Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Popular Pashmina by Victoria Chatham

One of the many aspects of writing historical novels is clothing your characters in the correct costume of the day. The Regency, my favorite historical period, was the most under-dressed era since the ancient Greeks emulating their draperies  with light and flowing muslin and silk. Imported from India by the East India Company muslin, especially white muslin, became the prerogative of the upper classes. Muslin had identical warp and weft and came in different weights and widths. It could be embroidered or printed and easily dyed. Muslin could be used for day or evening wear, but was not very warm. As houses could be cold and draughty and ladies dresses were rarely designed for warmth, the addition of a Kashmir shawl thrown around her shoulders or worn as a stole for evening wear would have given some comfort and protection from any chills.

Kashmir, or cashmere as we know it today, is the fiber spun from the soft, downy winter undercoat of goats, especially Asian goats. As the days grow shorter, this fine underhair grows longer. The wool is collected during the spring moulting season when the goats naturally shed their winter wool. If it is collected by hand and combing there is a higher yield of pure fiber. If the fleece is shorn it has to be separated from the coarse outer hair, which can be used for brushes and coarser fabrics. 

The founder of this industry is traditionally considered to be the fifteenth century ruler of Kashmir, a region in northwest India, Zayn-ul-Abidin, who introduced weavers from Turkestan. From pashm (the Persian word for wool), these weavers produced the wonderfully warm and soft pashmina shawls. These were introduced into Western Europe by the General-in-Chief of the French Campaign in Egypt (1799-1802) who sent one to Paris where it caused immediate interest.

Paisley became a popular pattern with which to decorate these shawls and could either be woven or embroidered in that pattern. The paisley pattern that we know so well today may have been derived from the buta or boteh, which is a droplet shaped design originating in Persia (Iran). It is also sometimes called Persian pickles in America and Welsh pears if used in Welsh textiles. However, the western name is likely derived from the town of Paisley in Renfrewshire, Scotland, which became the major producer of paisley shawls during the period 1800 – 1850.

Today we don’t have to worry about flimsy dresses or cold houses but still enjoy our pashminas in a variety of plain or patterned colors. They come in a variety of fabrics from wool to cotton and silk and various mixes of man-made fibers. They still add a touch of luxury and can enhance any outfit whether you choose to dress up or down, classy or casual and is one of the most versatile fashion additions to add to any wardrobe.

Jane Austen's World

Victoria Chatham