Shahtoosh or toosh shawls unrivalled for their lightness, warmth and softness are made from the hair of the wild antelope called Chiru found in the plateaus of Tibet and eastern Ladakh at an altitude of above 1470 ft. in the Himalayas. Nature has gifted it with a two layered fur to provide warmth it requires for survival in freezing cold of the plateaus. Its visible long outer coat is coarse. But the short undercoat which hugs the Chiru’s skin is soft. Shahtoosh or toosh in common parlance is derived from the undercoat. The fibre woven from that wool carries the same name. The only way to harvest toosh is by killing the animal. Without its fur Chiru has no chance of survival.
Many people belive that Pashmina and Shahtoosh is the same thing. However, there is a difference – Pashmina is obtained from the hair of domesticated goats while Shahtoosh is obtained from wild antelopes.
Shahtoosh is a Persian word which means King of the wool. Seven times thinner than the human hair, the delicate yarn could be handled only be very skilled and expert artisans. Weavers of Kashmir alone with their experience in handling finest hand spun Pashmina could weave the most exquisite shawls from Shahtoosh. These shawls are loosely woven and are too flimsy for embroidery. At the most they are sparsely embroidered. The natural colour of toosh ranges from mousy brown to mid- brown. Only small quantity is pure white. Unlike Pashmina shawls, Shahtoosh shawls are seldom dyed. Connoisseurs aver that dyeing Shahtoosh is like dyeing gold.
Shahtoosh shawls are expensive because of scarcity or raw material. Hair of at least five Chirus is required to make the shawl. Besides weaving them requires skill and dexterity and only a few weaves could handle that.
Shahtoosh is a class by itself. Besides being soft and light textured, it gives warmth and comfort. It is so fine that even a full-sized shawl can be pulled with ease through a finger ring and that is why it is called ring shawl. To be draped in Shahtooh shawl was considered the ‘in thing’ among fashion conscious. Wealthy grandmothers used to give toosh shawls to their grand-daughters as a traditional wedding present.
After ruling the fashion market for almost 500 years, Shahtoosh was banned globally in 1971 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The massive demand for Shahtoosh shawls played havoc with animal population.
The Kashmir shawl industry and the Kashmir Government while contesting the ban argued that Chiru is not killed for its fleece. On the contrary it sheds its coat in the spring by rubbing itself against a rock or a bush which is picked up by the local herdsmen and sold to the weavers and spinners.
It is also said that China’s ambitious railway project to Tibet could also be a reason for driving Chiru to an endangered level.
The ban has led to the demise of the skill of Kashmir weaver and had caused unemployment to half a million of Shahtoosh weavers. Government of Jammu & Kashmir wants the ban revoked to revive the 500 year old industry and bring relief to Shahtoosh weavers.