-la-crème of global luxury brands use 15-15.5 micron Chinese Cashmere.
This significant difference in fibre quality results in softer fabrics. Italian and Scottish mills have been running scientific genetics based breeding programmes of Cashmere goats in China and are now producing fineness to the levels of 14.5 microns or less. It’s a matter of time before the Chinese goat breeders are able to produce fibres as fine as Ladakhi Pashmina.
The day that happens, the Changpas of Ladakh will have no future and will migrate en-masse to Leh to work. The Chinese breeders with their very large goat herds will be able to offer lower prices for Pashm of the same quality and hence, every sane manufacturer such as myself, will start importing from China.
No protectionism can also be implemented for the nomads of Ladakh. Already most of the fibre used in Kashmir today is of Chinese origin. Applying an anti-dumping duty upon import will make mills across the Punjab and in Kashmir less competitive globally leading to them shutting down.
If the government of Jammu and Kashmir places a tax on Chinese Cashmere entering the state, then the mill owners of the valley will suffer for they would not be price competitive viz-a-viz their counterparts in Punjab.
In short, if planned genetic breeding of the Pashmina goats in Ladakh to produce finer fibres does not take place, the tradition of Pashmina goat rearing in Ladakh will be extinct in a few years.
The Raw Pashmina Fibre
There’re two elements that determine the quality of a fabric: the grade of raw material used and the processes employed to convert raw material into the final product. Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir provides the finest Pashm in the world.
The first stage of Pashmina making is to clean or de-hair the raw Pashmina wool. Jammu & Kashmir does not have a single Pashmina de-hairing plant. As a result, the Pashmina wool is de-haired on cotton and common wool processing plants resulting is a significant loss of quality owing to fibre breakage.
Hence, at the first stage of processing itself, the God-given gift has been squandered as a result of which the strongest competitive advantage that Kashmir’s Pashmina industry has over the rest of the world is wasted.
Solution: The state by itself or via a Public Private Partnership model needs to have a Pashmina wool de-hairing plant in Kashmir. Plans are on for a plant in Ladakh, but that seems not well thought of, considering that the know-how of the fibre, the customers of the fibre, (Kashmiri manufacturers) are all in the valley.
Additionally, I wonder what the running costs and the output of a de-hairing plant in Ladakh would be considering the limited working months and the harsh winters there.
Spinning the De-haired Fibre into Yarn
The production of Pashmina fibre into yarn has traditionally taken place on Charkha (yendar) in the valley. It has given a source of income to thousands, maybe over lakhs of women at one point of time. Today, there’s no love for the Charkha since machine spun yarns are a cheaper alternative.
Fortunately for now, in order to spin fine yarns on a machine, a synthetic – generally nylon, has to be added to Pashmina in order to give it strength. This synthetic is later removed by an acid bath which decreases the quality of the final product.
Hence, the Charkha spun traditional Pashmina yarn is softer and more durable. However, here too it’s a matter of time before the Charkha is replaced, and rightly so.
Rightly so because, the latest R&D in the top Italian mills has produced fine Pashmina yarn without the addition of synthetic to counts as fine as 140/2nm, a number which any Pashmina trader will tell you is a shocking.
Therefore, in a few years, in the valley too, machines will produce yarn as fine as the Charkha spun, at a fraction of the cost.
Solution: The only way the Charkha will survive for the next few decades at least, is through genetic makeup based breeding programs and the fineness of the Pashmina goats in Ladakh is worked upon. The Pashmina goat in Ladakh (eastern Changthang) has an average fibre fineness of 12-14 microns – much finer that the best of what Chinese Pashmina goats can offer.
Much R&D has not taken place in the west on such fine Pashmina fibres for they’ve limited access to it. Hence, if the fineness of the Pashmina goat fibre in Ladakh can be worked upon, resulting in lower microns, not only will the Charkha keep spinning in the valley, but Kashmiri businessmen will be able to make better products than the Italians and the nomadic communities of Ladakh could make more money.
The Charkha will eventually go away like the Tonga but if action is taken, it could be saved for a couple of decades.
Weaving the Shawl
The weavers’ union unfortunately has been focusing more on getting power looms closed in the valley. They must realise that the state cannot shut down industries resulting in debt on the books of businesses and unemployment for workers.
Solution: The only way to survive for the long term is to create products that machines cannot produce – be it through design or by quality – all energy should be focused on that. As said before, change is unavoidable as a civilization moves ahead.
Apart from the power looms, which produce lower quality fabrics than the charkha-spun handloom-woven ones, the focus must be on getting basic regulations in place such as strong textile labelling. One can sell a synthetic scarf labelled as 100% Pashmina and it is legal. Textile labelling is mandatory in almost every country of the world, and should be implemented as a must-have here too.
Every product should be sold with a label that declares fibre content (100% Pashmina, 50% Pashmina, etc.) and whether it is hand-woven or not.
How the GI Label as failed and what to do with it
A positive step was taken by the state by establishing the Pashmina Testing and Quality Control Centre (PTQCC), “The Lab” as we call it in trade.
The place is run by three hardworking and technically sound gentlemen who too cannot realise their own full potential. Two of the last three times I was at the PTQCC, there was no electricity. So, we’ve a laboratory without an electricity backup!
And when, the workload and electricity supply do not matchup, we’ve those three folks under visible pressure to try and conduct complex scientific processes at full speed.
Another good initiative was getting the Geographical Indication or GI Mark which prohibits anyone from using the term “Kashmir Pashmina” unless it’s lab-tested and has a non-removable sticker on it placed by the PTQCC. Contrary to what a lot of people from the trade, especially the artisans believe, the GI label only prevents people from officially using the term “Kashmir Pashmina” – who ever used this term anyway?
So, the name protection is of no use.
Now, the least that the government could do is to advertise the GI sticker at the right channels pan-India, not on local Kashmiri radio, so that the major customer, i.e. the north Indian female knows about it and will look to buy a Charkha-spun handloom-woven Kashmir Pashmina shawl with a GI label.
Additionally, the GI label itself is very poor in design: a white sticker with a little goat made on it. It destroys the aesthetics of dark coloured shawls and is also not acceptable to some conservative Muslim customers in the Arab world for it places an animal on the headscarf or Guthra shawl.
Solution: The powers that be have to ensure basic electricity backup at the only testing laboratory in the country and also create a GI label that actually looks good, does not destroy the beauty of a Pashmina shawl and takes into account religious sentiments of a large section of buyers.
Most importantly, create an advertising budget and let buyers across north India know of its existence. Let us not have a shop without a board – no one will know what we’ve to offer.
To end this, I summarise: Create competitive advantages if you want to see through the next few decades. If planned genetics based breeding of Pashmina goats on the parameters mentioned does not take place, the Chinese breeders will catch up and the Changpa tribesmen will migrate to Leh for work.
Fix the reasons why Pashmina’s GI label has not been a success. Have, at least for short term survival of the industry, a de-hairing plant for cleaning raw Pashmina so that best quality raw material in the world is not converted into sub-standard fibre at the first stage of processing itself.
Doomsday is a lot closer than we think. Kashmir’s Pashmina will go the same way as Kashmir’s silk.
Pashmina is how the world first came to know about Kashmir. It’s an important part of our identity and our economy. Soon, it’ll be no more. Private players and the government need to collectively strategise. Time for less talk and more action.