One of the most welcomed trends for this fall, the “Blanket Jacket" was seen at Burberry’s Autumn/Winter 2014 show in London earlier this year. The show ended with models wearing voluminous woollen and cashmere “blankets". Priced at 85,000 each, the uncut woven pieces were essentially shawls camouflaged in the way fashion knows best—in a new, covetable avatar with a new name.

Rich, handwoven or embroidered shawls made with fine wool have never really gone out of fashion. They remain in demand the world over. Museum shops and luxury brands alike make provisions for these highly priced textiles, their history, craft and ability to transcend age, gender and cultural markers make them a luxury product. That some of the world’s finest shawls, especially cashmere or pashmina, originate in Kashmir, an area torn by terrorism and political strife where shawl-weaving is a small cottage industry, may further position them as luxury—for the positioning is often fuelled by the elusive.

The original Kashmiri pashminas were worn by the royal and elite as symbols of class and status. Today their democratized imitations and viscose versions selling for 200 may be a misleading comparison, but they illustrate why the very name suggests aspiration. Open to many interpretations in styling and suitable for various geographies that require scarf options throughout the year, almost every luxury brand offers a shawl range, if only because the high utility and selling price make good business sense.

A hand-embroidered Kutchi shawl from Shrujan Creations

It can take two-six months to embroider a shawl which retails for 18,000-45,000. Patel notes that the majority of their consumers are based in India, with an understanding and appreciation of the textile and its craft.

Outside India, a luxury scarf can retail for up to €1,000 (around 78,000)—duties and shipping aside. Is it the historical significance and craft that draws the Western consumer? Dhruv Chandra, managing director of The Carpet Cellar, which produces yarns and shawls for luxury brands such as Loro Piana, Gucci and Ermenegildo Zegna, says many international consumers think of the shawl as an elegant, classic item. They might not necessarily know the intricacies of the craft but “they identify high quality with the brands they patronize and look for something unique from the different options in the market," says Chandra. “The raw material—which comes from the wild mountain goat in inhospitable climates—itself makes the product distinct," he adds.

“Touch and feel" are more often than not the deciding factors behind the purchase of a shawl. Many designers and weavers explain the value of their pieces with tactile, sensory adjectives. “The most important thing is the colour and feel. The softness, lightness…it should be supple," says designer and textile expert Neeru Kumar.

Kumar personally considers the traditional Kashmiri Jamawar the “king of shawls". A Jamawar often takes years to complete with such an exquisite hand that distinguishing the front from the reverse side is often not possible. Microns do not matter in this case, it’s the embroidery that makes it luxurious. The technique mandates simultaneous embroidery and weaving on the loom within a range of 30 colours or so.

A metallic cashmere ‘dorukha’ from Kashmir Loom
A metallic cashmere ‘dorukha’ from Kashmir Loom

Tulsi, Kumar’s brand, also weaves contemporary shawls in silk or wool that take weeks to make. They uphold the Jamdani technique which bears a resemblance to the Jamawar. Tulsi is known for its Kantha shawls, a Bengali craft created from straight running stitches where artisans piece together precious segments of saris and textiles and embroider each with kantha stitches. Each can take up to four months to make. The retail price goes up to 60,000, with the finest pieces priced at 1.5 lakh.

As luxury takes on evolved meanings, the old adage of discerning the quality of a shawl by passing it through a ring is dismissed by most as a selling gimmick. “It was a way to authenticate toosh (or shahtoosh, sale of which is illegal in India), but since that is no longer produced it should never be considered as a test for any other," says Kumar. Machine-made shawls, she adds, can easily pass through a ring—consumers must know what they are testing.

In all its avatars, India’s most consumed cloth—both in terms of export and domestic consumption—is our “Made in India" shawls. They originated in Kashmir, were popularized by the British and embraced by global and domestic audiences alike. Gifted on special occasions, worn on cool evenings, or handed down as heirlooms, the shawl’s enduring appeal might lie simply in its versatility, from a framed artwork to a blanket. It literally fashions a unique meaning for luxury, one that lets you decide its own worth.

The writer is the founder and CEO of Border&Fall.

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