My friend Catherine recently showed me her new mocha pashmina, which she picked up for $15 in one of those luggage and accessory shops. "Look", she said, showing me the label, "cashmere!"
A quick snidge between my thumbs suggested the true content, acrylic. I told her my verdict; she was crestfallen. I tried to comfort her, "The colour's pretty, so wear it and enjoy it while it looks good"- but that will be only weeks, till the acrylic pills under minimal friction.
How do you know what you're getting? Certainly not by the label, except for branded goods, and even they can cheat. (Last fall, New Zealand merchant Ezibuy unloaded nearly 4, 000 fake "70% pashmina 30% silk" shawls before getting caught and fined.)
A fake is made with acrylic, rayon, poly/cotton or less frequently, lambswool. (I enjoy a soft lambswool scarf, but won't pay cashmere prices for it!)
Coming to Terms
"Pashmina" means "cashmere" and comes from the Persian word "pashm", for "wool". The fibre is made from the undercoat of the capra hirus goat. In the West, however, "pashmina" is often used generically to mean a shawl which is usually a blend of wool and silk.
(Shahtoosh or "ring shawls" are made from hair from a Tibetan antelope, or Chiru; the animals were killed to harvest this hair. To protect the Chiru, the government of India banned the sale of shahtoosh shawls in the late 1970s, and it is illegal to import them.) The harvesting of pashmina does not require killing the wool-bearing goats.
A "100% pashmina" shawl is pure cashmere of a fine grade, a luxury piece even in India and Nepal. Expect to pay from $400 to thousands for a handloomed piece, depending on quality, and more for embroidered pieces.
For a look at just how exquisite pure artisan-created pashmina gets, see the web site of Trehearne & Brar, who sell the finest handwoven heirloom shawls.
If you'd like a featherweight 100% cashmere stole (85 x 180 cm or about 33 x 71 inches), I recommend Eric Bompard's Cashmere Voile, at about $155 US dollars (plus shipping), available in luscious colours (that sound even more so in French) via their efficient web site.
Choosing your Silk/Pashmina Blend
A 70/30 pashmina-silk blend is perfect for light outerwear or as a comfy layer in air-conditioned buildings.
Fibre content: 70/30 is the standard ratio of pashmina (or cashmere) to silk, though I have seen 80/20. The silk content makes the shawl stronger, with a tighter weave, and gives a slight sheen. Beware the "100% Pashmina" label unless you are certain it is 100% cashmere, and remember there are many grades of cashmere.
Merchant: Avoid dealers from Asia; I'd choose the UK because of their strict cashmere labeling laws. In general EU countries and the US and Canada are good. Make sure any online dealer has a return-for-refund policy.
I'd buy from Sunrise Pashmina in a heartbeat: an attentive, quality-conscious and fair-trade company. Based in Ithaca, New York, they ship their product from Nepal. I was impressed by the variety of options, including custom embroidery and beading, and hard to find jacquard weaves.
A Toronto Post reviewer is thrilled with her Sunrise shawl. The same product is available in the UK by QVC online dealer Pure and Simple. Shown above, a Sunrise medium shawl.
Price: Expect to pay at least $125 (in US dollars) for a 28 by 80-inch shawl from a reputable online source. Prices are generally higher at a boutique (I am seeing decent product for around $US 200.) You might find a bargain, but don't pay $19.95 and expect anything but a fake. A hand-loomed piece (identifiable by the same pleasing, subtle variation in density you would notice in a hand-loomed silk wrap) will cost more than a machine-loomed version.
Price is determined by many variables, including wool quality (length, fineness, softness of fibres; proportion of rough guard hairs and overly short fibres), dye, production processes such as spinning and weaving (machine or hand-loomed); silk prices and overhead.
Feel: Go to high-end shops and feel their products; pet the piece with your hand and also tie it on your neck. Take time to let your skin pick up and store its impression of quality.
Here's a useful eBay Guide, "My Pashmina- Is It Really Cashmere or Is It a Fake?; see especially the section headed "How to Examine Your Garment". I haven't tried the fibre test described, but it seems like a good one.
A gorgeous marigold or robins' egg blue shawl provides a relatively reasonable wardrobe tweak and banishes the last of a winter-bleak landscape.