A Note on Understanding Sikh Shawl Construction

A Note on Understanding Sikh Shawl Construction

  Recently a knowledgeable client of mine requested some not-so-often-asked-for details of an interesting Sikh period long shawl I have ( see no. 163 under Kashmiri Shawls). To find the answers, which I must admit baffled me at the time, required some serious hands and knees investigation into the exact piecing of the shawl. Close inspection of the fringes revealed something remarkable which I hadn’t seen on any other shawl. In my ‘fringe’ experience over the past 35 years I’ve always seen the classic solid-color tabs of the Sikh shawl sewn on to the pallus of the kani weave. However, here I discovered a very unusual, if not exciting anomaly: each of the tab colors had been inserted as an extension of the weave. If you’ve ever lent serious attention to many of the seamed classic dochallas, or long plain-field shawls that were popular until about 1830 you’ll often see how they were ‘invisibly’ pieced together by enmeshing the warps of one half with the other. It’s an absolute miracle how this was done; today, a lost art. This is the exactly the same process employed in attaching these tabs. Another question had me comparing the piecing of one end (pallu) of the shawl to the end. One side was 3 inches shorter that the other with Paisley heights differing by 2 inches. But overall of course the shawl otherwise doesn’t in the least appear unbalanced since any difference was made  up by the sizes of the two kani panels comprising the pallus, which measure approx. 12 and 24 inches each. So how many pieces of kani shawl did the rafugar actually get before he pieced the whole thing together? The red center woven with its ‘door’ or edge-running pattern is one; the long-running side pieces flanking the center make two; the two kani panels making up the pallus at each end make four; the two long hashias (with white silk warps) make two.  Nine kani woven pieces altogether not counting the plain woven fringe tabs. This should be the right count for finely woven Sikh period shawls. One should bare in mind that Sikh shawls predate the patchwork kani products by at least a generation. Knowing how a shawl is pieced together is of fundamental importance in learning about its manufacture and aesthetic qualities as well, and in the process of studying it along these lines there will invariably be interesting things to discover. I cannot stress how important it is to compare one end of a shawl to the other, noting the use of different colored threads, variations in design and rarely but sometimes a completely different flower might show up. This goes for all shawls be they Mughal, Afghan, Sikh or Dogra. It all boils down to taking a serious look into shawl construction.


Eighty-five rare Kashmir shawls, formerly from the Sam Josefowitz collection of Switzerland were recently sold at Christies’ online auction.. Historically and as a group, it was perhaps the most important sale of such items to have ever been put on the market. From the high Mughal period of the 17thcentury on through the Afghan, Sikh and Dogra periods, each of these eras under which Kashmir was dominated, found significant representation at the sale. Without question, la piece de resistance was the white ground, Mughal boteh fragment, lot 19, selling for over $90,000 (rounded off). However, at the top of the best seller list was the kani mat, lot 17, which sold for an astounding $244,000. It was a small millefleurs-like weaving with a blue-ground central field, each of the corners with a quarter medallion, as in moon shawls though without the central medallion. Whether the bidders were aware of the extensive damage it had suffered and its lack of provenance, I don’t know, but there was certainly nothing in its aesthetics or history to justify such a price. Lot 55, an embroidered rumal with figures, was the next unexpected big winner, selling for $53,000. Despite its rather shabby condition (large areas of wear, faded colors and extensive loss of embroidery) its fine artistry,  painterly vegetation and early date,  flickered and twinkled enough here and there to cause serious interest. On Lot 1, a fine dorukha, its beauty  and its excellent condition along with its solid wool foundation propelled its price to $39,000. Such numbers are not unheard of in India where appreciation of the dorukha has over the years driven their prices up, in some cases astronomically. The eye-dazzlingly black ground moon shawl (lot 4) with sunburst (shamsa) pattern was in my mind one of the most brilliant graphic designs ever to find its way into a kani rumal. It had been hanging in my living room for a few years before it found its way into the Josefowitz collection. What most are not aware of is that the black ground had been painted in. It took me the better part of a few hours working with various strength magnifying glasses to ascertain this fact. This just goes to prove how meticulous, of not ingenious, the weavers were. It was a bargain at $17,000. Setting price records  again we turn to the Sikh period: two very nice, long shawls, quintessential specimens, one with imposing peafowls repeating across its pallu (lot 25, $27,500) the other squiggling with snakes and vines and complimented with an eight-leaf, white kani center of powerful proportions (lot 61, $32,500).  The former, for sure a  product of the 1830s: the peafowl motif had been copied off Indian shawls by the well-known French manufacturer, Hébert in 1839.

The late Sikh, zoomorphic long shawl in lot 10, was a masterpiece in weaving and deserved the hefty price paid for it ($28,500). Its design might have been the inspiration for the French shawl designer to initiate his famous jungle foliage patterns of 1848-1850. Featured in my book, Woven Masterpieces of Sikh Heritage, the rumal in lot 57, the pattern to which I liken it recalls the dizzying holographic effects of a spinning propeller, also set a record for a rumal ($32,500). As a work of art, it’s unsurpassed with nuanced tones and brilliant bull’s eye center. For the astute buyers, there were bargains to be had as well. Lot 62 ($12,000), a beautiful early 18thcentury jamawar, in great condition, replete with its original hashias and diapered pattern of excellently drawn buti flowers propped on a tiny mound. The red ground rumal in lot 84 ($3,000), in my estimate was at least as important as the ‘propeller’ one. There were three narrow stripped moon shawls -Sam loved moons shawls- all circa 1800 that went for strong prices, especially lot 83 which sold for $28,500. Lot 15, a complete dochalla from the 17thcentury, despite its fading, poor condition and weak design, hammered down at an surprising $53,000. However, buyers are aware these days that complete 17thcentury Mughal shawls have virtually dried up. Three other rumals (Lots 36, 43,45), aesthetically not much more than garden variety, drew paradoxically strong hammer prices: $9,000; $4,400; $4,400. Any collector worth his salt would have completely ignored them. Lot 73 was a finely wrought reversible (dorukha) rumal, c 1870, of which very few exist. It’s similar to a pair in the Cooper Hewitt Museum. This one went for quite a fair price of $20,000. Overall, the strong prices attained sets the bar quite high for future sales even if the majority of the buyers still remain anonymous. This sale is even more surprising given that Skinner’s Auction has, over the past decade, been the preferred place for dumping quantities of Kashmir shawls on a weak market where buyers have snapped them  up unapologetically. Exception being a saffron ground, moon shawl selling 6 years ago for $65,000.


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French Jacquard Rumal by Amadèe Couder, 1834

A truly kaleidoscopic center reminiscent of Gothic stain glass church windows

197-A Gothic Couder



An explosively graphic showstopper that can’t help but dazzle!

Amedèe Couder’s architectural talents are catapulted to vertigenous heights with this masterpiece. Perhaps his most famous rumal, the Isphahan, 1834, which contains quasi-buidings, is dated and signed with inscriptions in Farsi. However, from the point of view of aesthetics, the GOTHIC  SUNBURST (GS) outshines all his other works by a large margin.  As a wall-hanging it’s spectacular. His most famous shawl, the Nou-Rouz, 1839  (Iranian New Year) was also a tour-de-force not only in loom engineering but in creativity in adapting an intricately detailed architectural drawing to the then state-of-the-art loom technology.

The GS is infused with all the marvelous vegetal dyes typically deployed in the weaving of the Isphahan and Nou-Rouz; the soft wool and weave texture.

The design’s parallels to church stained-glass are obvious as in the example below from Notre Dame, Paris. In fact, much of Couder’s drawings, sketches and shawls appear to have adopted in some small way, ideas from Medieval and Renaissance churches* and French tapestries.

It seems clear to me that Couder, sitting at his work table, 184 years ago, began with marking out a tiny eight-pointed yellow star center, placing it against another of light violet hue, then proceeding to sweep bold curved lines around the violet star’s edges creating an even larger eight pointed star. Now we have an image resembling the depictions of modern day atomic drawings of electrons and protons whirling around a central mass. The next circle he forms by linking 24 church steeples replete with their distinctive crosses. This is surrounded by a linked neckless of burgandy-red ‘stones’. What happens next is almost to complex to describe but let us just say that the next concentric circle comprises bizarre motifs which at every 45 degrees features a tall protrusion, something like a Medieval sword handle whose elongated pomel sits atop a ram’s horn quillon.

The eight ‘handles’, forming a kind of mariner’s compass, find themselves contrasted against a marvelous light blue field of of delicate vines. Across this field we come to a series of radiating ogival medallions with tripartite escutcheons pointing towards the center.

Now we come to the borders and large corner decorations the latter of which are composed of a large medallion with a small lobed center within a radiating motif. Let us just say that everything drips with jewel-like minutiae, curves, curlicues, pendents, rococo shapes, dragon-like leaf structures and most distinctively, Couder’s signature pattern, the endless knot.

The choice of colors is done to perfection. Each tonal section not only contrasts in its juxtaposition harmoniously with the next but has been chosen also for maximum highlighting of the pattern it brings to life.


*check out some great images of stain glass medallions here: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/457748749596164282














Millefleurs Prayer Hanging, Kashmir, 18th Century

Size: 106 cm x 145 cm

The basic format follows in the pure Mughal tradition of a bouquet of flowers bursting in bloom from a decorative vase all within a graceful Islamic niche formed by an arch composed of cusped two-tone leaves coming from either side to join at a central apex just above the bouquet’s  majestic top ‘ferris-wheel’ radial flower.

On a teal ground, the elaborate vase sits upon a piano keyboard-like dish which itself is raised upon a small mound. The bouquet is delimited by a narrow unadorned space that separates it from the arch serving to highlight the bouquet’s efflorescence and to add a dynamic graphic dimension. The spandrels are filled with circular, or flattened roses. The two bright vertical inner guard borders (hashias) are woven on white silk warps  and patterned with a four blossom meander. The horizontal top and bottom hashias are of identical meanders but woven with pashmina only threads. Through the process of ikat, visible at the top and bottom, it’s possible to see how the teal field slowly dissolves into the reddish colorations of the borders, an indication that the weaving was done seamlessly all on one loom. The large outer borders comprise a repeat of deep indigo blue and madder red floral rosettes on a red ground. For the outer hashias, a sinuous vine rolls over and under red and blue flower buds.


The serrated, two-tone leaves of which the spandrels are composed, exhibit a tiny hook at the tip- a leaf style shared by the Lyonnais piece, though on the latter they appear almost to be hooking together to form the arches. Such is not the case here. At the spandrel’s lower end, the bottom leaf trails off where is it met by a tall, serrated, floral shape, which while similar to the Lyonnais mat, is more diminutive.

Lastly we have, just under the ‘piano’ dish, a cartouche-like device appears to be supporting the dish. While its drawing is a bit off, we can only be certain it’s indeed a cartouche by observing the one in Lyon. Observing the red borders we find also cause for close comparison by the sequential placement of floral rosettes.

All this to say that it’s very clear these two millefleurs ‘carpets’ are sisters in disguise. One thing is clear, though. If one were to replace all the colors with those of the Lyonnais mat, one would be quite surprised by how identical they actually look, both botanically and format wise. The placement and identity of the blossoms matches closely.

Millefleur prayer hangings from Kashmir were woven mainly as treasured gifts by and for various potentates of the Indo-Muslim world. Because of their high value and symbolic importance, rarely were they used as prayer mats per se. That their history dates back to at least to the seventeenth century imperial Mughal era is borne out by the recent discovery of an unpublished example found at the Musèe des Arts Decoratifs, Paris












Amazing “Embroidered” Long Shawl


Perhaps crafted around 1860 or so this spectacular long shawl is truly a work of love and devotion by a single master craftsman whose painstaking efforts had to have taken him no less than ten years to complete this wonder. Why the quotation marks? Because in reality the whole shawl was done in Kashmir’s world famous needlepoint stitch. One often sees this work on early plain-field long shawls with kunj botehs, or needleworked embellishments in each of the four corners of the shawl; work so fine as to boggle the imagination. This is the same needlepoint stitch employed on the V&A well-known map shawl, as well. And because the stitching also follows a twill weave look, they look like they’ve been kani woven. But to discover a large, long shawl with this kind of work is unheard of. The design, obviously based on a French Jacquard pattern, is done to absolute perfection. The colors are sparkling and the choice of colors have created an overall shimmering hue as far as the eye can see. Not a thread is out of line. Even on the back everything is so perfectly nipped and tucked that one wonders how this could be possible.



What’s exciting is that this could be one of the oldest moon shawls known. It’s certainly endowed with all the attributes of what we know about the early ones: tiny central and quarter medallions and an overall diminutive size. However, what makes it stand out from all others is its large patka-like border containing botanical elements found only on 17th shawls.


Style and Aesthetics: In general the smaller the central medallion (and likewise corner medallions), the older the rumal. In this calligraphic rumal we have strong indications of not only early age but clear signals of a draftsmanship echoing the Mughal era in which it was woven. Outstanding are the large hashias of unusual clarity and free spacing,the bright white ground highlighting their bold botanical elements. Two inscriptional cartouches alternate within the repeat. In the cartouche that seems to have two parallel lines across its center contains, according to Professor Wheeler Thackston, Harvard’s erstwhile professor of Arabic,

 “theArabic وصلعلیمحمد wa-ṣalli ‘alā Muḥammad (and pray for Muhammad)”; the other:

 “the Arabic عمرطویل ‘umr ṭawīl (long life) and then something that looks like KM (کم) on top that doesn’t fit grammatically or by sense.”

The white silk warps of the vertical borders were a standard weaving practice of Kashmir, found on almost all shawls, providing a smooth surface to tightly pack the pashmina wefts, greatly enhancing the design. However, horizontal woolen borders invariably got corrupted and often it was difficult to find a matching correspondence between the two patterns. In this moon shawl we find the spirit of a master weaver who proudly celebrates his pious intentions all four sides with precision and perfect clarity

Besides the calligraphy, the most unusual botanical element is the cluster of the three yellow flowers that alternate between the cartouches. In forty years of studying world collections I’ve seen this particular floral style- and rarely at that- only on shawls and textiles of unquestionable 17th century provenance.



Date: April 5, 2016

This is indeed sad news for all dealers and collectors of antique textiles. Some of the most interesting pieces used to come up for sale there. It was such a great place to wade through piles of textiles coming from the four corners of the globe. And needless to say some of the best Kashmir shawls came under the hammer there. For dealers sitting on old inventory collecting dust it was an easy place to recycle dead wood and pocket some money. But as society moves rapidly into the 21st century, the hidden closets and musty attics of those who had worked for the East India Company, returning to England after years abroad in Asia, with collections of accumulated exotic textiles, those storage places have dried up. For dealers in this trade the halcyon days were the 1970s, 80s 90s and even up to 2010, but as the century turned and the internet took over and the auction houses raised their commissions- many of them now approaching 30%, it became increasingly clear that the smaller dealers were being pushed out or being extremely careful in purchasing or selling through auctions. SK also provided a venue for like dealers to get together, trade stories, meet new people, collectors, even if they felt like later on they had to tussle over auction bids.

The advent of websites specializing in antique textiles also became a challenge to the auction houses. Christie’s and Sotheby’s have virtually ceased their specialized sales of carpets and rugs. The turnover of auction house specialists that went off on their own business ventures meant that auction client lists were no longer secure. The explosion of social media meant that dealers and collectors can now connect quickly. Its only in the last 30-40 years that a plethora of specialists books on textiles have become available. People tinkering with the idea of collecting can now arm themselves with detailed knowledge. Easy access to past auction results is there at the click of the mouse. The large antique shows are also fading. New York’s famous Triple Pier show is gone. Dealers were paying increasingly large fees for a booth only to sell to old clients whom they could have easily sold to without the hassle or expense of setting up a booth.


SALE 3004B, 25 APRIL 2017, BOSTON

Lately Skinner has been selling a good quantity of Indian Kashmir shawls in each of its past rug auctions and this time twelve were presented. A late Dogra period one, lot 75, with a kind of rug design layout went for $1968, while lot 71, looking rather finely woven, with a black and blue center went for a rather surprisingly low price of $1169. The “Mughal” shawl panel, with an Islamic manuscript pattern went for $2706, a modest sum considering its rarity. It was a piece I bought more than 30 years ago.

The off-white moon shawl was nice if a bit stiff with it’s rather boring mosaic patterned center and quarter medallions. However, its ripe age of circa 1800 made it desirable to collectors ready to fork over $6765.

The last shawl to be sold was lot 76. Enigmatically it sold for a rather high price considering its quality was nothing to brag about. Its blue center was refreshing and the weave appeared to be quite acceptable but so was Lot 71. More strangely was the fact that the time spent on its bidding lastly not more than 20 seconds. From the opening price of about $1000 it jumped to its final bid of $3250 (+ comm), before the hammer abruptly came down. Correction: Just learned that this piece was not sold! Now that makes sense.

As most collectors know by now the main driving force behind the pricing of these Kashmir shawls are the Indian dealers who frantically search high and low for them in Europe and particularly in France where most of them hang out. There probably hasn’t been one French antique dealer who hasn’t yet been harassed by the incessant if not cloying demands of these mostly Delhi/Gujarati dealers. the mighty Dollar for the past 5 years at least has been trashing the rupee. As a result, Indian dealer decided that it was just too expensive for them to travel all the way to the US. Besides, finer shawls always seemed to pop up in France.

If you add to this phenomenon, the Demonetization that recently took place in India, It all added up to the perfect storm for crashing the kani shawl trade in India, not to mention a thousand other types of cash businesses that depend on the free movement of currency.


TEXTILE L11, DROUOT, Wednesday Avril 2017
This was a sale of various and sundry textiles from around the globe with an emphasis on period French costumes, lampas, palampores and Kashmir shawls.
Lot 233, an Indian long shawl with a central roundel split sharply into to solid colors of blue and white, hammered down at 2000 euros or 2540 with commission. It’s a shawl I had once owned or it just might have been it ‘dochalla double. Whatever be the case from having owned it many years ago I can still recall the quality of its weave, which was not that good. On a scale of ten, perhaps it was an 8 at the most. Besides its nicely worked center there was nothing in its design that would make it stand out.
The long shawl that did reach a decent level was Lot 235. The hammer plus commission came to 3937 euros reflects its fine array of rich, early 19th century colors, wonderful snaking pattern recalling patterns developed by Antony Berrus and which became very popular during the latter years of the 1840s. This would not be classified as a Sikh period shawl, though. My guess is that it was woven in the succeeding decade.
Lots 232 and 237, 1270 & 1397 euros respectively were more of the ‘garden variety’.
Lot 231 was a rumal with a star black center, pleasant design, nice colors and from what I can tell from experience just by looking at it on the web, an excellent weave. It went for about $1100.
A nice white centered long shawl form the first half of the 19th century, one of those monochromatic garden varieties of what I call the ‘Moorcroft’ pattern of stout Paisleys that monotonously shoulder up across the
the pallus, hammered out at 3556 euros with comm. Its white matan with the needleworked kunj botehs and central matan escutcheons certainly enriched its allure to perspective buyers.

Bare in mind that I have not seen these pieces in person and am therefore unaware of the amount of deterioration they might have suffered: holes, tears, rips, rotting, fading, stains, etc.

Skinner’s Auction

Sale: March 13, 2016

Skinner’s sold about 25 shawl items from their Boston auction room. It was primarily a rug sale but since Lawrence Kearney,  expert in charge, has a connection with  an obviously motivated client with a large collection  of shawls  it was decided to test the market waters. Overall there was nothing of high historical interest or irresistible novelty. From the first group of shawls, a Sikh period moon shawl (lot 26) with a white ground, estimated $2000-$25000 went for just about the higher estimate (w/o) commission.Four went unsold. Among the second group, a late 18th c.  white ground moon shawl, lot 78,  est. $4000-$5000, didn’t even reach the lower estimate but sold anyway for $4305 (inclu. comm.). Whoever bought it got the best deal. While it’s botanical details left a lot to be desired, its early age was apparent by the diminutive size of the central medallion and narrow hashias (borders). Probably what kept the price low was the poor condition of the borders. As far as the rest of its condition, a catalogue photo rarely reveals the extent of damage.

The third group comprised a few late 19th c pieces of lackluster interest. The long white shawl (dochalla), lot 133, est. $3-4000 went for $3075 (incl. comm.) which means it never reach its lower estimate. (Above photo). These are what I called the Moorcroft booth types from around 1823, the time when the latter sent back to England a group of shawl drawings in this same vein.

One lot that I particularly liked was a pair of end panels (pallus), nicely drawn from around 1815, which if they had been well illustrated in the catalogue might have surpassed the very reasonable price they attained of $1845 (incl. comm)


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