Indian textiles began flooding European markets in the seventeenth century with the founding of the Dutch East India Company in 1597 and the English East India Company in 1600. This early trade provided the foundation for the great popularity of Kashmir shawls among fashionable European women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Kashmir shawls had been woven since the fifteenth century, but Europeans first became acquainted with them in the seventeenth century.
Kashmir shawls were made of fine cashmere, pashima, and shah tus wools, made from the soft hair of Tibetan mountain goats living in the high altitudes of the Himalayan Mountains. Indian women spun the fleece into yarn and one or two men worked between two to three years weaving the yarn into a shawl. Undyed shawls ranged in color from light cream to grey or brown. To produce more vibrant shawls, yarns were dyed with natural pigments or silk thread was woven into the shawl. Patterns called boteh, which means flower but the pattern is recognized as paisley in the West, were woven into the shawls named kani. Shawls with embroidered patterns were called amli. The great skill and long time it took to make each Kashmir shawl made them very expensive. In the early nineteenth century a Kashmir shawl was as expensive as a twentieth-century mink coat.
Despite the high price of these shawls, demand increased rapidly among European women. Recognizing the potential for profit, European textile manufacturers began to make imitation Kashmir shawls in factories located throughout Europe. Power loom woven shawls cost one-tenth the price of handmade Kashmir shawls. Paisley, Scotland had such high success producing imitation Kashmir shawls that the traditional Indian boteh pattern became known in the West as paisley.
Although the huge supply of imitation shawls damaged the popularity of Kashmir shawls, it was another fashion trend that ended the demand for these shawls. The large Kashmir shawls covered the hoops of crinoline skirts perfectly on chilly days. But the 1870 fashion for the bustled skirt, which made the back of a women's dress into a decorative bump, would be completely covered by a Kashmir shawl. Wanting to show off their bustles, women stopped wearing the shawls.
Askari, Nasreen, and Liz Arthur. Uncut Cloth: Saris, Shawls, and Sashes. London, England: Merrell Holberton, 1999.
Goswamy, B. N., and Kalyan Krishna. Indian Costumes in the Collection of the Calico Museum of Textiles. Ahmedabad, India: D. S. Mehta, 1993.
[ See also Volume 1, India: Chadar ]