Ladakh is situated on the western slopes of the Himalayas and extends to the Karakorum Mountains, along the river Indus and is part of India’s State, Jammu & Kashmir. The deepest valleys are at 3,000 meters and the highest peaks at 7,000 meters. Little Tibet as it is also called due to its Tibetan Buddhist culture, has a long history and was once a kingdom. And in the course of history, the borders changed, it happened that the original Tibetan Changtang plateau now spread to several countries.
This to the dismay of living there for thousands of years, the Changpa Nomads. The most significant factors influencing the culture and traditions of Ladakh are climate, isolation, and inaccessibility. These factors result in a highly practical culture. Ladakh is isolated from the outside world for much of the year because of extreme cold and harsh winter weather. By necessity, Ladakhis have developed traditions and techniques to make the most of their resources, under specific and extreme climatic conditions. Thus their traditions are based in an authenticity of need.
It is important to remember that Ladakhis are primarily spinning and weaving wool for their own use, occasionally for sale. The need for warmth makes spinning & weaving wool a necessary activity. Both the finished garment and the act of creating it are part of the identity of the Ladakhi. Women do all the spinning of sheep’s wool for clothing, and being a “spinner” is not separate from being a Ladakhi woman. It is one facet of her identity, as her other essential actions are: herding and farming.
The Changtang Plateau is situated in the eastern part of Ladakh bordering the Tibetan region of China in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, part of the Hindu Kush Himalayas. It covers an area of 22,266 sq. km/8,600 sq miles, with an average elevation of 4,000-5,500 m/14-15,000 ft above sea level, with parts of the plateau reaching 5,800 m/19,000 ft. The topography consists mainly of vast plateaus intersected by deep gorges. The majestic Indus River, flowing out of Tibet, meanders through the region.
Although it is a high altitude desert, there are 10-12 lakes, including the exquisite Tso Moriri, as well as a similar number of marshes. The Changtang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary encompasses the whole area. It is home to the Kiang, or Tibetan Wild Ass, as well as the rare black-necked Crane. The harsh conditions have given rise to some exceptional properties in the vegetation, and several rare and endangered medicinal plants have been found there.
There are about 15,000 nomadic and semi-nomadic people living on the Changtang, including many Tibetan refugees. People in Changtang call themselves ‘Changpa‘, which means ‘Northerner’.
The men do most of the outdoor work, including combing the Cashmere to remove the coarse outer hairs, shearing the sheep, collecting the yak wool, selling the wool and Cashmere, herding the animals and buying the foods and clothes for the family. Women mainly do the milking, cooking, spinning, weaving and raising children, as well as tending the baby animals.
The economy of the region is based solely on livestock, primarily yaks, sheep and Cashmere goats. Cashmere goats also named Capra Hircus Laniger ( , are the main source of income in the Chantang.
Unlike many other nomadic pastorals, the Changpa don’t move from one climatic region to another. Their range is often only about 15-55 km. They need to move every few months because vegetation in the Changtang is so sparse. They follow the same migratory routes year after year, staying in the same encampments each year. Many of the camps have permanent stone walls for corrals and for sheltering the tents.
Cashmere, which is also known as Pashmina, is a super-fine fiber that is collected from the undercoat of the Changra goats grazing in the extreme climes of mountainous pasture in Ladakh high in the Himalayas. The harsh winter conditions of the remote Changtang region are essential to produce the finest Cashmere. The goats are raised by the Ladakhi nomads, who are known as Changpa. Cashmere is obtained by combing the goat hair with a special comb rather than by shearing as is done with sheep’s wool; this takes place in mid-summer so that the goats have time for their coats to thicken again before winter sets in.
What is Pashmina? Pashmina is another name for Cashmere, the name given to the fine, soft and exceptionally warm downy undercoat of the Capra Hircus Laniger goats that live in the Trans-Himalayan regions including Ladakh, Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan, and some parts of central Asia. It is one of the most precious and versatile of animal fibres. A large variety of luxury goods – both knitted and woven — are produced from it. Ladakh produces less than 1% of the world’s total raw Cashmere, but it’s the finest in the world. The long-staple Ladakhi Cashmere has a fibre length well suited for hand spinning, and a diameter ideal for knitwear. The processing of Cashmere products includes following steps:
The thick pad of Cashmere remains on the goats until the middle of summer when temperatures on the Changthang Plateau finally warm up. Moulting can begin as early as December if the temperature is warmer. The process is hormonally controlled and takes place later if it is very cold outside. Moulting at the right time takes place by natural detachment of the warm insulating Cashmere pad from the body of the animals, as this pad may otherwise become a menace when the climate is warm. The goats look bigger and fluffier for some days when the Cashmere comes up near the surface of the guard cover for natural shedding. The shepherds catch the goats and comb the Cashmere out to prevent them from shedding it in the wild. Some of the guard hairs (the natural hair of the goat produced by the primary follicles as permanent hair) also get pulled out at the time of combing and get intermingled with the fine Cashmere in the process. The nomads traditionally used wooden combs, but now they usually use improved iron combs which makes combing easier and more efficient.
The raw material is first sorted for colour, fibre diameter and length. The colour-sorted material is then put on the willow machine (a machine with revolving spikes used to clean the fiber) twice in order to remove dirt and oil. The willowed material is then transferred to the feeder of the scouring machine from where it is mechanically transferred to the first scouring bowl. Soap is added to the water, which is kept at a constant 55ºC throughout the process. The Cashmere passes through the bowl to the squeezer which uses more soapy water, after which the squeezed material is transferred to the next bowl and still more soap is added. The material passes through the bowl to the next squeezer and then to the final bowl with plain water for rinsing. Once rinsed, it gets transported to the last squeezer and then to the Hooper feeder of the drying machine, where it is dried in the drying chamber.
Dehairing is a process of removing the coarse guard hair from the Cashmere. In this process the scoured raw Cashmere is kept in a compact humidified chamber for several hours to regain moisture. This is important for effective dehairing as this process makes the guard hair heavier and the fine material stickier. This facilitates the machine-separation of the two fibres by centrifugation as the finer fibres stick to the card wire while the heavier fibres fall away.
Spinning is an ancient textile art in which fibers are drawn out and twisted together to form yarn. In Ladakh we use a supported, whorl-less spindle made of wood locally known as phang. Most of the fine yarn is spun by women. Cashmere can be spun by machine as well as by hand, but the hand spinning of Cashmere is always better. Fibres with a shorter staple length can be spun by machine, but the resulting products are of a lower quality than those that are spun by hand. The shorter fiber can’t be hand spun. The staple length of the fiber is significant because if the fiber is short, the fabric will be less durable. The longer fiber is not only more durable, but also more beautiful.
The fiber can be dyed at any time, but is often dyed either before carding or after the yarn has been spun. We use only natural dyes.
Although lesser quality Cashmere can be woven on machine looms, especially if it is blended with silk or wool, the weaving of the traditional pure Cashmere shawls is done on hand-looms. It is essential for the weaver to have a steady hand in order to produce top quality fabric. Weaving is done with a shuttle that carries the soft Cashmere yarn through the fine yet strong twisted warp. The weaving process is in itself an art that has been passed down over generations, to give you the fabulous shawls that we offer. It takes about four days to weave a single Cashmere shawl. Cashmere can be woven so finely that a whole shawl can pass through a ring. Besides weaving we also make knitted items such as hats. Knitting of Cashmere is no different than other woollen yarn knitting. The hats, etc. are knitted by local Ladakhi women in their homes.
The fiber can be dyed at any time, but is often dyed either before carding or after the yarn has been spun. We use only natural dyes.
This is how fabulous Cashmere shawls, stoles, scarves, mufflers, hats and other Cashmere products are made. Because of the delicacy of the fiber, the making of Cashmere products is a painstaking, artistic and time consuming process, therefore the quality and the price of Cashmere products can not be compared to other garments or fibers.
In 2009, I started a small-scale business manufacturing and selling Cashmere items before leaving the project in 2010 to work on my business full time. I was inspired to undertake this enterprise by the love I feel for the Nomads who raise these animals, the animals themselves, and the lands where they roam. Having grown up in a semi-nomadic family, I wanted to honor my heritage, hence the name, “Nomadic Woollen Mills”.
Producing the highest quality, 100% pure, Ladakhi Cashmere products is our highest priority. All our our Cashmere items are produced right here in Ladakh. We also carry some woollen products; the wool is from Ladakh, but it’s processed in Kashmir and Punjab. Eventually, as soon as it’s economically feasible, we will only carry local Ladakhi products.
I was born into a semi-nomadic family of farmers/herders in Teri village, 90 km east of Leh in the Changthang region that adjoins Tibet. Living at home with my parents and grandparents, I studied in the village school up to the fifth standard, caring for and herding our sheep and goats in my free time.
During my higher secondary schooling in Leh, I had the opportunity to travel around India and China for training in the various technologies related to Cashmere production (scouring, carding, spinning, weaving, etc.) This came up when the Ministry of Textiles in collaboration with the local Government was preparing to launch a Pashmina dehairing project in Leh. After completing the training, I worked with the project for seven years as a technician.
I’m the sister of Nawang. I am a teacher and help from time to time, especially when Nawang is away collecting Pashmina from the Nomads or at any events.
I’m Nawangs’ wife, I was involved until our son was born. But due to working also as Pharmacist for the Government, there is not much time left any more to support my husband.
I’m the youngest team member, born in 2013. Since then life changed drastically for my parents Nawang & Jigmet ;-)
I am GOAT – Greatest of all times, and without me there would be no Cashmere at all.
“I first came across the Ladakhi pashmina shawls at Nawang’s stall at Dastkar’s Nature Bazaar in New Delhi. I was completely mesmerised by their natural beauty. I picked up an indigo shawl and it became my favourite piece. When the opportunity to visit Ladakh came my way the following year, I left no stones unturned to locate Nawang… I had to visit his shop, after all! And I wasn’t disappointed. Nor were my half a dozen other friends who accompanied me to his shop. His products are 100% natural and dyed in natural colours; his prices are very reasonable; and above all, it is a pleasure to interact with him. I met him again at Nature Bazaar recently where I was looking for presents to take abroad. Once again, I ended up doing all my shopping at his stall…shawls, stoles, scarves, caps. My friends, who were gifted with his products, were more than delighted with the superior quality and softness of the fabric. I recommend his shop to anybody looking for beautiful and genuine Ladakhi pashmina in their natural dyes. I wish Nawang all the best in all his ventures.” Benu Mohan Lal
“Many of the shops in Leh carry the same items, however, Phuntsog is the only one that offers a selection of pashminas that are locally spun from the nomadic women. Everytime I visit Leh I make sure I visit Phuntsog and always leave with another bag of beautiful gifts to take home. He is truly the heart of Leh.” Linda Cortright – Publisher and Editor Wild Fibers Magazine
“Nawang Phuntsog has been coming to our DASTKAR crafts bazaars for over 4 years with his beautiful Ladakhi pashmina textiles. Starting nervously with just a few pieces, he has steadily built up a reputation in Delhi for his merchandise. His shawls, stoles and scarves combine subtle natural colours, beautiful weaves and textures, and a high quality of Pashmina wool. Good pricing, genuine products, innovative design, and Nawang’s own quiet but knowledgable personality make Nomadic Woollen Mills something craft lovers look forward to every winter.” Laila Tyabji – Founder of Dastkar
“I am a tourleader from Germany. Whenever I have groups, we usually go to Phuntsogs shop first to check wether he has some suiting products for shopping as his quality is best, prices are fair and also his manner to the customers is very fine. Once he told me his life-story and I am very impressed how hard-working he is – but always with a big smile in his face. You realise immediately that he loves what he is doing and that is worth a lot! Thanks a lot Phuntsog and I hope you never run out of dreams.” Nana Ziesche – owner of Yangla Tours
In April 2014 we decided to support the local NGO People’s Action Group for Inclusion and Rights, called PAGIR. They do an extraordinary job in removing social barriers and tapping into individual capabilities of people with disabilities. Therefore 7% of our sales revenues will be donated to PAGIR.
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