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Passion for pashmina


Mubashir Andraabi is experimenting with with motifs as well as embroidery.

The word pashmina evokes images of priceless shawls, super soft and delicately embroidered. It's also synonymous with Kashmir. But now, foreign hands are looking to give this traditional piece of textile a modern and edgy feel.

At Andraab, a newly opened boutique in West Nizamuddin in Delhi, American artist Robert Kushner's signature floral designs have been skillfully transposed to create a shawl that straddles both convention and creativity. The off-white base of the shawl contrasts with the lovely pinks and magentas of the angular lotuses strewn across the fabric.

"This is our first collaborative work with Kushner and we will be using more of his designs in future, " says Mubashir Andraabi, who established Andraab in 1996 along with his twin brother Muzakir. The Delhi store stocks stoles inspired by the work of Alexander Kori Girard, an American artist and designer who has extensively travelled in India. His designs are an interpretation of religious symbols and street signs.

After tasting success in Udaipur and Jaipur - where their stores won the patronage of visiting celebrities like actor Judi Dench - the Andraabi brothers are now ready to wrap Delhi fashionistas with their designs. Mubashir says his aim is to to make the pashmina wearable and trendy.

"Pashmina is no longer restricted to the odd family wedding. Today, no cocktail dress or formal office wear is incomplete without an elegant pashmina stole, " says Zahoor Mir, operations manager at Andraab.

The surprisingly minimalist store stocks hundreds of pashminas, with their colour palette varying from reds, browns and greys to off-whites, ivories and lavenders. There are stoles with overall embroidery, with a thin border or coloured stripes design. An ivory stole has a zebra motif woven all over.

"We have even done one with lion and skull motifs. Every year, we like to experiment with some pieces, make them edgy. We want to see how people react to them, " says Mubashir who has had no formal training in design but has developed an astute aesthetic sense over the years.

Traditional shawls still have winding vines, paisleys and birds in conventional colours. But Mubashir wants to change the holy grail of the Kashmiri textile tradition, the pashmina. He plays around not only with the motifs but also with the layout of the embroidery. Where traditionally the thread work is horizontal, he has made it vertical. At times, just one vertical half of a stole is adorned with embroidery. In another piece, he has used Rajasthani appliquê work on wool. It is a light yellow (an extraordinary colour for pashmina) shawl with the cow motif appliquêd all over. The cow, again, is not a traditional Kashmiri motif.

While the fusion of styles and art gives Andraab a definite edge over other players in the market, it is the simpler, functional pieces that get picked up the most by Western clients. His shawls and stoles with light embroidery and woven in colours that are fashionable and contemporary are very popular among these buyers.

"They go for a balance of colour and tradition, " says Mubashir who has similar tastes. He votes for a simple beige and red pashmina shawl as a favourite. Of course, the very traditional and heavy shawls also get picked up, but mostly by collectors. "They often frame them as art pieces, " says Mir. He has put up one such frame - inspired by a fabric that belonged to Tipu Sultan of Mysore and now hangs in Victoria & Albert museum in London - in the Delhi store. Made on greyish pashmina and silk blend, cotton threads have been used to weave an intricate pattern of vines endemic to the Deccan. It costs Rs 1. 75 lakh.

All these drapes are made by hand and the motifs are not embroidered but woven along with the fabric. Pashmina yarn is very delicate, 10-14 microns thick or about 1/5 the thickness of a human hair, that's why it cannot tolerate surface embroidery with needles.

From Mughal motifs of vines and birds to zebras and skulls, the craft of weaving pashmina shawls has come a long way. It is said to have been introduced in India in the 1400s by king Zain-Ul-Abdin and flourished under the Mughal rule. Pashmina yarn is obtained by picking the hair shed by a mountain goat which thrives in the very high altitudes of Kashmir, Nepal and Tibet. The hair shed by one goat can yield just about 100 g of pashmina yarn, hence the exorbitant cost. It takes the wool of three to four goats to produce one shawl. The yarn is woven with silk to give it durability and sheen.

As is happening with so many traditional crafts, pure pashmina too, is battling cheap rip-offs. "They are usually made in Nepal and on machines, " says Mir.

He admits that it is difficult to source weavers these days as most craftsmen don't want to labour for months. Andraab sources its kaarigars from traditional weaving families in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. "We give them incentives to stick to this craft. For example, we help them with their children's education, " he says.

Andraab prefers being niche. Mir claims they often turn down big orders. For him, it's about quality over quantity. "Every hand-woven shawl has a story behind it. It has stayed with the weaver and its family for more than a year and is treated almost like a child they've given birth to. Handwoven fabrics have feelings and warmth that machines can never create. "

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