By Nafeesa Syeed
- Skinner Inc.
- A detail of the 19th-century Kashmir moon shawl.
WASHINGTON – Three decades ago, a woman from the northeastern United States bought a bag of textiles at a yard sale of used goods that cost around $10.
Inside, there was a colorful shawl that she intended to cut up and turn into pillows. But she stowed the bundle within a box in her basement, consigning it to oblivion.
That is, until last year, when she was searching for items to include in a flea market for second-hand wares in her town northwest of Boston, Massachusetts. Upon rediscovering the long-lost shawl, the detailed stitching made her wonder of its worth.
A few months ago, that same shawl was sold at a Boston auction house for almost $60,000, which appraisers say set a world record for the sale of a “Kashmir moon shawl” at auction. A 19th-century creation, the shawl is a remnant of the transcontinental Kashmiri shawl industry’s heyday and a reflection of the fascination these textiles can still fetch.
Although the shawls are no longer the staple fashion accessory they once were a couple hundred years ago, Kashmiris continue to export contemporary shawls far beyond the subcontinent, and some are innovating ways to keep their trade afloat..
Left untouched for nearly 30 years, the six-foot-by-six-foot Kashmir shawl came to Gary Richards, director of the Oriental rugs and carpets department at Skinner Inc., in impeccable condition. A woman, whose identity the auction house said it could not release, brought the shawl to him last fall unaware of its heritage. The circular medallion design at the center was a giveaway that it was a moon shawl, and save for a few rewoven spots near that ring, Mr. Richards says the hand-stitched silk embroidery covering the entire square surface was intact. The colors—mustard yellow, gold, ivory, red and various hues of blue and green—filling the intricate floral designs also remained vibrant.
“I thought it was really fantastic,” he says. “The border was so fabulous no modern one (would) have one like that.”
A fragile piece, almost paper-thin, the shawl’s border tipped off appraisers to the shawl’s age. Mr. Richards says among the elements experts consider when dating a product are patterns in motifs and weaving and how they might have evolved over time. In this case, he says a design that includes dark lines running along the border clued them in to the early 1800s.
“This shawl had tremendous luck in its time to have come through 200 years in this kind of condition—it’s just phenomenal,” Mr. Richards says. “We’ve never had any Kashmir shawl that’s ever come close to this one.”
The age, quality and color drew heavy interest from international bidders, with the shawl ultimately selling in February for $59,250 (with the buyer’s premium added to the final $50,000-bid). Based on their research, the auction house says that amount broke the previous record for a moon shawl sale at auction.
Though experts confirmed this particular shawl was made in Kashmir, exactly how it ended up on American shores is unknown. But Kashmiri shawls have a long tradition of traveling outside the Himalayan region. Shawl-making goes back at least five centuries in Kashmir, and was a commercial undertaking from the get-go, with those in power sponsoring and overseeing the industry, historians say.
The shawls were sought-after gifts across Asia before making their way westward, eventually to North America. By the mid-1800s, with India under imperial rule, shawls grew into a sweeping fashion trend among European women. As Kashmiri-made shawls became pricier, the British and French mass produced affordable knockoffs with places like Paisley – a short train ride outside Glasgow in Scotland – becoming centers of shawl fabrication.
(Galleries at a museum in Paisley dedicated to shawl history have showcased how the town became the namesake of the paisley tear-drop shape often featured in shawl designs, and how shawl factories once dotted the area.)
This triggered an interplay between the world’s shawl-producing centers. The “moon” emblem adorning the shawl auctioned in Boston was, in fact, a 19th-century Western design that might have been of French origin, according to Chitralekha Zutshi, a professor of South Asian history and Kashmir expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Shawl-makers in Kashmir as well as in Europe widely adopted the moon pattern in their products, she says.
In the 19th century, Ms. Zutshi, who has chronicled the shawl industry’s development, says Kashmiri shawls were prized because they were handcrafted from a particular raw material—namely wool—and everything from their designs to their softness was esteemed. The move to replicate the shawls in Europe resulted in attempts to understand how the shawls were made and from where they came, including British experts studying the production process in Kashmir and even a writer penning a novel with a Kashmiri shawl as his narrator.
Ms. Zutshi says she’s not surprised an old shawl would be snapped up for tens of thousands of dollars, but unlike in the past, the origins of the shawls might be lost on those who remain captivated by the textiles.
“Today, I think there is very little understanding of where they come from…nor is there a desire to find out,” Ms. Zutshi says. “Shawls have firmly been reduced to rarities from the past—antiques, in effect—that fetch huge prices at auctions because they represent Eastern royalty and luxury.”
Though the European shawl-manufacturers have long shuttered their operations and some Kashmiri families once involved in the market have migrated to other fields, the tourist shopping districts in the valley of Kashmir are still stacked with locally made shawls. Production may not be on par with the scale of the glory days, but it’s a sign for some that shawls have endured through centuries, which includes surviving the recent two decades of unrest. Moreover, they persist, in some respects, as a globally desired commodity.
Inside Union Station, Washington’s busy train hub located just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol building, two mannequins displayed at a boutique’s storefront windows are draped in black and cream shawls bedecked with characteristic Kashmiri crewel work.
At the shop, named Kashmir, owner Javid Mahajan explains how he began importing shawls to the U.S. as a wholesaler more than a decade ago, supplying museum gift shops and other outlets, before opening this store and another in Baltimore, Maryland. His shawls range from about $120 to $1,400, depending on the amount of adornment. He says he keeps up with fashion preferences and caters to designs and colors in line with American aesthetics, such as most of his shawls having a black base, which buyers tend to prefer.
“They’ve heard about Kashmiri shawls, it’s ringing in the back of their ears, but they don’t know enough,” the grey-mustached Mr. Mahajan says of his customers, “so you explain to them why it’s so important.” To him, that means highlighting Kashmir’s shawl legacy, and emphasizing that his products are all hand-made in Kashmir and not machine-made copies from China.
The shop owner has also introduced another concept to his shawl enterprise: fair trade. A computer monitor prominently positioned in the showroom plays a slideshow on repeat, flashing images of men and women in “pherons”—the cloak-like tops Kashmiris wear—embroidering fabric. Mr. Mahajan says he and his brothers work directly with their producers, who are mostly on the outskirts of his native Srinagar, to ensure that they receive living wages as set by the government, no child labor is involved, and there are good working conditions. He says it translates into better quality and is a selling point for those customers who are increasingly conscious of the circumstances of the foreign goods they purchase, perhaps a step in the direction of rekindling interest in the shawls’ origins.
For Mr. Mahajan, the idea of fair trade also fosters preservation of the craft. He figures most Kashmiris are proud of their long history with the shawl and how it’s lasted, from say, the time of the moon shawl until now. But he finds that many handicraft workers in the city are opting for other labor with better pay. Providing fair wages, he says, means artisans will stay on the job. “You don’t want the hand-art to die. These artists create such beautiful stuff,” he says. “If we don’t just push it, it will die one day soon..”
Nafeesa Syeed is a freelance writer based in Washington and Delhi. You can follow her@NafeesaSyeed.