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The Asian Shawl Trade 1500 -1800 AD

The Asian Shawl Trade 1500 -1800 AD

“Consuming Kashmir: Shawls and Empires 1500 – 2000″

PART – 1

(The Asian Shawl Trade 1500 -1800 AD is first part of  the article regarding the great history of genuine Kashmir Pashmina Shawls (Today’s GI Kashmir Pashmina) was found luckily after a deep research from ‘Journal of World history” online. This article provides a great research by Michelle Maskiell regarding this most luxurious product of fashion industry which has gone through the test of times. I am directly copying and pasting without any editing on this website for general information of Kashmir Pashmina customers and lovers who want to know more about the genuine Kashmir Pashmina (GI Kashmir Pashmina). This article has been posted in parts for the ease of readers.


Michelle Maskiell, “Consuming Kashmir: Shawls and Empires, 1500-2000,” Journal of World History 13, no. 1 (Spring 1992), 27–65.

Abstract: Kashmiri shawls serve as a material vector to trace how European assumptions of geographical determinism, racial hierarchy, and gender essentialism underpinned the seemingly disparate nineteenth-century narratives about design history and various theories about an “Asiatic mode of production” in labor history. The continuing strength of these assumptions is demonstrated by the contemporary marketing in 2001 of pashmina (“woven goat hair” or cashmere) shawls, using the recycled tropes of exoticism and fantasy ethnography crafted during the heyday of British colonialism.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, wealthy Europeans embraced Kashmiri shawl cloth with as much enthusiasm as Americans who discovered polyester fleece at the end of the twentieth century. 1 Kashmiri shawls were fabric rectangles worn primarily as shoulder mantles from the 1770s until the 1870s, and they came in a wide variety of sizes, patterns, and modes throughout the century of their widespread popularity in Europe and the United States. Handloom weavers in Kashmir produced this soft, warm, goat-hair fabric for a world market long before affluent Western women draped their bodies with these distinctive wraps. 2 Luxurious Kashmiri shawl fabric was wound as men’s turbans in Egypt, stitched into wealthy Iranian women’s [End Page 27] jackets, prized for men’s coats in Turkestan, worn as sashes in Tibet, and gifted to both “dancing girls” and male nobles from Delhi to Istanbul. 3

The word “cashmere,” from the eighteenth-century English spelling of Kashmiri shawls’ geographical home, was popularly linked with “exotic” luxury in nineteenth-century Britain. European and American firms used “cashmere” to give distinction to locally manufactured shawls, fabrics, and even toiletries. (A talcum powder named “Cashmere Bouquet” is still sold by an American mail order business which specializes in commodity nostalgia, with an advertisement situating the product in the 1870s.) 4 Western manufacturers produced imitation Kashmiri shawls and used the word “cashmere” to promote their own products. 5 Similarly, in the late 1990s western European and American marketing relied on the exoticism of a different Subcontinental word, pashmina, to sell plain-weave shawls made from the same goat hair as “cashmere.” 6 Pashmina shawls went from being exclusive high fashion to middle-class popularity in 2000.

The domestication of Subcontinental textiles in Europe and America has been within historically contingent cycles of appropriating and renaming Asian

handcrafted textiles for home markets. First, Europeans tried to monopolize the collection of commodities in Asia and their transportation home. Second, Europeans manufactured import substitutes which copied the commodities, from Chinese porcelain to [End Page 28] Kashmiri shawls. Third, Europeans incorporated both the imports and their European-made copies into the western European and Euro-American “fashion cycles” for Chinoiserie, Orientalism, Japonisme, “Indian style,” and so on. Kashmiri shawls serve as a material vector to trace persistent patterns within the historical context of one such cycle. 7

European and American art historians constructed a “rise and fall” narrative about Kashmiri shawls in which both their production and their consumption were driven by European fashion demands and design trends. Briefly, the story started when eighteenth-century European traders “discovered” Kashmiri shawls marked by a characteristic woven design, a teardrop with a bent tip. This design, the buta (or boteh, literally “flower”) inspired one of the most often repeated Western textile motifs, commonly known today as the “paisley” in the United States and Canada. Technological invention and design innovation made the nineteenth-century machine-made shawls competitive with Kashmiri shawls and intensified the degeneration of authentic Kashmiri designs and weaving techniques caused by European influences. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Scottish town of Paisley, near Glasgow, became famous for its imitation Kashmiri shawls with the buta motif, and, after about 1850, many English speakers started to use the town’s name to describe any shawl with this design. Around 1870, according to this story, European fashion changes and political events ended the demand for Kashmiri shawls and ruined the shawl business in Kashmir.

European shawl manufacturers “transformed” shawls “into a European taste and business” to the extent that a Paisley-made imitation Kashmiri shawl and “an English at-home dress of the same period might [both] be seen as indigenous western dress” (Martin 1995, 209). This appropriation, a naturalization of the violence enabling colonial possession of shawl design as well as the earlier possession of Kashmiri shawls as trade goods, continues today in Europe and America. In the following 1999 U.S. catalog merchandising of a skirt, for instance, the transportation of the “exotic paisley” seems independent of the British imperial economic regime that brought model shawls to Europe, and the design’s availability for Euro-American consumption is individualized: [End Page 29] “From Kashmir to Scotland, via Egypt and France, with a few additional stops en route. The exotic paisley, serpentine and mesmerizing, has traveled through history and across the world to enfold you in its embrace.” 8 Kashmiri shawls had once followed a similar route. Uncritical of such commercial discourse or complicitous with it, many European and American textile historians who have written about and helped display vintage Kashmiri shawls have overestimated the importance of European consumption (for example, Levi-Strauss 1998). They have likewise underestimated the importance of colonialism for the procurement of Kashmiri model shawls and their characteristic design.

This essay is divided into five sections; the first traces the Asian trade in Kashmiri shawls from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century. Specifically western European and Euro-American consumption of Kashmiri shawls is the subject of the second section, followed by a third sketching western European and American manufacture of imitation shawls. The fourth section considers eighteenth- and nineteenth-century changes in the Kashmiri production and Asian consumption of shawls in light of British imperial economic, political, and cultural goals in Asia. The final section explores implications for Eurocentric narratives about Asian workers. I argue that gender was as important as race in nineteenth-century colonial labor discourses about handloom weavers and their products. The commonplaces of contemporary U.S. marketing for South Asian textiles, including pashmina shawls, remain the recycled tropes of exoticism and fantasy ethnography crafted during the heyday of British colonialism (see also “ethnic” textiles from South America in Hendrickson 1996).

The Asian Shawl Trade 1500–1800

Kashmiri shawls and shawl cloth were well-known exports within Asia and moved through established trade networks linking international areas of demand long before the shawls became European commodities. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, Kashmiri artisans wove cloth from Central Asian goat fleece, silk, and other materials. Dealers brought unprocessed goat hair to Kashmir from the city of Leh in Ladakh (see Map 1), the long-established entrêpot between Kashmir and Central Asia. 9 Merchants and peddlers in caravans carried the [End Page 30] [Begin Page 32] finished shawls overland, some going north to Central Asia and east to China, while others ventured west to Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Although western historiography of India’s domestic and foreign trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has stressed European sea trade with India, exports to Europe “were [still] exceeded by far by the volume of India’s trade with Asian and African countries” (Tchitcherov 1998, 136). The intra-Asian overland exchange continued to compete successfully with European traders on some routes and for some goods in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. For example, the Central Asian trade which carried Kashmiri shawls to Russia continued well into the nineteenth century. 10 P.N.K. Bamzai (1980) repeated a mid-nineteenth-century British estimate that shawls worth Rs. 50,000 annually were still being exported from Kashmir through Ladakh to the “Chinese provinces.” Both Asian and European merchants moved Subcontinental shawls from their sites of production to their sites of consumption along distribution networks that evolved gradually from Asian-focused seventeenth-century routes to the bustling colonial trade routes of the nineteenth century (Veinstein 1999; Chaudhury and Morineau 2000).

The Emperors of the Safavid, Zand, and Qajar empires in Iran (c. 1500–1924) and the Mughal court of North India and its regional satellites (1526–1848) used Kashmiri shawls and shawl cloth within their “established and evolving social relations of consumption” (Howes 1996, 2). For example, they bestowed shawls as khil’at (“robes of honor”) within their political and religious practices. In the Iranian-influenced culture of the Mughal Indian court, fine garments given in political settings were intended to establish a hierarchical relationship between the giver and the recipient, whose acceptance acknowledged submission. Indeed, the word “khil’at” originally meant “something [End Page 32] passed on,” especially a “garment cast off” (Buckler 1922, 197 and 1928, 240). The robes of honor typically were exorbitantly expensive fabrics. The Mughal khil’at consisted of a sumptuous set of clothes, which could include a turban, long coat, gown, fitted jacket, sash, shawl, trousers, shirt, and scarf. One or all of these could be made of pashmina (shawl cloth) and embellished further with gold-thread embroidery. 11 Symbolic of the greatly reduced circumstances of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah (r. 1837–58), were the audiences he gave at the Red Fort in Delhi, when he would present cheap pieces of fabric to British visitors as a token khil’at (Fisher 1990, 455)

Zahiruddin Babur (1483–1530) founded the Mughal (from “Mongol”) Empire in 1526 C.E.., and established the custom of rewarding allies with robes of honor. A pair of Kashmiri shawls became an expected part of khil’at ceremonies under his grandson, the Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1606). After conquering Kashmir in 1568, Akbar showed great interest in the production of Kashmiri shawls, and encouraged their use through his personal example. He initiated shawl cloth production in imperial workshops at Lahore, Patna, and Agra, directing changes in how these shawls were to be woven and dyed (Chandra 1989, 65, 67). In addition to the finest shawls made of white shah tush (wild ibex hair) supposedly reserved for the Emperor and his family, artisans wove shawls from domesticated goat hair, silk, sheep wool, or combinations of fibers (67; Ames 1997, 360; Saraf 1982, 2). During Akbar’s reign, robes of honor were normally given within the emperor’s ruling circle, but the practice was greatly expanded under his successors.

Members of the Mughal imperial court consumed large quantities of Kashmiri shawls between the sixteenth and mid-nineteenth century. Imperial patronage by the Mughal Emperors was reflected in the names of certain designs, such as “Shah Pasand” (Emperor’s Delight), and “Buta Muhammad Shah” (Muhammad Shah’s Flower), named after the emperor who reigned from 1720 until 1742. As late as the reign of Akbar II (1806–37), a painting of the Mughal court displayed the continued desirability of these textiles; every figure in the painting appears to be wearing one or more shawls (Mikosch 1985, 9; Saraf 72).

Kashmiri shawls were also in continual demand in Iran from the sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries. The emperors and family [End Page 33] members of the Safavid, Zand, and Qajar dynasties often wore Kashmiri shawl fabrics (Bier 1987), 12 and Iranian emperors gifted Kashmiri shawls as robes of honor throughout their rule. Both women and men of the Iranian elite likewise provided a large market for Kashmiri shawl cloth; they did not wear shawls in the English-language sense of a loose wrap about the upper body, but shawl cloth was tailored into their fitted clothes (Scarce 1988 /89, 23). Fath Ali Shah (r. 1797–1834) promoted Iranian shawl-weaving using the fleece of Kermani goats and sheep and tried to limit competition by restricting shawl imports from Kashmir (Bier, 25). At the end of the eighteenth century, a senior British official reported that Kashmiri shawls reached Iran both overland, through Afghanistan, and by sea, via the Persian Gulf (Malcolm cited in Issawi, 1971, 266).

Kashmiri products had to compete with shawl cloth designed specifically for Iranian consumption, woven by artisans in Kerman, Mashad, and Yazd. For example, in 1849–50, Kerman alone had 2,200 looms for weaving shawls along with looms for woolen cloth, together producing approximately £40,000 to 45,000 worth of goods (Abbott quoted in Issawi 1971, 267). Jakob Polak, a German physician who lived in Iran in the 1850s, wrote that “Persian shawls… are comparable in design and color to those of Kashmir, but are far inferior in suppleness and closeness of weave.” Kermani shawls, reported Polak, were exported to “Constantinople and Alexandria,” while those made at Yazd were sent to “Constantinople and Russia” (cited in Issawi, 269, 271). Until the early twentieth century, Kermani and Kashmiri shawl cloth continued to be used by the Qajar court in Iran as gifts from the shah to those he wished to honor, as formal attire for members of the court, and as shrouds for the wealthy (Scarce, 33; Bier, 31).

The Kashmiri shawl trade in Asia was often disrupted by political turmoil in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and by the heavy tax demands of the Afghan and Sikh regimes that conquered Kashmir. By the last decades of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s reign (1658–1707), imperial attention and military strength had shifted south, and northern shawl merchants were forced to alter their trade routes according to the less secure times. The Sikh armies of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1781–1839), whose kingdom centered on the Punjab plains, conquered Kashmir in 1819. Contemporary European travelers wrote in [End Page 34] amazement about the lavish decorative use of Kashmiri shawls and shawl cloth at Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court in Lahore in the 1840s. 13 The Maharaja encouraged Kashmiri weavers to settle in Punjabi cities, and he used shawl cloth to pay allowances to his followers, to grant robes of honor, and to send gifts to other rulers, including officials of the British East India Company (Bajwa 1982, 236-37; Datta 1970; Ahad 1987, 103–104).

Asian trade in Kashmiri shawls thus antedated the British conquest of India by several centuries, and Kashmiri shawls retained their capital as valued gifts in local regimes after the British Raj was established. Yet, Eurocentric textile histories of this early trade, treating it as merely the background for the later trade with Europe, focused on the supposed non-Kashmiri origins of the characteristic shawl designs and weaving techniques rather than the Asian trade itself. The Asian trade continued to carry shawls overland from Kashmir to their widespread sites of consumption well into the nineteenth century. I argue below that the Asian trade was at least as important as European demand for changes in the production of Kashmiri shawls.

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