The Journal of Antique and Collectibles
January 2012 pp. 32-34 (illustrated)
Before I begin my story about the Kashmir shawl, let me go back a few years and explain how this all began. It was 1972, Paris, my newly adopted home as a New Yorker, third-generation American, seeking to carve out a new life as an expat. I was twenty five years old and something told me that Paris was right: I loved art, antiques, history, food and French women. My French was fluent. Growing up with a father in the used car business taught me the tricks of the trade; I had the wily credentials one needed to survive.
Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” portrays a character (Owen Wilson) who, in a time warp, finds himself immersed in La Belle Epoque era. For me this nostalgic era lingered on until 1970s, but the final coup de grace was the tearing down of Les Halles, Paris’ great old market place. Paris had become my “time warp” and The Hotel Drouot (Paris’ equivalent of Sotheby’s) became my daily haunt. For me starting out in antiques, it was the most exciting place on earth. The contents of whole estates were being whisked off to the auction rooms and sold helter-skelter. This was before the days of serious catalogues. Anything that couldn’t be easily hung on the wall or placed on a table was literally plopped into a large basket along with a host of other very interesting things and sold off as one lot. Often juicy items could found in hidden in these baskets. The viewings were like a shark-feeding frenzy of garlic and wine smelling, gruff, dealer urchins who’d sooner elbow you out than have you poke into ‘their’ malette (basket). For only a few hundred Francs each week I loaded up my VW Kombi bus (bought in Holland with Dutch plates, of course) and headed out to the flea markets. What I didn’t sell there I placed on consignment with antiques shops around Paris. French Francs began to pile up, rent, food entertainment was covered, and never in my life had I felt more alive or at home. Within three years, I developed an intense liking for antique textiles. At Druout they hung these beautiful hand-stitched, quilted bed covers which I began buying in earnest. They were cheap and a source of quick profit. My interest then turned to the American patchwork quilt. During my frequent travels back to the States I scoured the backroads of Pennsylvannia and New England hauling enormous duffle bags of the stuff back on Freddie Laker Airlines. My friend and Parisian auctioneer Christian Grandin took one look at these amazing 19th quilts piled up in my apt and jumped on the idea of an auction. It was just before the American Bicentennial, 1976, and opportunist that we were, we dedicated the sale accordingly. In three hours all 200 quilts had been sold. Representatives from Yves Saint Laruent, Cardin, Chanel, Kenzo, etc., fashionistas, French singers and movie stars, etc., showed up, all leaving the room with quilts under their arms.
Night had fallen. Paris lights were twinkling as the bridge over the Seine led me slowly towards the Tuilleries. Stopping to look down at the Bateau Mouche I realized that this was a defining moment in my life; my raison d’etre. Although I began buying oriental carpets as well it was not until one weekend while staying with friends in London, that a discussion about what would be the next big collectable led us to the Paisley and Kashmir shawl. They were still inexpensive, still available and the craftsmanship was irrefutable. Little did I know that this was about to be a life long journey. Within a week, and knowing that 19th century Scotland produced enormous quantities of shawls, I found myself one early morning on a flight to Glasgow, landing in Glasgow and asking the taxi driver to take me to all the antique shops. For two or three pounds each I was jumping back into the taxi with armfuls. Next stop, Paisley, about ten minutes away, and yes, there is a town by that name! By luck, the driver knew some of the old weaving families who still had some collections. Without wasting time I was able to scoop up some very beautiful pieces before my driver took me to the train to Edinborough. Two hours by train and I was there. Again, taxi to all the shops and finally return flight home to Paris that evening. Whew! I had amassed about fifty very collectible pieces.
Over the next few months, and several more trips to Scotland, the collection grew to over a hundred and auction preparations were afoot. No one before this had ever launch an auction specialized in Kashmir shawls. The large room’s tall ceiling was perfect for displaying open at least 70 shawls while the rest was draped across long tables. It was a dazzling feast for the eyes. My friends and I put up posters in various bistros. At the viewing French press covered the event, TV stations brought in cameras and the word was out. The sale was a big success and again over the following few years several more collections were sold. Naturally, the market began to dry up fast but rarer pieces began to show as people realized that these long unwieldy pieces of wool that were collecting dust in their apts were now selling for lots of money.
So, this in a nutshell, is how I came to be in the business of textiles and how my research in the shawl develop. In 1986 my first book came out, titled THE KASHMIR SHAWL: And its Indo-French Influence, Antique Collectors’ Club, UK, reprinted 1988, 1997, 2003). It could not have been written without the field work of the many trips I took to the Sub-continent. It is now considered, I’m happy to say, an indispensable reference source for collectors and it was the project that compelled me to visit India, a return to the source.
My second book, WOVEN MASTERPIECES OF SIKH HERITAGE: The Stylistic Development of the Kashmir Shawl Under Maharaja Runjit Singh 1780-1839, (published 20010) focuses on those shawls woven in Kashmir in the first half of the 19th century. With such an erudite sounding title one can get a sense of how deep my scholarly instincts were set in motion.
If the reader is still confused about the origins of Paisley shawl designs let me say this. If, according to 18th c. records, England, with their tentacles spread wide by the East India Trading Company, is acknowledged as having first introduced the Indian shawls to British society, France became the leading imitator of these precious fabrics after the return of Napoleon from Egypt. The Jacquard loom was invented in 1806 and within decades France was weaving beautiful imitations, the designs of which became the envy of all Europe. France began selling its Jacquard punch cards (‘software’) and soon weaving centers throughout Europe were knocking them off, none more than the eponymous town of Paisley.
Now let’s turn to India and the subject of my latest book for which I briefly throw on my scholar’s cap. Located just under Kashmir in Northern India, the Punjab encompasses a five-river region that was severely battered by the opposing forces of various nations and religious sects during the eighteenth century. Afghans, Mughals, Sikhs, Pathans, Marathas, Rohillas and eventually the British, all clashed over this piece of land the size of France. Out of this warring chaos, the Sikh rose victoriously under the leadership of Maharaja Runjit Singh, who annexed Kashmir in 1819. During this time of Sikh ascendancy, the Kashmir shawl, around 1820, underwent within a few years a dramatic change in both format and design, from a tradition of simple Paisley repeats at each end of a long swath of twill-woven pashmina wool, to one of dynamic, complex patterns that expanded over the whole area of the shawl. My book attempts show that a close correlation exists between these patterns and the artistic, religious and military environment that evolved under Runjit Singh.
For the first time in history, the numerous independent and quarrelling misls (chiefdoms) rallied behind a warrior and despotic monarch, Maharaja Runjit Singh, whose army came close to challenging that of British India’s. Within this landscape appeared a new pool of Kashmiri, Sikh and Pahari artists, developing an innovative vocabulary of patterns. Geometric shapes in the form of eight pointed stars, circles, spear-like forms, sweeping curves and architectonic devices- all of which intersected and merged in a rhythmic flow of what might appear as musical or at times pyrotechnic energy, began suddenly to permeate the shawl’s ‘canvas’ . Other curious objects entered this growing design repertoire such as the bow and arrow, quiver, boats, quoits and the dagger, the last of which is indubitably one of the five symbols of the Khalsa (Sikh Brotherhood). Frequently integrated into the shawl’s twill-weave (kani) were gurdwaras (Sikh temples). No longer limited to the shawl extremities, these various motifs began to fill the complete space of the shawl, to such an extent that hardly any area remained unadorned.
As one can see, in this short space, it’s impossible to cover even briefly the entire subject.
The price of European shawls has steadily increased over the years, especially the more unusual ones. Taste for shawls in India is very different from Western fashion; Indians love strong colors and flowers. Fine Indian shawls, more rare, have increased tremendously in the West but very much so in India, where the economy is barreling along. Indian reversible shawls most of which were never made for export, sell for small fortunes.
Nevertheless, your ‘garden variety’ Paisley and Indian shawl continues to show up at antique markets and most are still very affordable. However, like anything else, when they’re very beautiful and unusual expect to pay more.