I grew up watching my dida and mom gracefully adorn a shawl in winters. They would just throw the shawl, or shaal as we call it Bengali, around them and it would look so elegant. When I was little, I would sneak into dida’s room, pull out her shawl and try to wrap it around me. The piece of garment would engulf me in it’s warm loving scent of dida. Once I grew up, I was drawn to (considered to be) more fashionable and convenient western winter wears like sweaters & jackets. Though I liked shawls, I found its westernized cousin stole more utilitarian. After all we hardly wear ethnic clothes in winters. If, at all, we wear a sari or lehenga for a winter wedding, it is sure to be teamed with a backless choli or skimpy blouse, no matter how cold.
My almost forgotten love for shawls was rekindled by my friend and colleague Lovina Gujral and her collection of shawls. Watching her walk into office every day with a beautiful shawl thrown around her is a delight. “Between the three of us – my mom, my sister and I, we have 17 exclusive shawls,” says Lovina. “We have collected these over the years, a few from the time of my mother’s wedding,” she adds.
When I told Lovina I wanted to write on her shawls, she generously lent her best shawls for the shoot and my colleagues Manaswi, Puja & Riti gladly modeled for me 🙂
Lovina and her family has picked up a lot of shawls from a Kashmiri weaver, Ashraf Buch, who comes to Gurgaon every winter. “He brings with him a huge collection of authentic Kashmiri shawls – pashmina, jamawar, kaani. Depending on the fabric and the embroidery some of these shawls are priced over a lakh.” The shawls that Lovina wears are all hand embroidered, some of them take months to make. “He even has the less expensive shawls that cost a few thousands, but we always go for the authentic stuff,” says Lovina.
Kashmir has always been the home of shawls. The origin of shawls can be traced back to over 700 years. Though the words “shawl” and “pashmina” come from Kashmir, they originated from Hamedan, Iran. When Sayeed Ali Hamadani, the 14th century Sufi poet and scholar from Hamedan came to Ladakh, homeland of pashmina goats he found that the Ladakhi Kashmiri goats produced soft wool. He took some goat wool, made them into socks, which he gifted to the then king of Kashmir, Sultan Qutabdin. Later, Hamadani suggested to the king that they start a shawl weaving industry in Kashmir using this wool, thus came into being pashmina shawls. As a government official, Lovina’s father was posted in Kashmir for a while and that’s when the family got acquainted with many Kashmiri weavers and their weaving techniques.
The most expensive shahtoosh shawls of Kashmir are made from the under-fleece of the Tibetan antelope or Chiru. These shawls are so fine that even a very tightly woven shawl can be easily pulled through a small finger ring. “However, since these antelopes are an endangered species, shahtoosh shawls have been banned by the government,” says Lovina.
There’s an interesting story on how these intricate embroideries came into being. A certain peasant, Ali Baba once noticed the imprint of a fowl’s feet left on a white sheet. He embroidered the outline with coloured thread to enhance the effect and that is how the embroidered shawls were introduced. Silk and cotton thread are used for embroidery. The workmanship is so intricate and time consuming that some embroidered shawls take 2 to 4 years to complete.
“An authentic shawl is a family heirloom; it can be passed down for generations. You need to know how to keep your shawls,” says Lovina. “We keep each shawl wrapped in a separate piece of fine cotton with a lot of dried neem leaves and red chillies between the folds. Pashminas and pure fabrics are prone to silver fish and these keep the pests at bay.”