Despite pashminas’ reputation for quality, low wages and counterfeit shawls are putting a centuries-old tradition at risk in Kashmir.
Kanihama, Indian-administered Kashmir - Shareefa Bano does not remember exactly when she started her job making pashmina shawls - the warm, soft, and delicate fabric sold in luxury outlets across the world.
“I only remember that I was only 12 years old at the time," she tells TRT World.
For Shareefa, the trade is part of the family business. Her husband and five brother-in-laws also make shawls - a craft passed down to them from their great grandparents.
But the tradition is likely to end with her generation and will not be passed on to her children.
Eye strain, poor body posture, long working hours and meagre profits are all realities of the job the family do not want their children to experience.
“It’s better to kill your children than to tell them to do this work,” Shareefa says, at her home in the village of Kanihama in north Kashmir, 20 kilometres from the region’s main city of Srinagar. The Kani form of shawls is said to have originated from the village.
The village is known for its arts and crafts industry, particularly the production of shawls.
Kashmiri pashminas are woven from the pashmina yarn, a ball of fine cashmere wool, and produced over nine stages. The entire process is done manually as the soft fibre often breaks during the process and cannot be fixed any other way than by hand.
Pashminas, as well as Kani shawls, are highly regarded for their elegance and softness. The name derives from the Persian for ‘from wool’.
One of Kashmir’s oldest traditional crafts, Shawl-making is said to have been introduced to the region by the 15th-century ruler of Kashmir, Zayn-ul-Abidin, who brought in weavers from Central Asia, Since then the craft has been passed from generation to generation.
Shareefa designs and produces shawls destined for the Middle East, where they’ll be worn as turbans by Arab men.
“The final product is the result of thorough hand spinning and weaving,” says Shareefa. “It’s a tedious job.”
Long hours, little return
Despite her skill for embroidery techniques, such as Sozni and Ari, she feels no more passion for her job and there are many others like her.
The tradition faces multiple challenges, the most severe of which is low pay.
As a skill that is learned and passed on within families, if enough pashmina weavers follow Shareefa’s example in preventing their children from pursuing it as a career, the industry faces ruin.
“Many people are switching to other jobs for better wages,” Shareefa warns.
The manufacture of a single shawl takes months or even years for a skilled artisan but producers like Shareefa complain that there is little reward for them in the process. Pay and profits have remained stagnant while inflation forces living costs to rise.
An original pashmina shawl starts at $350 depending on the quality of the product and craftsmanship, while a Kani shawl starts at $800, but for producers like Shareefa, that amounts to less than two dollars a day for a shift that could last up to 10 hours.
“We spent eight to 10 hours on designing and at the end of the day we only make 100 rupees ($1.45) or 150 a day which is not even enough to feed you,” says Shareefa, who has four children to look after.
Even that rate is on the higher end of the scale, she adds: “The women who only spin yarn on the wheel make just INR 60 per day ($0.87).”
The low wages are not the only threat to the future of the shawl-making industry, with counterfeiting also eating into the industry’s potential for profit.
Using nylon as a source material and machines that operate illegally, counterfeiters can produce similar-looking - albeit lower quality - shawls for cheaper.
“My father-in-law used to feed his family from the craft and also built a house from his earnings but today we fail to make the ends meet,” Shareefa says. Her husband, Farooq Ahmad Dar, who has been in the industry for more more than 25 years, earns just 5000 to 6000 rupees ($87) a month, which she says is not even enough to cover the cost of her children’s education.
Spending 10 hours a day in a crouched position at a spinning loom comes with its share of occupational hazards.
Dar, 50, says that they experience issues like neck pain, problems with their eyesight, and backache due to their jobs.
“We carry on because we do not have any other skills. My daughter also knows the skills, she is in class 12 but I never want her to be exploited like we have been. We are forced to do this work because we cannot do anything else,” he says.
“If I do some hard labour I can earn 500 rupees ($7.25) a day, my hands become hard and I cannot then weave shawls for ten days because you need to have smooth skin on your hands. We are stuck in it [shawl weaving],” he explains.
The young girls in the village, such as 22-year-old Sumera Gul, who is a graduate in Arts, know the craft but want to leave as soon as they find another job.
“The wages are so low that if one month I buy a dress from my earnings, I have to wait another month so that I have enough money to stitch it,“ Sumera says.
Even given their low wages, there’s no guarantee that their payments will arrive on time.
If an artisan completes a contract, it may take up to two or three months before they receive money from whoever commissioned the work.
“We are simply labourers in the craft. There is a chain of contractors in between. The real money is made by the retailers and it's we who do the hard work,” says 45-year-old Hajira Begum, another artisan.
While on the high end of the Western market, a finely crafted shawl can sell for thousands of dollars, the pashmina shawl maker makes a maximum of two pieces a year at a pittance.
The artisans add that the government provides little in the way of help for the weavers and craftspeople. A single loom costs 10,000 rupees ($145) to set up, pricing out most artisans.
“The main issue is wages. They are being paid what they were paid 20 years ago which has put the future of this industry at a stake,” Parvez Ahmad Bhat, the President of Jammu and Kashmir Artisans Rehabilitation Forum, tells TRT World.
“The machine-made products are also becoming common, which is destroying the real craft.”