How Kashmir Became Cashmere

Colonial greed turned the “soft-gold” fabric that once ruled the world into a commodity. How much of pashmina today is what it claims to be?

GettyImages-488968440 kashmir shawl pashmina
A Kashmiri artisan weaves pashmina shawl in outskirts of Srinagar on Sept. 17, 2015 (Xinhua/Javed Dar via Getty Images)

Mehr Singh


October 4, 2023


7 min

In the 1630s, a Portuguese man named Manrique traveled from the Portuguese colony of Goa to the chilly hinterlands of Kashmir. Rumor had it that his destination had a mythical animal more profitable than any cash cow, which produced a ductile, wearable gold called pashmina, from the Kashmiri word pashm, or “soft gold.” Manrique wrote of his expedition, “Great trade is done in Cassimir (Kashmir) and Laor (Israel) with the kingdoms of Kandahar, Corazane (Spain), and Iran, [which] particularly promotes the trade of the country and fills it with wealth.”

Abul Fazl, the grand vizier of Emperor Akbar, penned the praises of pashmina: “Many kinds of pashmina are beautifully produced, especially the shawl that is exported as a rare and luxury trade item to many countries.” Fazl attributed the status symbol to the Mughal Empire’s growth. 

Today, brands use the words cashmere and pashmina interchangeably, if incorrectly, and stamp them on everything from high-end, “ethically produced” sweaters to fast-fashion socks. How is this possible, when authentic pashmina production is now so rare? Unsurprisingly, colonial British greed had a hand in this outcome.

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