Shahtoosh (also written shahtush, Persian word meaning “king of fine wools”) is the name given to a specific kind of shawl, which is woven with the down hair of Tibetan antelope(chiru), by the weavers of Kashmir.
These shawls were originally very few and it took very skilled artisans to weave the delicate hair (which measured between 9 and 11 micrometers). These factors made shahtoosh shawls very precious. Shahtoosh are so fine that an average size shawl can be passed through a wedding ring, leading to them also being known as ‘ring shawls.’
The chiru antelope live in one of the harshest environments on earth, at an altitude of over 5,000 metres. Their special type of light and warm down fur allows them to survive in the freezing conditions of the plateau where they gather at one point of the year. They are migratory animals – moving down from Mongolia, Tibet, and traditionally followed closely by the nomads, who make that journey every year. The nomads would hunt the antelope for all that it provided them – hide, meat, bones, horns and fur pelts – in short, everything that the nomads needed to sustain them through their journey.
The incredible fineness makes it virtually impossible to handle – and this is where the weavers of Kashmir played their role. With their experience in handling the finest hand-combed Pashmina wool, they could weave shawls of the most exquisite quality, and thus the shahtoosh shawls born.
When the British (of British India) traveled to Kashmir in summer, they realised the worth of Pashmina and shahtoosh shawls and introduced them to the world, which led to greater demand for these products. Subsequently, the antelope was hunted down specifically for its fur, and their numbers have dropped accordingly from nearly a million (estimated) at the turn of the 20th century to less than 75,000 today. The numbers continue to drop yearly. This led to the antelope now being listed as an endangered species, given the highest possible level of legal protection, whereby no commercial trade in shahtoosh is permitted.
Shatoosh shawls are the most expensive shawls owned by the owners. They are warm and very soft and delicate. The hues used are also warm most of the time, like ruby reds and maroons, rust, browns and so forth.