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Indian Hand Woven Jacquard Jamavar Shawls

Incredibly soft and silken to the touch, our natural Merino (the finest wool in the world) jamavars (shawls) from Rajasthan and Kashmir are as warm to look at as they are to wrap around.   Each one is carefully hand-woven on antique jacquard looms, the only way to truly capture the intricacies of traditional paisley and other rich patterns incorporated. Wonderful for wearing or sublime as a sofa throw, these shawls even look lovely as a woven work of art upon the wall.

All of our shawls are made by a small group of artisans that primarily work from home.  While some of the shawls are crafted in small workshops (no factories or automated looms), most of hte hand embroidery is completed as a cottage industry at the artisans home.  Many of our shawls are made by the Prashant family, third generation textile makers from the small village of Katrinet in Southern Rajasthan.  The family is currently made up of four brothers, a sister and they have sixteen employees.  Some of the employees live in the family compound while others commute from several nearby villages.  The workers are paid living wages and also share in the companies profits.  Child care and medical coverage is provided as well as lunch and tea each day. 

The history of Jamavars is long and complex.  Prior to Jacquard looms being invented, drawlooms were operated by the weaver and a "drawboy" ("drawgirls" are known to have existed as well).   The drawboy raised or lowered the harness to create the patterning of the cloth.  Unfortunately, the pieces were woven face down and the weaver saw nothing but a confused mass of floating threads.  If the drawboy suffered a few seconds of inattention during what was often a long working day, the resulting mistakes in the pattern would not been seen until the shawl came off the loom.  The consequences were a loss in value for the shawl and, too often, harsh treatment for the drawboy.

As early as 1728, attempts were made to replace the fallible drawboy with a mechanical system.  In about 1801, a French mechanic from Lyon, Joseph-Marie Jacquard, successfully raised harnesses on a loom with a mechanism of perforated cards.  In the Jacquard loom, needles came up against each card, and if the card had a hole, the needle went in, and the harness was raised.   This new system required an immense quantity of expensive cards for each pattern, and the training of a new group of workers.  Both factors met with heavy resistance from the French weaving industry which did not integrate the new system until about 1818.   However, when the British government attempted to buy Jacquard's invention, he patriotically replied, "I regard it a sacred duty to leave to my native town a discovery which could furnish a foreign nation with a way to ruin our industry". 

Although Jacquard's inventiveness was driven by the desire to alleviate the misery of forced child-labor in the weaving industry , he was also well aware that, in a time when the textile industry was comparable in importance to our present day oil industry,  the Jacquard loom would have global economic repercussions.

A long accepted tradition says that Napoleon Bonaparte returned from one of his Egyptian campaigns with a gift for his Empress, Josephine, of a finely woven Kashmir shawl. The gift is not documented. However it is known that Josephine had a reputation for not only buying and wearing what was currently a la mode, but also for being a fashion leader. In the year 1809, she is reported to have ordered 136 new outfits, 87 hats, 985 pairs of gloves and 520 pairs of shoes.1 Portraits of her in the early years of the nineteenth century show the style-setting Empress wearing examples of the tapestry-woven shawls which until then had been relatively unknown in Europe. Josephine and other fashionable upper-class women in France and Britain found the shawl to be the ideal accessory for their current style of slim, high-waisted, Empire dressing. Worn looped over the elbow and loosely draped over the shoulders, the shawls were at once exotic and functional.

The Empress is reported to have owned several hundred Kashmir shawls and she is generally regarded as the most important factor in what has been termed the sudden migration of the shawl from its exotic homeland in the foothills of the Himalayas to the salons of early nineteenth-century Europe. Not only did the shawl become one of the most sought-after fashion items of the nineteenth century, but it was also put to practical and decorative use as a cover for beds, and as a drape over couches, chairs, pianos and tables, providing beauty, warmth and most of all, prestige. The Paris Journal des Dames et Des Modes in 1815 noted:

& the things ladies would have to do to obtain one of these precious pieces of material. They would invent a thousand reasons why they had to have one. The richest only needed to say that it was the fashion; the middle class women needed to look like everyone else; and the poorest women claimed that cashmere would be good for their health and would last longer than anything else. Even if there was no other reason, women would resort to the refrain that a cashmere shawl was the only acceptable proof of true love.

As the popularity of the shawl began to spread down through the middle and working classes, shawls 'in imitation of the Indian'3 were devised by manufacturers in France, England and Scotland. Commercial demand for these lower priced reproductions came at a time when technical advancements in the working of hand-looms were exploited so well in some centers, especially the small town of Paisley in Scotland, that literally thousands were made until the demand for shawls ended abruptly in the 1870s. Trade with the East was disrupted by the Franco-Prussian War and fashionable women began to wear a new fashion - the bustle. This new emphasis on the back of the dress itself meant that shawls had to be replaced by hip-length fitted jackets. Manufacturers in Europe had no choice but to turn their attention to other types of textiles. In Kashmir the vast numbers of shawl weavers, whose livelihood depended on commercial interest from the West, faced destitution. Untrained for any other work, many simply starved.

The legacy of the enormous interest in and production of shawls in the nineteenth century was a long-lasting change in European design concepts centered on the motif known as the boteh. Commonly referred to in the Western world as the 'Paisley', this cone-like form, traditionally found on rugs, embroideries and all kinds of printed goods and fabrics, is possibly the most important element of design to have come out of the East.

The English word shawl is derived from the Persian shal, a term used to describe a certain kind of woven fabric, rather than a particular article of dress. Shawls or wraps are known to date as far back as the fifth century BC in Egypt. However their modern history begins with references to the weaving of shawls in Kashmir for the great Mughal Emperor, Akbar in the second half of the sixteenth century.4 It was he who boosted the fledgling shawl industry by importing weavers from Turkestan in Central Asia, the homeland of the Mughals, and who introduced to his courtiers new styles of wearing the precious garments. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the kani shawl, as Indians called them, reached the highest standards of what is acknowledged as one of the most complex of all oriental woven fabrics.

Originally used as shoulder mantles, sashes and head dresses for noblemen, the finest shawls were woven from yarn hand dyed and hand spun from the under-belly fleece of wild mountain goats. Known as pashmina in its country of origin, this fiber has traditionally been referred to in the West as cashmere.5

The North Indian shawls were woven entirely by hand in a weft-faced, twill-tapestry technique.6 Each color of yarn was wound on a small bobbin and manipulated backwards and forwards through the fixed warp threads to build up the design. Where the different color areas met, the two yarns were interlocked, producing a characteristic ridge on the back of the fabric. The process of weaving a large shawl, often with a highly complex design, was slow, specialized, laborious work, taking anything from eighteen months to three years to complete. The conditions under which the predominantly male kani weavers worked in a professionally organized and highly profit-oriented industry, were extremely poor.

As in other textile forms, technique had an effect on design. Floral forms in the kani weave take on a characteristic angular appearance and a flickering effect in areas of color change as the warps show through the twill-tapestry technique. The earliest shawls extant date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and are characterized by the natural representation of recognizable flowers. Mughal artists realistically represented nature in all their art forms.

During the eighteenth century most shawls had an empty centre with decoration limited to the fairly deep end borders showing a row of repeating flowering plant forms and very narrow side borders filled with small flowers and meandering vines. The formal floral forms were derived from the European botanical drawings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These widely spaced slender flowering plants were typical of classic Mughal style. However, during the second half of the eighteenth century these floral forms became more stylized with a hardening of the outline of the motifs, thus beginning their evolution towards the symbolic shape and style of the boteh as we know it today.

By 1800 the cone of flowers began to lose its naturalistic floral origin altogether and became a conventional form, which was later elongated and transformed into a scroll-like unit, as part of a complex all-over pattern. John Irwin, at one time Keeper of the Indian Section at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, has made an elegant and widely accepted argument for the boteh being the end result of the development of a floral spray into the stylized and bent over motif seen in later shawls.7 Some textile scholars believe that the motif represents a cypress tree, an ancient symbol associated with death and eternity especially in the Zoroastrian religion of the ancient Persians.8 Some textile scholars argue that during the eighteenth century the design evolution of the dense floral bush came to look so much like the bent-tipped cypress motif that it eventually merged with it and early in the nineteenth century began to resemble the original cypress design exactly. Although the cypress and flower continued to appear separately in some artworks, shawl designers transformed the flowering bush into a new motif using the cypress outline.9 By the 1830s and 1840s, the boteh motif had become the trademark ornament of the Kashmir shawl in Western eyes. And by this time not all of the so-called 'Kashmir' shawls seen in Europe were made in Kashmir.

In Britain as early as 1790, manufacturers in Norwich were trying to blend local and Spanish merino wool to make shawls which were then embroidered. In Edinburgh too, brocaded shawls were being made in the style of those from Kashmir. In the early years of the nineteenth century Norwich and Edinburgh were centers for the manufacture of copied shawls woven on a harness loom using silk warps for strength and wool wefts for softness. Soon after, in Paisley, technical advances in looms allowed weavers to work faster and to use a greater variety of colors.

Although it was British manufacturers who pioneered the imitation of Kashmir shawls in Europe, it was the French textile industry, centered in Paris and Lyon, that perfected the process with the invention of the Jacquard loom. Joseph Jacquard was a master-weaver from Lyon who developed an automatic punched-card mechanism at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In Jacquard's loom all the heddles were joined together in a single system thus ending the era of the hand loom. Previous handlooms used in Britain depended on one or two draw-boys working with the weaver at the loom, but now the design could be automatically directed by the perforated cards in much the same manner as the mechanism of the barrel organ or pianola. This meant that the designs of shawls could have more complicated patterns covering larger areas of the surface.

Though this semi-mechanized form of production was never taken up by the Kashmiri weavers, the design possibilities opened up by the new European looms influenced the designs of the shawls still being made in the traditional way in Kashmir, and to a lesser extent in the small industry that had developed in Persia. By 1820 the Jacquard loom was being used in all the British textile centers and during the 1830s it was adapted for complete mechanical operation. The outcome was a fully-fledged industry catering to a seemingly endless demand for a variety of shawl types. By the 1840s crinoline skirts had reached enormous sizes and long-shawls could be shown off to great advantage around their ever-increasing diameter. The upper classes in Britain and France still bought the originals from Kashmir and the least well off wore printed shawls, mainly from Norwich, and the middle classes bought everything in between. Well-bred young ladies were instructed in the correct way to drape their shawls and fine social nuances could be read into the styles and varying pattern types.

While the growing number of modern day collectors and connoisseurs of shawls quickly learn to distinguish on technical grounds between the original Kashmir weavings and their European counterparts, absolute attribution to the various European weaving centres can be difficult. Experienced shawl handlers learn to feel the differences in the type and finish of the wools used, and the balance between the amount of silk and wool. Minor technical differences in the finish can also, with experience, give clues to the origin of a piece.

Dating shawls is a slightly easier proposition. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the majority of shawls had a plain-colored centre often cream, with richly patterned ends. An obvious exception were those from Norwich which usually had cream or beige backgrounds with small floral sprays repeated all over the shawl in a diagonal grid.

By the 1820s longer shawls became more fashionable than the square ones of previous years. The size of the long-shawls, usually about ten feet long and about five feet wide, was necessary to drape around the enormously wide skirts that were fashionable in this period. In Scotland the kirking shawl became an important part of a trousseau. Mothers would wear this type of long-shawl with its cream colored ground and blue end borders to church after the birth of a child and also for christenings. Through the 1830s and 1840s some shawls continued to have a plain-colored central ground, often red or black, with patterned ends and side borders. But after the advent of the Jacquard loom, designs gradually became more complex, eventually filling the whole shawl. By the 1850s and 1860s, almost all the shawls made in France and Scotland bore designs of enormous detail that covered the entire shawl.

In the French industry especially, design was considered an integral part of the manufacturing process. Designers such as Jean-Baptiste Couder and Anthony Berrus took the boteh form to extremes of sweeping, curvilinear fantasy overlaid with an almost architectural crispness of design that became the hallmark of the French shawl.10

Another surprising aspect of the evolution of shawl designs was that just as initially Kashmir shawls were brought to Europe to be copied, design books were later brought from France to Kashmir by Parisian agents so that Kashmir weavers could modify their designs according to the demands of the international marketplace. A two-way exchange of design influence developed so that right to the very end of the shawl era, even though the techniques of production were never the same in Kashmir and Europe, the boteh motif had developed into an elongated, curvilinear, zoomorphic form in both weaving centres by the middle of the nineteenth century.

While imitation shawls were made in increasing numbers in Europe, demand for the original Kashmir product also increased among those able to afford the higher price of what was, then, as now, considered a more desirable product. The industry in Kashmir periodically underwent reorganization in order to speed up and facilitate production. Sometimes shawls were simply embroidered with the required design rather than being tapestry woven in the traditional way.11 Another development was the 'patched' shawl. Merchants supervised the weaving of shawls in sections, broken down according to the overall design of the finished shawl. Each section was then joined by a skilled needle worker and sometimes embellished with embroidery, especially in the borders.

Unlike many Eastern textile traditions, shawl making in Kashmir was never a folk art. From its very beginnings it was a professional industry with commercial interests its prime motivating factor. By the time the industry collapsed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, shawl making in Kashmir was carried out by hundreds of skilled craftsmen, organized into specialist guilds and supervised and controlled in every step of their craft by a powerful network of designers, loom owners, merchants and middlemen.

Likewise in Paisley, shawl weaving had become the staple industry of the town and brought it enormous prosperity. Once the demand for shawls ended, there was little the only semi-mechanized weavers of the town could do to compete against the growing competition from other centres equipped with power looms. Most moved into other occupations and the few that remained began to make bedspreads and table covers, often still using the 'Paisley' motif. Thus the design motif that was unknown before the end of the eighteenth century, and which evolved from a blend of Indian, Persian and European design influences, managed to survive the enormous social and industrial changes of the late nineteenth century and remains a favorite today. Of the shawls themselves, relatively few remain.



Zanzibar Tribal Art Gallery

1731 L Street   Sacramento CA  95814

(916) 443-2057