Now for something COMPLETELY different. We’re all working hard to reduce our plastic, and our carbon footprint, and now and then we need a break from being virtuous. Besides, I don’t want this blog to get too preachy, so here’s a piece of SYDN I hope you never have to worry about. And I think it’s pretty fascinating.
Okay. Think of the softest pashmina you ever felt. Nice, wasn’t it? Soft, warm, and oh so caressing. Imagine if it was quite a bit softer, softer and finer. That’s not a pashmina, it’s a shahmina, made from even finer fibres than a pashmina. Gorgeous. OMG, can something so fine be THAT warm?
Now imagine it finer and softer still. As fine as the thinnest, flimsiest silk and yet warmer by far. Finer even than the softest vicuña woven for the King of the Aztecs. So fine that a huge shawl can be pulled through a pinkie ring.
That, my friends, is a Shahtoosh. The word gossamer was surely invented to describe it. Made from the finest fibres in the world, plucked from the beard and belly of Chiru – a Tibetan antelope. You have to be a master weaver to be able to handle those unbelievably delicate fibres. Naturally, rich people love ’em.
I’m rich, I want one!
Sorry, you can’t have one. It’s illegal to sell or even own one in most countries. This is because the Shahtoosh is the textile equivalent of the Elephant’s Tusk, or the Ocelot Fur Coat. Just as it takes more than one ocelot to make a coat, it takes between three and five hides to make one shawl. You see, the endangered Chiru has to be killed for its coat. No, the fur can’t be sheared or combed, the animal must be killed. Deaded. Deprived of life. Just for its underhair.
Why can’t you breed them?
The Chinese have tried, but it’s been a complete failure. The Chiru have very poor survival rates in captivity. They breed at incredibly high altitudes which humans cannot manage for long periods of time. It’s life at these high altitudes which makes them develop their super-thick coats, and they need an enormous amount of space to forage for food in such a hostile environment.
Any relaxation in the law makes it a great deal harder to enforce the prohibition on making, selling or owning a Shahtoosh. Not even the finest forensic examination could tell whether the shawl came from a wild or captive animal. Just to clarify – pashminas and shahminas are mainly made from the hair of the Changthangi, or Cashmere goat. This is perfectly acceptable because the goat sheds its coat in spring and can be combed. The Shahtoosh can only be made from the fleece of the Chiru and this animal cannot be sheared or combed. And as these animals are protected, they must of necessity be poached.
So legalisation and herding would undoubtedly lead to a rapid decline in the population of the Chiru because forensics wouldn’t be able to tell if the animals were from herds or from poaching. The bitter irony is that captive breeding stimulates poaching. Why go to all the bother of trying to raise herds and live in such an inhospitable climate, when you can just take a smart hunting rifle with telescopic sights and pick off a few animals to ake home?
Ok, it’s a niche piece of SYDN. But one day, you may come across a Shahtoosh and I guarantee that you will recognise it now you’ve read this far.
My encounter with a Shahtoosh
We had a very wealthy old lady round to supper, a friendly acquaintance of my other half. I didn’t know her well, but she’d donated heavily to a charitable project he was involved in, and supper was our way of thanking her. As she was leaving, I picked up her ‘shawl’ to hand it to her, and my jaw dropped. It almost floated into my hands. I was horrified.
“How many animals died for this?” I said, without thinking.
She had the grace to look embarrassed.
“Don’t ask!” she said. “I didn’t know when I bought it.”
There was nothing more to be said, so I handed it to her quietly. She was our guest, she was in her very late 70s, she’d been incredibly generous elsewhere, and I wasn’t going to bring five rare antelopes back to life by haranguing an old lady.
She’s now been dead for some years, and her Shahtoosh probably went to the charity shop. I hope someone got it for a tenner and it’s been keeping them warm all these years later. It would be horrible to think that five antelope died for their coats to end up in the tip.
But I shall never forget that wonderful, ravishing fabric. I felt like Edmund in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe when he eats the White Witch’s Turkish Delight. I wanted – no, I lusted – after one of my own. But I will never own one.
Still being made…
Yes, I’m sorry to say they are still being made secretly in Kashmir because they are in high demand. Rich people love them – you know, the kind of people who instal a gold toilet in their bathroom. And it’s MUCH easier to get away with than a mink coat because (a) not many people know about Shahtooshes and (b) they just look like a beautiful fine bit of fabric.
Sometimes human beings are so disappointing.
What you will save…
Online research tells me that these tender stoles sell for about £4,000-£5,000.
As lovely as any antelope…
Picture credits. I couldn’t find any snaps of Chirus on free websites, so I snuck the pics from the https://www.tibettravel.org/ site. And no, I don’t get a kickback if you do book a holiday with them! The scarves at the top are mine, some are pashminas, some aren’t, but I needed something colourful.
I am researching something serious for next time. Keep the faith, and keep sharing.