How strong must one be to lift a carpet? How much strength to move a kilim? A hand loomed saddle cover? Or perhaps to hold the whisper light heft of a kashmiri shawl?

Last week I had wonderful days in Los Angeles and San Francisco visiting with collectors, viewing museum collections, attending a dealers fair and hearing lectures on various related topics.

The morning after my arrival in LA I attended a lecture delivered to the Textile Museum of America’s Southern California Associates by Dr David Reisbord on the subject of Kashmiri shawls. It was a time to learn and to be amazed by the technical complexities of this weaving tradition. Both men and women have worn these diaphanous and colorful shawls through the centuries with the oldest known pieces dating to the mid 17th c.


Man wearing shawl in Mughal Court Miniature Painting

A Tibetan ibex was the source for the incredibly fine wool used to weave these textiles. The ‘shatoush’ or the fleece from the underbelly of the animal was so fine that one pound of the fleece could be spun into twenty-five miles of thread. Between two to three thousands warps on the loom could form the base for these fine and complex textiles.

The lecture filled in many gaps in my knowledge. I learned techniques for identifying shawls of Indian origin versus the later European production that came into vogue with the advent of the jacquard loom in Europe.

There was a ‘show and tell’ by the lecturer that included examples of shawls woven with a twill tapestry weave in one piece; shawls of the same weave that were expertly pieced and some that had the design intricately applied with fine embroidery.

As in the world of carpets some of these shawls and their designs have been dated by using European paintings where the subjects (or objects) were draped in Kashmir shawls giving reference to a date when the design type of the shawl was a part of contemporary fashion in Europe.


Woman wearing shawl in 19th c painting

Fashion of the 19th C.

On following up on this lecture I came across this article online that covers in detail historical, technical and aesthetic insight into this textile of such enduring beauty.

Still today one can purchase in retail outlets shawls that are based on these designs and in my own closet hang several of the airy, light and cozy wool scarves that are the descendants of this rich textile tradition.

I have met with collectors of carpets, kilims, embroideries and beauty exists in each format. For me there was great allure with the beauty of a textile that packs and aesthetic punch, has technical brilliance and weighs in mere ounces.



6 Responses

  1. Jack says:

    So that’s what you were up to in California!!

    Thanks for keeping me posted on your adventure.

  2. Chris Mortensen says:

    @Jack I’m sure she left you entirely in the dark until now. What I want to know is what you were up to while being abandoned in Calgary. Mooching dinner invites…? Good Job Catherine the blog looks great!

  3. Pamela Twa says:

    I heard that the Pashminas made from the Shatoush were banned as they were killing too many Ibex and that Camilla
    Duchess of (What Ever) was finned for giving some away as gifts.Press made a big deal of it.. If bought illegally they are very expensive but I guess Camilla doesn’t have to worry about money.

    • Catherine Mortensen says:

      @Pam Twa, here is a link to the US laws re: import of pashmina shawls made from the shatoush. It is pretty interesting. The shawls that were being lectured about were from the 18th and 19th c so were not new production and certainly predated the 1975 import parameters that are in this document on the link. With the Tibetan ibex being an endangered species one can certainly appreciate the need to protect the animal. I wonder how severely the ibex population was decimated in the 18th and 19th c or if this is a more recent problem? This type of shawl became very much a part of the fashion statement beyond the Mughal courts and into the European Upper classes. I guess if Camilla is an example they still must hold a certain cachet for the rich and famous.
      Have you ever seen these types of shawls for sale as you traveled in India?

  4. Nadine Graham says:

    As I read your blog about the Kashmiri shawls and Tibetan ibex ‘shatoush’ or the fleece from the underbelly of the ibex I couldn’t help but think of the Alaskan women who harvest Muskox down or “Qiviut (pronounced “kiv-ee-ute”); the downy-soft underwool from the Arctic musk ox, (that) is shed naturally each year during the spring months. Eight times warmer than wool and extraordinarily lightweight, Qiviut is one of the finest natural fibers known to man.” On a trip to Alaska 12 or so years ago Lyndon brought home a neckwarmer made of qiviut for me. It is the warmest winter accessory I own and it’s a treasure – not only because of the incredible warmth it offers – but because of its beauty and origin. I love a good story! Here’s a link to the Alaskan women’s cooperative website: http://www.qiviut.com/

    We were in Banff this summer and visited the Jacques Cartier Qiviut shop and I enjoyed looking at their selection of dyed qiviut yarn; dreaming about taking the plunge and knitting a scarf one day. One little ball of yarn is enough to knit a small scarf. If you’re out there sometime, check it out – it’s absolutely dreamy!!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this blog – they’re a treat to read.

    • Catherine Mortensen says:

      @Nadine – Thanks so much for reminding me about Qiviut – somewhere in the past I read about it but have never seen or more importantly felt the fiber. How super that you own a piece made from this fiber. I am heading to Banff midweek next week with my reading group for an overnight and will make a point of going into the Jacques Cartier Qiviut shop and having a look around. Who knows maybe before the end of next week I might be the owner of mitts or a toque in this fiber – never a shortage of excuses in Calgary for buying something cozy. Glad you are enjoying the blog – thanks for your encouragement…. C

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