Kashmiri women handcraft Pashmina shawls with dignity in Srinagar

A first-of-its-kind initiative is helping women artisans recreate authentic Pashmina shawls that are making a comeback in Kashmir

Updated - July 25, 2023 05:05 pm IST

Published - July 21, 2023 01:35 am IST

Women artisans in the Valley commute daily to the karkhana
to hand-spin the yarn used in weaving Pashmina shawls. 

Women artisans in the Valley commute daily to the karkhana to hand-spin the yarn used in weaving Pashmina shawls.  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Breaking from the tradition, Ruhi Jan, in her 40s, an artisan from Srinagar’s Zaina Kadal, awaits a special bus service around 9.30 a.m. every day to travel seven kilometres to reach the Zaevyul, a unique karkhana (factory) in Srinagar’s Umarhair area. The small factory is located inside a multi-storey house, where she is joined by 30 women artisans like her who travel from different parts of the old city every morning.

At a time when women artisans are opting out of the State’s handicraft industry, this is a rare artisan-centric initiative which has brought them back to revive the hand-made exquisite Kashmiri Pashmina shawls and re-energise the industry.

“For ages, women spinners in Kashmir have been used to working from home. It impacted their efficiency, output and earnings. The Zaevuyl karkhana set up at the beginning of this year is now providing them with safe working environment and better wages,” says Ruhi. She and her co-workers are happy to be going to ‘office’ and working with dignity, though for most of them, it was not an easy decision.

The art of spinning is at the core of weaving the finest Pashmina shawls. And for centuries, women have been traditionally adept at spinning, while the men worked as weavers in the shawl industry.

But in Ruhi’s family, seven female members quit spinning due to low wages. “They all took up jobs in the private sector,” she says.

Zeenat Arifa, an artisan from Narwara in Srinagar, says “Working at the back end of shawl production, the profit never percolated to us. The shawl merchants paid us a meagre ₹2 per thread length and our wages depended on the amount of work we could finish within a stipulated time. It was difficult for the women spinners to make ends meet and it compelled us to give up hand spinning shawls.”

As per the official estimate of the State Department of Handicrafts, in 2018, there were 3.77 lakh artisans in Kashmir of whom 47.4% were women.

However, power looms and poor wages drove 10,000 women artisans away from the job of spinning in the State.

Wajahat Qazi, a writer-turned-entrepreneur came up with a novel idea to stem the attrition. He set up the first karkhana in the Valley encouraging women to travel to work and paid them monthly wages. “Pashmina shawls give Kashmir its identity. The hand spinning of the Cashmere wool creates magic. My aim is to revive and retain centuries-old ways and means of shawl production, without introducing machines at any stage,” says Qazi, who launched the Zaevyul label in March.

“Over 90% of our artisans are women. Instead of remuneration based on the volume of work they do, we pay monthly wages plus incentives; this provides them with a decent living, he adds. The women now earn ₹14,000 per month, besides a cut from the profits.

The shawls made by these spinners and weavers have a quick response (QSR) code on the label that provides all details of the artisans. “We are using digital passports that provide all details of the final product, from its genesis to completion. This helps to return a fair percentage of the profit to artisans,” says Qazi, who believes better wages and work environment coupled with social security will encourage artisans to carry on with their craftsmanship and keep the craft alive in its pristine and authentic form.

The karkhana’ facilitates having the entire process of Pashmina shawl making under one roof, unlike in the past when women spun the Cashmere wool yarn at home. Now, from spinning to weaving, dehairing to dyeing, hand embroidery to washing, every stage is carried out under one roof.

Institutionalising the work was initially challenging. “The cottage industry is finally taking shape again, says Qazi, who has also launched the website zaevyul.com for information about, and accessibility to, the high-quality product. A Pashmina shawl costs anywhere from ₹25,000 to ₹200,000 depending on the intricate work and yarn used.

The raw Pashmina is procured from high-altitude regions of Ladakh and engages artisans from Kargil and Leh Zaevyul aggregates craftswomen and their skillsets and helps create linkages that are necessary for the survival of the craft. It also uses only organic dyes instead of the cultivated norm of chemical dyeing to save the craft in an eco-friendly manner. “Everybody participates and also minimizes waste in production,” says Qazi.

“We care for a sustainable environment and wish to be part of the circular economy paradigm,” he adds.

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