It is sometimes hard to imagine that a goat foraging on the desert-like terrain of Changthang can lead to the creation of one of the most exquisite and finest of the world's textiles – the Kashmir Shawl. In the words of a nineteenth century British administrator, this shawl "is the product of a felicitous conjunction between pashm, one of the finest animal fibres ever put to the loom and the amazing and unique skills of Kashmir's spinners, weavers, designers, dyers, rafugars and a host of other workers".

The story of the Kashmir Shawl continues in much the same manner today, but most accounts start the story in Srinagar, making no more than a passing reference to the fact that the some of the finest raw material in the world comes from the high mountains of Ladakh. Though both regions are located in the North Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, and linked through the trade and manufacture of pashmina, making the journey of the story from start to finish important. It takes one through some of the highest motorable passes in the world and some of the toughest living conditions.

The following documentary film "Pashmina Road"
by Errol Rainey and Isaac Wall for ZEZE Collective,
is a meditative visual story that spans from Ladakh to Kashmir
to chronicle the elaborate process
from sourcing, to making of end pieces.

( Duration: 22 minutes )

The Source, The Site

Ladakh. In the summer months Changra goats are herded to lower altitudes where they can graze on pastures growing along the glacial rivers and streams. One Changra goat will harvest roughly 120 grams of raw fibre. Of that, only 70 grams will be fine enough to be spun into pashmina yarn. Male goats yield approx. 300 to 400 grams of pashmina, females 200 to 250 grams. Of that about 100 grams (200 for the males) can be used for weaving. Goat hair is also used for weaving other products so there is no wasteage. This wool forms part of the thick winter fleece the goats need to survive the harsh winters. For centuries the Ladakhis have harvested the fibres in the spring and traded with the Kashmiris, who then use the superior wool to create the finest shawls in the world.

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Ladakh. Monks prepare their monastery for the arrival of the Dalai Lama as part of the Kalachakra celebrations 2014.

Central Ladakh. The sheer, crumbling cliffs of central Ladakh grow and crumble simultaneously. The convergence of two tectonic plates continues to push the Himalayas further into the sky.

Central Ladakh.
(Left) A stream fed by natural springs high in the mountains. These mountain streams support the various high altitude animals native to Ladakh including changra goats, yaks and mountain lions.
(Right) A Gujjar Nomad carrying her tented home on her back.

Gujjar Nomads on their way to the high Himalayan pastures in Northern Kashmir.
A truck stop on the careening highway between Leh and Srinagar.

Shawl Weaving In Kashmir

Srinagar, Kashmir. Nestled between two large mountain ranges, Srinagar sprawls around the beautiful Dal Lake, which is full of lotus plants and water birds.

Eagles nest upon a streetlight above the bustling streets.

Every morning at dawn local merchants trade fresh produce at the Dal Lake floating market.

A master spinner separates and cleans the raw pashmina fibres before spinning. In this process the natural oils and other impurities are removed by rubbing a fine rice powder through the wool. Spinning is the process of manipulating puffs of pashmina fibre into yarn. The delicate skills required to simultaneously feed the fibres through the fingers and operate the spindle take a lifetime to master. This is the most important and time-consuming part of the creation process.

A pile of dyed silk yarn hanks used for the embroidering of pashmina shawls. Traditional Kashmiri shawls owe their rich organic colour palette to the use of natural dyes. The use of natural dyes is also becoming rare in Kashmir.

Two brothers prepare the warp – in this process pashmina yarn is unwound and prepared for the loom. Between them, the pair will walk over 12 km for each roll of yarn. 

The graceful hands of a master weaver from Kashmir.

A master weaver uses the ancient technique of twill tapestry, traditionally known as Kani weave. The double interlocked twill tapestry combined with the fine pashmina wool and rich natural dyes is what makes the Kashmiri shawl the finest in the world.

Written on the paper above is a 'Talim' code the artisans follow in the Kani weaving process. The weavers run thin bobbins and attached to threads of yarn through the loom according to this complex code to create the intricate designs. Individual pieces may take up to five years to weave.

In the technique of Kani weave, an intricate design can be woven within the shawl, taking between one to five years to create. This man has worked day in, day out through bitter winters and extreme political unrest.

Srinagar, Kashmir. Two artisans clipping loose threads from a pashmina shawl. This difficult and monotonous process requires the artisan to clip perfectly, or face the possibility of ruining a shawl that's taken years to create.

Monisha Ahmed is an independent researcher who has been visiting and writing about material culture in Ladakh since 1987. Her doctoral degree from Oxford University developed into the book Living fabric - Weaving among the Nomads of Ladakh Himalaya (Orchid Press, 2002), which received the Textile Society of America's R L Shep award in 2003 for best book in the field of ethnic textile studies. She is the author of several articles on the material culture and textile arts of Ladakh, co-edited with Clare Harris Ladakh – Culture at the Crossroads (Marg Publications, 2005) and with Janet Rizvi authored Pashmina – The Kashmir Shawl and Beyond (Marg Publications, 2009). She is the co-founder and current Executive Director of the NGO Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation (LAMO) and is currently Associate Editor for Marg Publications, Mumbai.

ZEZE Collective is a craft collective born out of a passion to preserve the artisans' age-old art forms and to provide a voice for emerging and known artisans from around the globe. It offers expertly curated contemporary collections and thoughtfully sourced products to a growing community of discerning consumers. The finest jewellery, clothing, accessories, textiles and homewares are chosen for three simple tenets: quality, modernity and ethical sourcing. In the language of the Nahro San Bushmen, ZEZE means to start from the beginning. In the spirit of storytelling, ZEZE creates imaginative collaborations and events as a global platform for artisans to showcase and sell their work. By sharing their distinctive products with the world, ZEZE generates awareness of the craftsman's extraordinary journey.

Errol Rainey is a director and photographer currently based in London who works at the intersection of documentary, music and commercial worlds.

Kashmir Loom is considered to be one of the finest companies working in the age-old traditions of the weaving practice in Kashmir today. It is a small family-run company started by two friends – art historian and designer Jenny Housego and Asaf Ali. Their work focuses on sustaining and supporting this vital handicraft industry, where each person's role is important to the process – from the women who clean and hand-spin the fibre using the wooden charka (spinning wheel) to the men who dye and lay the warp and the weaver who works magic into the fabric.