"Had we not taken pre-emptive measures, our production could have collapsed,” says Aaditya Kitroo, co-founder and managing director of Jos&fine, which supplies handwoven pashmina fabrics to luxury retailers, designers and boutique stores in Europe, the US and Japan, about the pandemic-induced lockdown.
“We handed over enough pashmina yarn to our weavers to keep them busy at least until Eid in the end of May. That move saved us; we could continue production in spite of the lockdown,” adds Kitroo, one of the few people in the valley working to revive antique-grade embroidery and intricate kani (tapestry woven) shawls.
At the same time, says the 33-year-old, what worked in favour of the Kashmiri pashmina industry was that the lockdown started just as winter ended. “October-March is the peak season for sales. The seasonal inventories were sold. Had the lockdown been a couple of months earlier, it would have wreaked havoc.”
Kitroo says the history of Kashmiris weaving fine woollen textiles goes back thousands of years. “Kashmir, even today, produces the world’s finest and most luxurious woollen textiles. However, both the quality and scale of the art of shawl-making there is a fraction of what it used to be,” he adds.
The idea of Jos&fine was born in the winter of 2014, when he was browsing stores in Amsterdam for a scarf to gift. While there were Scottish and Italian cashmere scarfs on display, there were no Kashmiri cashmere or pashmina scarves.
For even though Kashmir has access to the best raw material in the world—pashmina wool sourced from goats in Ladakh—and the oldest technical know-how to process it, no Kashmiri firm is known globally as a leader or even a recognized player in the cashmere trade. He spotted a market opening and discussed the business concept with a friend, Safia Igranaissi. They refined the idea at Erasmus University Rotterdam’s startup accelerator Get Started. Nantes-based Igranaissi is the co-founder and marketing director of the firm.
Kitroo, who has a master’s in business administration from Erasmus University and was working in the Netherlands, relocated to his ancestral house in Srinagar in mid-2015. Today, he works with over 100 craftsmen in the valley.
Mint spoke to Kitroo about the industry, how the business has fared in the pandemic and his Project Legacy to revive intricate kani weaves. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Is there a difference between pashmina and cashmere?
The origin of pashmina was Kashmir, of which the old Anglicized spelling is Cashmere. So, when pashmina shawls first reached the Western world, they were simply referred to as cashmere. Originally all cashmere goods were only woven fabrics such as shawls and they came from Kashmir. With time, cashmere wool, called pashm in Kashmiri, started to be exported and used by the mills in Europe to make sweaters, gloves, etc.
As the demand for wool grew, China and Mongolia started mass breeding of cashmere goats. Today, the two supply 90% of the world’s cashmere wool, and Ladakh, 0.75%. In fact, most of the wool used in shawls from Kashmir today is from China and Mongolia as it is cheaper. In short, all pashmina is cashmere but all cashmere is not pashmina, akin to all Champagne is sparkling wine but all sparkling wine is not Champagne.
What makes the wool from Ladakh superior to that from Mongolia or China?
The key determinant of quality is how fine the wool is. The average fineness of the best cashmere wool from China is around 15.5 microns; Ladakh wool is 15% finer, at around 13 microns. This makes a significant impact to the feel and handle of the fabric.
How would you define a traditional Kashmiri pashmina shawl?
It is one where each step from the fibre to fabric stage is done manually, using traditional tools. Though a lot more time-consuming and expensive, the manual process yields a much superior cloth, which even with regular wear can last decades. The beauty of handmade pashmina lies in its texture and weave, in the subtle imperfections.
The craft is dying as in order to maximize profits, many retailers have been palming off chemically softened machine-made cashmere from the mills of Punjab as Kashmiri pashmina.
Is the pashmina yarn spun exclusively by women?
Weaving has traditionally been a male role. The hand-spinning is today done exclusively by women using wooden charkhas. At all major global trade fairs over the years, there has been a race among the cashmere spinning mills of Europe to produce finer yarns—none of them so far have been able to match the finest yarns that Kashmiri women spin by hand with no technology, scientific fibre length analysis or state-of-the-art algorithm-based computerized spinning machines.
In the 1800s, Kashmir dominated the luxury wools industry. It produced designs that are still known as cachemires in the fashion industry.
Tell us about Project Legacy.
Started in 2017, it is our retail offering, wherein we recreate kani and sonzi-embroidered pashmina shawls of museum-grade intricacies. In a kani, the design is woven into the textile, like a carpet. The weaver follows a weaving code (taleem): of the, say, 1,400 threads in the warp, the first five to be wrapped in crimson, the next two in ivory, the next 17 in turquoise, and so on. This process is repeated for each line in the weft making. Some highly intricate kani ladies shawls can take up to 16 months to weave.
How difficult was it working during the internet ban after the effective abrogation of Article 370 last year?
I travelled to Jammu after the announcement—the broadband lines at my home there were working. I communicated with my team in Srinagar via “taxi post”. I would write detailed letters of instructions and hand them every second day to a taxi driver headed to the valley. I must have sent around 15 such letters.
What is the situation during the pandemic?
I feel it will take a couple of years for the industry to match the numbers of the past financial year. As far as my knowledge goes, most traders, manufacturers and retailers have taken significant hits in order to ensure that the weavers—the weakest players in the pashmina ecosystem—continue to have work. Of all that is wrong with Kashmir and our social fabric, I think the whole biradari (community) culture of Kashmir has come into play here.
Since August, though, things have started looking up, with foreign buyers starting to place orders again.
What advice would you give to someone buying a pashmina shawl?
Buy it from a reputed retailer and, most importantly, remember that you are buying the finest handwoven woollen fabric in the world after the banned shahtoosh. Hence, it will not be cheap. The concept of pashmina at a bargain price is false.