Shawl, tapestry woven, embroidered and pieced, wool, Kashmir, 1850-1870
Shawl designed by Montaz Allaie (written in Persian script at one edge).
Woven and embroidered wool shawl from Kashmir, in the "patchwork" pattern. Shawls of this type are comprised of several sections that had been woven on different looms, and then handsewn together by the rafugar, or shawl tailor. In the early nineteenth century when demand was high and designs had become increasingly elaborate, a new practise of dividing up the work amongst several looms was implemented in order to speed up production. The resulting pieces were sometimes referred to as "patchwork shawls".
Traditionally, women spun the yarn whilst the weaving was done by men, who began learning their trade from about the age of ten. Despite the high levels of skills involved and the large prices such shawls commanded, Kashmiri weavers were extremely poor and often suffered appalling working conditions.
Predominantly red and black with polychrome work, the border is embroidered which is quite usual for this type of shawl. The swirling boteh design which surrounds the central medallion draws on the motif most popularly associated with the Kashmir shawl. Also known as 'paisley', 'pine cone' and 'mango', the boteh (or 'buta' in Hindi-Urdu meaning flower) evolved from its early depiction of a flowering plant during the Mughal period, gradually taking on a more abstracted form of foliage and flowers compacted in a long oval shape. By the mid-eighteenth century, the distinctive top curved hook had started to emerge, becoming more pronounced by the middle of the nineteenth century when a very stylised, curvilinear boteh appeared, owing little obvious debt to its original, representational form.
The English word "shawl" is derived from the Persian "shal", originally denoting a class of woven fabric rather than a particular article of dress. In traditional Indo-Persion usage shal could equally well apply to a scarf, a turban, a mantle or even a coverlet, the distinguishing feature being that the material was fine wool or some other kind of animal fleece.
The finest brocaded woollen shawls of the modern era are synonymous with the name of Kashmir. Traditionally, the wool used in Kashmir shawls (known as cashmere or pashmina) came from goats found in Tibet and Central Asia. This fine wool comes from the fleece underneath the rough outer hair, which is grown as protection against the harsh cold of the region and shed with the onset of summer. The comparative rarity and expense of this type of wool led to experimentations with other materials, which contributed to a decline in standards.
Kashmir shawls became increasingly popular in Europe during the late 18th century when travellers, East India Company employees and civil servants began bringing them home. Although in India shawls were part of the man's dress, in Europe they quickly became a sought after accessory for women. In France, Empress Josephine became an avid collector after receiving a gift of Indian shawls from Napoleon upon his return from his Egyptian campaign of 1798. Images of the Empress and other French society ladies wearing these richly coloured shawls helped popularise the fashion in France and England. Demand soon outstripped supply, despite the high prices such shawls commanded.
Kashmir shawl weavers practised what is known as the twill-tapestry technique (so named because of its similarity to the tapestry weaving technique of western Europe), where a single shawl could take eighteen months or more to complete. During the nineteenth century, in response to foreign demand and increasingly complicated patterns, the idea of the 'patchwork shawl' was born. By dividing up the weaving between several looms and joining the pieces together, even shawls with complex patterns could be finished in a significantly shorter time.
By the mid 1860s, the decline of the shawl's popularity had begun, although production continued for some years. By 1885, shawls were no longer fashionable, destroyed by an over-supply of much cheaper European versions made on the newly introduced jacquard loom, and later printed shawls.
[see 'From Kashmir to Paisley: the shawl trade and the hundred year fashion' by Christina Sumner in "The Australian Antique Collection" , Jan-June 1993 and "The Kashmir Shawl" by John Irwin, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973]