Besides its scenic beauty and history, the Kashmir Valley is known the world over its art and craft which also makes its local economy rich. Below is a brief introduction to the Kashmiri arts, crafts, and handloom.
A Carpet is a lifelong investment-it may well be the single most expensive purchase during your trip to Kashmir. Kashmiri carpets are world renowned for two things- they are handmade and they are always knotted, never tufted. It is extremely instructive to watch a carpet being made- your dealer can probably arrange it for you. Stretched tightly on a frame is the warp of Carpet. The weft threads are passed through, the ‘talim’ or design and color specifications are then worked out on this: a strand of yarn is looped through the warp & weft, knotted and then cut. The yarn used normally is silk, wool or silk and wool. Woolen carpets always have a cotton base (Warp & Weft), silk usually have cotton base.Sometimes however, the base is also silk in which case you will see that the fringe is silk; the cost increases proportionately. Occasionally, carpets are made on a cotton base, mainly of woolen pile with silk yarn used as highlights on certain motifs.
When the dealer specifies the percentage of each yarn used, he is taking into account the yarn used for the base too. Therefore, a carpet with a pure silk pile may be referred to as a 80% silk carpet.
Carpet weaving in Kashmir was not originally indigenous but is thought to have come in by way of Persia. Till today most designs are distinctly Persian with local; variations. One example, however, of a typical Kashmiri design is the tree of life. Persian design not withstanding, any carpet woven in Kashmir is referred to as Kashmiri. The color-way of Carpet, and its details differentiate it from any other carpet. And while on the subject of colors, it should be kept in mind that although the colors of Kashmiri carpets are more subtle and muted than elsewhere in the country, only chemical dyes are used-vegetable dyes have not been available now for hundred years.
The knotting of the carpet is the most important aspect, determining its durability and value, in addition to its design. Basically, the more knots per square inch, the greater its value and durability. Also there are single and double knotted carpets. You can quiet easily identify one from the other on the reverse of the carpet. The effect that it has on the pile, too, is important- a double knotted carpet has a pile that bends when you brush it one way with your hand, and stands upright when it is brushed in other direction. A Single knotted carpet is fluffier and more resistant to touch.
Far less expensive are these colorful floor coverings made from woolen and cotton fiber which has been manually pressed into shape. Prices vary with the percentage of wool- a Namda containing 80% wool being more expensive than one containing 20% wool. Chain stitch embroidery in woolen and cotton thread is worked on these rugs.
At first glance, all Papier Mache` objects look roughly the same, and the price differential seems almost unreasonable. However, besides at least three different grades of Papier` Mache`, some is actually cardboard or wood! The idea, however, is not to hood-wink the unwary, but to provide a cheaper product for someone who wants the look of Papier Mache`.
To make Papier Mache`, first paper is soaked in water till it disintegrates. It is then pounded, mixed with an adhesive solution, shaped over moulds, and allowed to dry and set before being painted and varnished.
Paper that has been pounded to pulp has the smoothest finish in the final product. When the pounding has not been thorough, the finish is less smooth.
The designs painted on objects of Papier Mache` are brightly colored. They vary in artistry and the choices of colors, and it is not difficult to tell a mediocre piece from an excellent one. Gold is used on most objects, either as the only color, or as the highlight for certain motifs, and besides the finish of the product, it is the quality of the gold used which determines the price. Pure Gold leaf which has the unmistakable luster, is far more expensive than bronze dust or gold poster paint. It also has much longer life and will never fade or tarnish.
Varnish which is applied to the finished product, imparts a high gloss and smoothness which increases with every coat.
Cardboard, usually indistinguishable from Papier Mache`, gives slightly when pressed firmly. Otherwise, the only difference is in the price, cardboard being cheaper than Papier Mache`.
Chain Stitch and Crewel Furnishings
Because of the high quality of embroidery done on wall hangings and rugs, Kashmiri crewel work is in great demand all over the world.
Chain stitch, be it in wool, silk or cotton, is done by hook rather than any needle. The hook is referred to as ari, and quality for quality, hook work covers a much larger area than needle work in the same amount of time.
All the embroidery is executed on white cotton fabric, pre-shrunk by the manufacturers. The intrinsic worth of each piece lies in the size of the stitches and the yarn used. Tiny stitches are used to cover the entire area-the figures or motifs are worked in striking colors; the background in a single color, made up of a series of coin sized concentric circles which impart dynamism and a sense of movement to a design. The background fabric should not be visible through the stitches.
Crewel is basically similar to chain stitch. It is also Chain stitch done on White background, but here the motifs, mainly stylish flowers, do not cover the entire surface, and the background is not embroidered upon. Wool is almost invariably used in Crewel work and color ways are not as elaborate as in Chain stitch. They make excellent household furnishings being hand or machine washable.
Pampore, outside Srinagar, is the only place in the world besides Spain where saffron is grown. The crocus Sativus which blooms for a brief month in the year, has six golden stamens and one crimson one. It is the crimson Stamen which when collected and dried is referred to as the most expensive spice in the world. Sealed jars of this Spice, with the Government laboratory’s stamp approval, are available all over Srinagar. When buying loose saffron, sampling one strand is enough, for the flavor and fragrance of saffron are unmistakable.
The climate of Kashmir is ideal for walnut and almond trees which grow here in abundance. Natural honey too, is a produce of the apiaries which abound in the state.
Sericulture and tweed weaving are more important industries in Kashmir, with departments of the State got. Closely monitoring the process. Interestingly, just as little or no raw-material for tweed comes from Kashmir, almost no weaving and printing of silk is done in the state. However, the cocoon reared in Kashmir is of the superior quality, yielding an extremely fine fiber, and any silk woven from this thread becomes known. The fineness of the yarn lends itself particularly well to the weaves known as ‘chinon’ and ‘crepe de chine’, in addition to the universally recognized silk weave.
Tweed on the other hand is woven in Kashmir with pure, never blended, wool. The resultant fabric, made with imported know-how, compares favorably with the best in the world. It is available by the length occasionally as ready to wear garments.
This garment, somewhere between a coat and a cloak, is eminently suited to the Kashmiri way of life, being loose enough to admit the inevitable brazier of live coals which is carried around in much the same way as a hot water bottle, Men’s pherans are always made of tweed or coarse wool; women’s pherans, somewhat more stylized, are most commonly made of raffel, which splashes of ari or hook embroidery at the throat, cuffs and edges. The quality of embroidery and thickness of the raffel determines the price.
There are three fibers from which the Kashmiri shawls are made- wool, Pashmina nad shahtoosh. The prices of three cannot be compared – woolen shawls being within the reach of the most modest budget, and Shahtoosh being a once-in-a-lifetime purchase.
Woolen shawls are popular because of the embroidery worked on them which is a special to Kashmir. Both embroidery and the type of wool used causes differences in price. Wool woven in Kashmir is raffel and is 100% pure. Many kinds of embroidery are worked on shawls – ‘sozni’ or needlework is generally done in a panel along the sides of the shawl. Motifs, usually abstract designs or stylized paisleys and flowers are worked in one or two, occasionally three colors, all subdued.
Another type of needle embroidery is popularly known as Papier Mache` work because of the design and the style in which it is executed. This is done either in broad panels or either side of the breadth of a shawl, or covering the entire surface of a stole.
Another type of embroidery is ari or hook embroidery; motifs are well-known flower design finely worked in concentric rings of chain stitch.
Pashina is unmistakable for its softness. Pashmina yarn is spun from the hair of the ibex found at 14,000 ft above the sea level, although pure pashmina is expensive, the cost is sometimes brought down by blending it with rabbit fur or with wool.
Shahtoosh , the legendary ‘ring shawl’ is incredible for its lightness, softness and warmth. The astronomical price it commands in the market is due to the scarcity of raw-material. High in the plateaux of Tibet and the eastern part of Ladakh, at an altitude of above 5,000 meters, roam Pantholops Hodgosoni or Tibetan antelope. During grazing, a few strands of the downy hair from the throat are shed and it is these which are painstakingly collected until there are enough for a shawl. Yarn is spun either from shahtoosh alone, or with pashmina, bringing down the cost somewhat. In the case of pure shahtoosh too, there are many qualities-the yarn can be spun so skillfully as to resemble a strand of silk. Not only are shawls made from such fine yarn extremely expensive, they can only be loosely woven and are too flimsy for embroidery to be done on them. Unlike woolen or Pashmina shawls, Shahtoosh is seldom dyed-that would be rather like dyeing gold! Its natural color is mousy brown, and it is, at the most, sparsely embroidered.
Willow rushes that grow plentifully in marshes and lakes in Kashmir are used to make charmingly quaint objects, ranging from shopping baskets and lampshades to tables and chairs, all generally in expensive. To increase their life-span, unvarnished products should be chisen and frequentle sprayed with water, particularly in hot, dry climates, to prevent them from brittle.
Kashmir is the only part of India where the walnut tree grows. Its color, grains and inherent sheen are unique and unmistakable, and the carving and fret work that is done on this wood is of a very superior quality. There are two types of walnut trees – the fruit bearing species whose wood is so well- known, and one which bears no fruit and is locally known as ‘zangul’. Zangul has none of the beauty of walnut wood, being much less strong and possessing no grain, and will not be dealt with here.
The walnut wood is almost black, and the grain here is much more pronounced than the wood of the trunk which is lighter in color. The branches have the lightest color, being almost blonde, and have no noticeable grain. The intrinsic worth of the wood from each part of the tree differs- that from the root being the most expensive and the branches having the lowest price.
When a dealer buys a whole tree and leaves it to the season, a part of his capital becomes blocked for that period and this will naturally be reflected in the cost of his product. A cheaper product, on the other hand, is liable to warp, or in case it is taken to warmer climes, will crack or shrink.
Knots on any tree are natural and inevitable, but as their appearance is commonly thought to mar the beauty and smoothness of the finished product, knots are usually concealed skillfully in the sawing, as it is difficult, though not impossible, to mask them while carving.
Carving is the demonstration of the carver’s skill, and walnut is eminently suitable for this, being one of the strongest varieties of wood. There are several varieties of carving-deep carving usually with dragon or lotus flower motifs, two inches deep or more; shallow carving, half an inch deep done all over the flat surface; open or lattice work, usually depicting the Chinar motif.; and most popularly, semi carving, which is a thin panel along the rim of a surface, with perhaps a Centre motif. The advantage of the semi-carving is that it allows the grain of wood to be displayed, together with the carver’s skill. Naturally deep carving with all the skill and labor required, is the most expensive.
Wax polishing brings out the sheen inherent in walnut wood, and is by far the most popular finish. Because varnish obscures the grain of the wood and alters its hue, it is seldom used. When choosing objects made from walnut wood, keep in mind that the type of carving and part of the tree used will affect the price.
The old city abounds with shops where objects of copper line the walls, the floor and even the ceiling made generally for the local market. Craftsmen can often be seen engraving objects of household utility-samovars, bowls, plates and trays. Floral, stylized, geometric, leaf and sometimes calligraphic motifs are engraved or embossed on copper, and occasionally silver, to cover the entire surface with intricate designs which are then oxidized, the better to stand out from the background. The work known as ‘naqash’ determines the price of the object, as does the weight.
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