How to weave a Kashmir shawl

shawlweavers Kashmir 1985 by E. Adams


When Ellen and I travelled together to India in 1985-86, she had just graduated from the Ontario College of Art, and I had been weaving tapestries for several years, so both of us were keen to seek out Indian textile craft traditions.  We encountered the best example of tapestryweaving in the first days of our trip, in Kashmir.  I was left fascinated by the challenge of how to interpret design information given in line-by-line, stitch-by-stitch instructions, into tapestry images woven in a twill fabric, not just plain weave, and not to mention at 80 threads to the inch.   It seemed that no Western observer, early or recent, had known enough about weaving to explain.  The early ones shrugged it off as “loom embroidery”; more recently we can at least share the evidence of detailed photographs in the many opulent coffee-table books.  I began to study the subject in earnest for an OCA course paper in 1990, casting around for descriptive accounts, and making practical experiments springing from my tapestryweaver’s expectations.  At the same time, Kashmir’s ongoing struggle for some form of autonomy became more entrenched and dangerous.  Given the few fragments of documentary evidence or useful comments, my knowledge of shawlweaving is largely self-taught and reverse-engineered, to discover how to get to the resulting fabric.  Popular interest in the historic paisley or Kashmir shawl has provided me many opportunities for published articles and talks.
Weaving has always been inherently digital, but understanding what that means is more recent.  The advent of computer-assisted design and a revival of production in Kashmir’s proud tradition today, offer opportunities to improve working methods and recreate designs from antique shawl fabrics.  The prospects for the survival of this obviously anachronistic handweaving specialty seem better than when I started.  It’s more remarkable to me that such a sophisticated digital understanding of images would form the basis of a thriving weaving industry in Kashmir 300 years ago.

This set of six images was prepared for an article “Decoding the Talim” in the September 2010 issue of Marg magazine.  They show my step-by-step method to reconstruct the design instructions from a good photograph of an antique shawl fabric.
The first image, top left, shows my selection from a newly published photo of a shawl fragment (“Pashmina”, Janet Rizvi with Monisha Ahmed, Marg Publications, 2009), chosen for the clarity and charm of its design, and because it is sharp enough to see each thread.  In the second image, I copied and pasted my selection onto an appropriate-size brick-grid document in Stitch Painter, a grid-based “paint” program.  As the article explains, because the coloured weft threads appear in multiples of two, in a 2/2 twill fabric where the weave unit is 4 by 4 threads, each weave unit is represented by one brick in each of two rows of the brick grid.  The next images show stages of hand-correcting the diagram, clarifying the pasted version by close inspection of the photo.  Design instructions can be read from the bottom-left image by counting the bricks of each colour in a row and weaving the same numbers of stitches, for two complete rows of threads.  The final image shows what this would look like with each thread represented, to compare with the original photo.  The instructions, how many stitches (or carpet knots) of each colour in the row, can be written down in a kind of shorthand, and is called the “talim” of that design.
Taking this process to its logical conclusion, I have woven two samplers of my favourite antique shawl motifs, generally from the earliest surviving fragments of the Mughal period.  One is a collection of small, free-standing motifs that are repeated in rows in the shawl’s wide end-panels; the other a collection of side-border designs.  A portfolio including a text-based talim for each design, is available on CD.

hashia sampler

boteh sampler



~ by Peter Harris on 09/03/2011.

One Response to “How to weave a Kashmir shawl”

  1. I would like to have a copy or download of your article in the 1997 Spring issue of Shuttle spindle and Dyepot on the weaving of a kashmiri shawl, if it is not the same as your how to weave article here.

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