A carpet is a life-long 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 hand made, never machine made. And they are always knotted, never tufted. It is extremely instructive to watch a carpet being made your dealer can probably arrange this for you.
An example of Kashmiri embroidery.
Stretched tightly on a frame is the warp of a 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 and weft, knotted and then cut. The yarn used normally is silk, wool or silk and wool. Woollen carpets always have a cotton base (warp & weft), silk usually has a 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 woollen 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 per cent silk carpet.' Do not be alarmed! He is merely stating that the warp and weft are not of silk.
A third type of yarn, staple, also referred to as mercerized cotton, is being mentioned here although it is by no means traditionally Kashmiri, being a man-made fiber. Its shine is not unlike that of silk, although in price it is much lower than silk, but more expensive than wool. Staple carpets are made to fill a slot in the market customers demand a carpet which is not unlike silk in appearance to blend with their decor of the moment. In a couple of years they will change their furniture and furnishings and the staple carpet will have served its purpose, as such a carpet is neither durable nor increases in value with time. One important difference between silk and staple is that pure silk is far lighter than staple, area for area. Thus a 3 ft x 5 ft carpet of silk will never weigh more than 4 kg; one of staple never less than 6 kg.
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 typically Kashmiri design is the tree of life. Persian design notwithstanding, any carpet woven in Kashmir is referred to as Kashmiri. The color-way of a carpet, and its details differentiate it from any other carpet. And while on the subject of color, 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 a hundred years.
The knotting of a 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. Count the number of knots on the reverse of a carpet in any one square inch. It should be roughly the same as the dealer tells you, give or take 10 knots. The most common configurations for knots on wool or silk Kashmiri carpets are 18x 18, 18x20,20x20, 20x22, or 22x22. A carpet with 18x 18=360 knots per square inch will obviously cost less than one with 22x22=484. If you are told that a carpet contains 360 knots, and your count indicates about 10 less, it simply means that the weft has not been evenly combed down in parts this is not a fault, and several random checks throughout the carpet will even out the figure to the dealer's estimate. Also, there are single and double knotted carpets. You can quite 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 another direction. A single knotted carpet is fluffier and more resistant to the touch: there is no 'right' and 'wrong' side to brush it.
Why make knots at all? you may ask. It increases the durability dramatically than had the pile just been looped through the base and cut. Knotted carpets are always stiffer and firmer they don't flop or bend as easily as do tufted carpets.
The points to keep in mind when choosing a carpet, then, are: - whether it has been made of silk (pile) on silk (base), silk pile on cotton base, silk and wool on cotton base or wool on cotton base: - the number of knots on the reverse of the carpet: - whether one or more line in the design has been omitted completely in which case the pattern looks lopsided: - whether any element in the design has been wrongly woven so that one motif is larger or smaller at one end than the corresponding motif at another end, or any similar fault: - whether each motif or element of design has clear. crisp outlines. Blurred edges indicate a fault In the weaving. - whether the edges of the carpet are crooked as if It had been incorrectly mounted on the frame, so that one end Is broader than another.
Far less expensive are these colorful floor coverings made from woollen and cotton fiber which has been manually pressed into shape. Prices vary with the percentage of wool, a namda containing 80 per cent wool being more expenslve than one containing 20 per cent wool. Chain stitch embroidery in woollen 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 hoodwink 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 so thorough, the finish is less smooth.
Papier mache` table lamp.
The designs painted on objects of papier mache are brightly colored. They vary in artistry and the choice 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 a highlight for certain motifs, and besides the finish of the product, it is the quality of gold used which determines the price. Pure gold leaf, which has an unmistakable luster, is far more expensive than bronze dust or gold poster paint. It also has a much longer life and will never fade or tarnish.
Varnish, which is applied to the finished product, imparts a high gloss and smoothness which in- creases with every coat.
Cardboard, virtually indistinguishable from papier mache, gives in slightly when pressed firmly. Otherwise the only difference is in the price, cardboard being cheaper than papier mache.
Because of the high quality of embroidery done on wall hangings and rugs, Kashmiri crewel work is in great demand throughout the world.
Chain stitch, be it in wool, silk or cotton, is done by hook rather than by 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.
Workers finish a crewel-embroidered fabric.
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 in the yarn used. Tiny stitches are used to cover the entire area the figure 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 the design. Stitches ought to be small, even sized and neat. The background fabric should not be visible through the stitches.
Crewel is basically similar to chain stitch. It is also chain stitch done on a white background, but here the motifs, mainly stylized flowers, do not cover the entire surface, and the background is not embroidered upon. Wool is almost invariably used in crewel work and colorways are not as elaborate as in chain stitch, two or three colors being the norm here. This fabric is available in bolts, and is sold by the length. 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 of 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 important industries in Kashmir, with departments of the state government 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 a superior quality, yielding an extremely fine fiber, and any silk woven from this thread becomes known, quite legitimately, as Kashmiri silk. 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. The cost of silk fabric goes up with its weight per meter, 30 grams being at one end of the scale and 80 grams at the other. Fabric is generally sold by the length as saris and its lightness and softness lends itself well to shirting and dress material.
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. with splashes of ari or hook embroidery at the throat, cuffs and edges. The quality of embroidery and thickness of the raffel determines the price.
The richly embroidered 'neck' of a pheran.
There are three fibers from which Kashmiri shawls are made wool, pashmina and shahtoosh. The prices of the three cannot be compared woollen shawls being within the reach of the most modest budget, and shahtoosh being a once-in-a-lifetime purchase.
Woollen shawls are popular because of the embroidery worked on them which is special to Kashmir. Both embroidery and the type of wool used causes differences in the price.
Wool woven in Kashmir is known as raffel and is always 100 per cent pure. Sometimes blends from other parts of the country are used and Kashmiri embroidery is worked on them. These blends contain either cashmilon, cotton, or a mixture of both. 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. The stitch employed is not unlike stem stitch, and only the outline of the design is embroidered. The fineness of the workmanship and the amount of embroidery determines the value of the shawl.
Sozni is often done so skillfully that the motif appears on both sides of the shawl each side having a different colorway. This naturally has a bearing on the cost.
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 on either side of the breadth of a shawl, or covering the entire surface of a stole. Flowers and leaves are worked in satin stitch in bright colors such as those of papier mache and each motif is then outlined in black.
A third type of embroidery is ari or hook embroidery; motifs here are the well-known flower design finely worked in concentric rings of chain stitch.
Pashmina is unmistakable for its softness. Pashmina yarn is spun from the hair of the ibex found at 14,000 ft above sea level. Although pure pashmina is expensive, the cost is sometimes brought down by blending it with rabbit fur or with wool. It is on. pashmina shawls that Kashmir's most exquisite embroidery is worked, sometimes covering the entire surface, earning it the name of 'jamawar'. A jamavar shawl can, by virtue of the embroidery, increase the value of a shawl three-fold. Not all pashmina shawls, however, have such lavish embroidery some are embroidered on a narrow panel bordering the four sides of a shawl, others in narrow strips running diagonally through the shawl.
A second, less frequently seen weave, done only on pashmina, covers the surface with tiny lozenge shaped squares, earning it the delightful name of 'chashme bulbul,' or eye of the bulbul. As this weave is a masterpiece of the weaver's art, it is normally not embroidered upon.
Shahtoosh, the legendary 'ring shawl' is incredible for its tightness, softness and warmth. The astronomical price it commands in the market is due to the scarcity of the raw material. High in the plateaus of Tibet and the eastern part of Ladakh, at an altitude of above 5,000 meters, roam Pantholops Hodgsoni, 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 woollen and 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 inexpensive. To increase their life-span, unvarnished products should be chosen and frequently sprayed with water, particularly in hot, dry climates, to prevent them becoming brittle.
A local crafts shop in the old city.
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 fretwork 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 root 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 value.
Often, when a tree is sawn, a marked difference in color is noticed between one part of the trunk and the other. This is overcome by dyeing the lighter part to the exact shade of the darker. Dye is prepared from the outer covering of the fruit of the walnut. Sometimes small objects of utility trays, bowls and the like are left with the natural variation of color for customers who find it appealing.
As the grain on any wood is its distinguishing feature, when a walnut tree is sawn, the prime motive is to display to full advantage its densely packed rings. After a tree is felled, the ideal period for which it should be left to season is two years. The advantage of seasoning is that molecules of moisture which are entrapped in the wood of the live tree evaporate so that shrinking takes place before the wood is cut and fashioned into objects for sale.
When a dealer buys a whole tree and leaves it to 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 a demonstration o. 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 and 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 the surface, with perhaps a center motif. The advantage of semi-carving is that it allows the grain of the 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 optimum thickness for items of furniture is one inch. Anything less than that will naturally be less expensive as it shortens the life of the object. Furniture which makes exclusive use of walnut wood will naturally cost more than articles in which zangul has been used for surfaces normally hidden from view.
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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