Saturday, March 2, 2013

My Shawls Breathe Again

Many of my Kashmiri shawls, or rather those of my mother and grandmother, have been locked away for over a decade.  In days of complete ignorance, I stored them with neem leaves and cloves as recommended by some experts and, much to my despair, the shawls got thoroughly chewed on by a variety of insects.  Not knowing what to do, I got them cleaned and put them away as I didn't have the heart to discard them.

Now, thanks to a Kashmiri family friend and his acquaintance, a shawl weaver (who also cleans and repairs carpets), these shawls have got a new lease of life.  They looked old and worn out when I removed them yesterday morning but have considerably perked up since, just lying in the fresh air.

Today, the shawl weaver visited and closely examined each of them, holding them up to the light and telling me about each shawl's history - what kind of embroidery had been done on each, how many times they had been darned, what kind of weaving, dying and cutting had been done.  It was fascinating to see him dig out information in the manner of an archaeologist, going inch by inch over the material - measuring, inspecting and academically discussing the qualities of each piece.

Of course he was distressed by all the damage; it is not a pleasant sight.  But the prognosis was positive.  All the pieces could be used again, with a combination of darning, very fine darning (yes, there are two kinds of darning techniques used - one where you see the stitches and one where the stitches merge with the weave), patchwork (cutting out bits of embroidered motifs and sewing them onto other material and introducing new patterns in the process), cutting damaged pieces off to make stoles and scarves with additional embroidery.

For one of the shawls, I had to select some new material; he had brought with him a shade card, from which I selected the background colour that a plain shawl would be dyed in before the old embroidery was transferred on to it.

Most of the old wool would be salvaged as this kind of wool is no longer available. He explained why, in some detail.  Fibres of wool, which were earlier cleaned by hand are now processed in a machine, which tends to weaken them.  Thus the shawls are less durable and last only a few decades as compared to a few lifetimes.  The kind of embroidery and weaving has also changed considerably over the years so the older kind of shawls are no longer made.

For me, it is largely a question of sentiment, of being able to salvage and use things that my mother and grandmother wore.  Apart from this, the shawls are just so nice to feel and wear - they are soft, warm and coloured in beautiful shades ranging from a natural off white (one on side) and gold (on the other), deep blue, warm mustard-yellow, baby pink and a natural grey filled with embroidered flowers and vines.  Each, of course, has its own name and history.

Repairing these itself is a work of art.  The reversible shawl for instance has to be darned such that the stitches merge with different colours on each side.  The patchwork has to be done in a manner that looks as though the pattern has been embroidered on or is part of a larger, intricate design rather than something that has been cut and pasted.

The shawl weaver described all that he planned to do but said that for some of the shawls he would consult our common friend and also his embroiderers, to work out the designs in more detail.  Then, over cups of tea and sweet carrot halwa, he explained how the shawls should be wrapped and kept airtight while storing them, how they should be aired out at the beginning and end of the winter.

Interestingly, he pointed out that it was neither sun nor chemicals that were required to protect the materials but physically shaking and airing (to ensure that no insects clung to the shawls) followed by storage in an airless environment where the insects could not live.  He also explained how these shawls look and stay better when cleaned in Kashmir (where they are washed in special springs or streams that softens and cleanses the wool) rather than when they are dry cleaned.

He also examined some rugs and instructed us about when we needed to get them cleaned.  Then, after I had written everything down for him in his diary and in my own, we said goodbye.  He left with a bundle containing my shawls and promised to return them well before next winter so I could use them next year.  My shawls are in safe hands and I'm grateful for this unexpected stroke of luck that brought me in contact with this kind looking, soft spoken shawl man.

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