Srinagar, India–It was in October that Shaista Bilal, a resident of the outdated quarters of Srinagar in Kashmir, first heard of a spinning wheel that works by a pedal, to yarn pashmina.

The 37-year-old homemaker had for years, in her adolescence, spun uncooked pashmina into threads on a standard picket spinning wheel, referred to as yinder in Kashmiri. On that, it could take her about two months to yarn sufficient pashmina for a single scarf.

As soon as the pashmina was prepared, artisans would weave the hand-spun wool into fine-quality shawls or material famously identified internationally as cashmere, a course of that will take one other week.

Shaista had given up pashmina spinning nearly twenty years in the past when she joined faculty and didn’t resume the work after her marriage. The method of spinning pashmina was too tedious and gave little monetary returns to the newlywed.

Now in want of cash, Shaista went again to yarn pashmina as soon as once more, this time at Me & Okay, a Srinagar-based luxurious worldwide cashmere model. There she works on the brand new yinder which has practically halved the time taken to yarn about 250 grams of pashmina, the quantity wanted for one scarf, to about 40 days from about two months.

“There’s a large distinction between the 2,” Shaista informed Al Jazeera sitting behind a yinder fitted with a pedal, calling it “very useful” because it helps her spin extra pashmina in much less time.

“That is very snug as a result of it permits you to stay seated on a bench in contrast to sitting on the ground. Even the ladies who’ve backaches can freely work on this.”

That’s the wager that Shaista’s employer and the state authorities are making – that the benefit of the brand new yinder, a faster turnaround and the power to earn extra will assist revive the fading artwork of spinning pashmina by hand.

A dying enterprise

Pashmina shawls are woven from the fleece of domesticated, excessive altitude Himalayan Capra hircus goats, a particular species of goat discovered within the Himalayan vary in Tibet, Ladakh and Nepal.

Spinning pashmina and shahtoosh was as soon as a family affair in Kashmir, primarily the area of younger women and girls, and within the Nineteen Nineties there have been tens of 1000’s of girls concerned within the course of throughout Kashmir, stated Mahmood Shah, director of the state authorities’s Kashmir Handicraft and Handloom Division. However due to poor wages – one rupee per thread – most ladies ultimately left the enterprise and there are actually just a few thousand nonetheless spinning pashmina, he stated.

“This spinning [of pashmina], you’ll be able to say 99 % was accomplished by the ladies right here. Their contribution has been immense within the commerce,” Shah informed Al Jazeera.

Aside from the poor wages, competitors from mechanised spinning mills in Kashmir and Punjab state additionally performed a task in decimating the handwoven business.

As an illustration, whereas it price $370 to spin by hand one kilogram of pashmina, the identical factor may very well be accomplished for a miniscule $30 on a mechanised mill, Mujtaba Kadri, founding father of Me & Okay, informed Al Jazeera.

The ensuing rise of low cost pashmina shawls decimated the handwoven business and led to the “marginalisation of girls artisans,” Shah stated.

One other blow to the spinners and the weavers got here in 2000 when the Indian authorities banned shahtoosh shawls, probably the most wanted for his or her fineness which got here at a premium, following reviews that Tibetan antelopes have been killed for his or her hair.

“When the ban on shahtoosh occurred, it led to a point of marginalisation,” of the spinners, Shah stated. However when the mechanical spinning machines got here, “the craft reached the breaking point,” he added.

As an illustration, within the monetary yr ending March 2021, the state exported shawls price 1.7 billion rupees ($23.5m), a decline of greater than 70 % from the yr ending March 2013 when it exported shawls price 6.2 billion rupees.

Kashmir gov’t plans to set a minimal value for pashmina shawls to spice up commerce [File: Bilal Kuchay/Al Jazeera]

A turnaround?

Now the Kashmir authorities is making an attempt to alter issues. Aside from introducing the brand new yinder in October, it has additionally elevated the charges for the hand-spinning of pashmina to 2.5 rupees a thread, up from one rupee.

“If the ladies don’t earn an honest wage element why ought to they do it? Until and till it’s profitable for them, they won’t do it,” Shah stated.

The federal government can be engaged on bringing in a minimal help value, a authorities regulated pricing which might set the beginning value for a single piece of pashmina scarf at 12,000 rupees ($160) to make sure higher revenue for the sellers.

Each the federal government and the sellers are betting on the brand new spinning wheel to assist revive the artwork and the enterprise.

“This new machine is a sport changer,” stated Me & Okay’s Kadri, including it’s bringing extra girls again to the outdated conventional hand spinning of pashmina “which is an effective factor for this business.”

Kadri, who has been within the scarf commerce for greater than twenty years and exports the hand-made wrap internationally, has skilled dozens of girls, together with Shaista, to deal with the brand new spinning wheels that come fitted with a pedal. Thus far he has supplied without cost 40 models to girls, he stated. One unit prices about $80.

The Kashmir Handicraft and Handloom Division has additionally arrange coaching centres throughout Kashmir to coach girls on the brand new spinning wheel with the intention to revive the “good outdated days” of pashmina work.

Misbranding and GI Tag

Officers on the handicraft division are additionally making an attempt to revive the premium on pashmina which can’t be spun on a machine or a loom because of its fragility, they are saying.

To avoid wasting labour prices, some merchants strengthened uncooked pashmina with plastic fibres permitting them to make use of the looms for quicker manufacturing.

The shawls are then soaked in a light acid to dissolve the plastic. “And when that occurs, it results in the shrinkage of the scarf and lint seems inside six months,” Shah stated. “The standard of the shawls has gone down significantly.”

The US normal for good high quality cashmere is 11-18 microns of thickness. The Kashmiri handspun pashmina’s thickness is between 11-15 microns.

Authorities officers are additionally making an attempt to revive the premium of the pashmina tag. Amritsari shawls, because the machine-spun imitation shawls are referred to as, have affected the gross sales of real Kashmiri shawls since they’re much cheaper. A number of merchants from Kashmir have additionally purchased into the economics and purchase low cost shawls from Amritsar, or make them on their very own mechanised mills, which they promote in Kashmir at excessive costs like pashminas.

To struggle the misbranding, the native authorities introduced in a geographical indication (GI) tag – a type of mental property or certification given to sure items or merchandise from a particular area.

Although Kashmir began GI tagging pashmina merchandise in 2013, it is just up to now yr that authorities officers have stepped up their efforts on that entrance.

Each hand-spun and hand-woven product goes right into a laboratory the place its thickness, high quality and materials is checked beneath a microscope and thru numerous different parameters.

As soon as a scarf is discovered to be each hand spun and hand woven, a tag is connected with a novel eight-digit code, which is linked to a database that reveals the place the scarf is from, and who has made it.

“Anybody, wherever on the earth can test by means of that code whether or not the scarf is genuine pashmina or handcrafted,” Mohammad Younis, an official on the Pashmina Testing and High quality Certification Middle, informed Al Jazeera.

Shah stated that individuals can get machine-made shawls wherever on the earth however Kashmir’s specialisation is its ability set which must be protected.

“The world is aware of us for our ability set … We’ve to guard [it],” he stated.

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