The shopkeeper sized me up, gave a conspiratorial look, and disappeared in the back of the shop. He returned with a suitcase full of muted brown-grey shawls so fine you might think they could blow away in a breeze.
Shahtoosh, a Persian word often said to mean “king of fine wool,” refers to shawls made from the hair of the endangered Tibetan Chiru antelope.
In Your Bucket Because…
- A shawl is a comforting traveling companion.
- A cashmere or pashmina shawl is a timeless gift.
- For discerning travelers and tourists.
I knew that buying and selling the luxurious shawls was illegal: My request was rooted in curiosity not acquisitiveness. I had seen one owned by an Indian friend who had received it as a gift: In India, a shahtoosh shawl is an heirloom. Obviously, the evidence was in the suitcase: Poaching and smuggling are still going on. The price for rarity and risk: $2,000. I passed.
Shahtoosh is comparable to white goose down — the best of its kind — but shahtoosh is rare. Unlike the wide array of dyes for colored pashmina shawls, shahtoosh is left a natural beige-grey-brown. The absence of color is compensated by incomparable lightness and softness — finer than hair, it can only be delicately hand-loomed. A test among connoisseurs is to slip the shawl through a ring.
The Shahtoosh Ban and the Tibetan Antelope
Originally, strands of hair were gathered from bushes rubbed by the antelopes, but high demand led to systematic hunting.
Once demand from luxury markets surpassed supply, prices from a single shawl skyrocketed up to as much as $15,000. It takes at least two antelopes to make one shawl, and according to estimates, some 20,000 antelopes are killed each year to meet the demand. As a result, the antelope population declined dramatically. CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) banned the trade in 1975. The U.S. listed the Tibetan antelope under the Endangered Species Act in 2006.
Thousands of Kashmiri weavers lost their jobs when Kashmir finally enforced the ban in 2000. Yet, the illegal market still represents 25 percent of what sales were before the ban. Although the population of antelopes has been increasing recently, some numbers speak for themselves: Of an estimated population of more than two million a century ago, only about 75,000 Chiru antelopes are left today. A recent bust uncovered a smuggling operation of 187 pounds of shahtoosh for a value of $1.75 million — representing the killing of 567 antelopes.
The Confusion about Buying Cashmere and Pashmina Shawls
Of course, India is famous for textiles, and there are hundreds of perfectly legal luxurious options for travelers. So, if you want to buy a cashmere shawl in India, let’s go back to basics.
The appellation cashmere is derived from the word Kashmir, the region of its origin. Made from the fine fleece that grows under the protective coarse hair of the outer coat of the Chyangra goat, commonly known as the cashmere goat, the wool helped both Kashmiri people and goats survive the harsh Himalayan winters at 5,000 feet of altitude. Note that Scottish cashmere is hardly a misnomer since Scottish mills import this wool from Kashmir.
Pashminas hit the streets and shoulders of the western world in a fashion fad 20 years ago. In India, pashmina does not refer to a shawl but to the wool itself. It is, in fact, almost identical to cashmere since both types of wool come from the same goat. The difference is that pashmina is spun from even finer hair than cashmere (less than seven ten-thousandths of an inch in diameter!).
When pashminas were first sold as the latest fashionable luxury (around $250), the wool was blended with 40 percent silk (for more sheen, strength and pliability). They would be soon followed by cheaper imports from China (down to $5 for synthetic shawls at flea markets).
As a result of the confusion, the appellation pashmina is not recognized as a separate fiber in the United States. Therefore, you will not find shawls labeled as “100 percent pashmina” — even if it were, in fact, pashmina. Instead, it might be labeled “100 percent cashmere” or, “100 percent new wool.”
Pashmina and cashmere are often sourced outside of India. Mongolia is the world largest producer, from herds raised in the Gobi Desert, with a quality said to be superior (due to better feeding conditions). China also produces pashmina wool. Nepal protects its production with its own certified appellation: Shangra pashmina.
Last but not least: One goat produces 4-6 ounces of fleece per year and it takes the yearly bounty of three goats to make one sweater. But in the future, prices might fluctuate in your favor thanks to Noori: the first cloned “cashmere goat.”
Pralad Kandel, owner of Quality Pashmina in Nepal, further explains that the fibers being very absorbent, the dyes take easily and deeply, and that every shawl has its own characteristics. As for the best way to wash pashmina/cashmere, use a mild detergent such as baby shampoo!
- Much to my surprise, cashmere shawls with a paisley design and in a pashmina/silk blend were not cheaper in India (or at duty-free shops) than in the United States. Some specialized websites advertise real pashmina for just over $50. There’s a lesson here: Do your homework!
- Other cashmere products are scarves, stoles, wraps, mufflers, blankets, and clothing.
- Bringing shahtoosh shawls into the U.S. is against the law.
- Haggling over cashmere or pashmina might get you “gifts,” but you won’t pay less.
- Credit cards are accepted in stores. Most vendors speak fair English.