SRINAGAR, India (Reuters Life!) - They sell for thousands of dollars, grace the shoulders of celebrities and are coveted by women the world over, but the future of the famous pashmina shawl is tangled due to neglect and cheap copies.
For centuries, pashmina shawls have been woven on handlooms from wool handspun from the shaggy coat of a goat which lives in the heights of the Himalayas in Indian Kashmir's Ladakh region.
Thousands of Kashmiris are associated with the ancient trade, with women mostly spinning and men weaving the delicate yarn into warm, soft scarves and shawls which are often embroidered. The name pashmina is derived from the Persian for wool.
But today, hundreds of pashmina weavers in Kashmir have been forced to move to other professions because cheaper, machine-made shawls are decreasing demand.
Business has also been hit by government neglect of a region beset by nearly 20 years of fighting with Muslim separatists, in which more than 47,000 people have been killed.
"Machine-made cheap products and fakes from different parts of India have badly hit pashmina shawls, and in fact all weavers," said 65-year-old Mustafa Qadir, considered by many as one of the best pashmina weavers in Indian Kashmir.
"Our daily wages fell drastically and many of us had to change our business," said Qadir, who now runs a small grocery shop on the outskirts of Kashmir's summer capital Srinagar, which is ringed by snow-covered mountains.
After a global ban on shahtoosh, a wool derived from the hair of an endangered Tibetan antelope, shawls made from pashmina wool are considered the world's finest and are exported worldwide. According to officials, nearly 50,000 pashmina shawls are still woven in Kashmir a year.
Local legend has it that Kashmiri shawls came to Europe after French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte presented one to his wife Josephine more than two centuries ago.
Kashmiri pashminas, with intricate embroidery, can now fetch as much as 500,000 Indian rupees ($10,000) a piece at trendy boutiques and department stores in London or New York.
Plain hand-woven pieces are less expensive at a few hundred dollars, but even these are out of the grasp of most people compared to good quality, machine-made alternatives which are priced at up to 2,500 rupees ($52) each.
"It is difficult to find what is real and what is fake for a customer," said Shakeel Ahmad, a shawl dealer in Srinagar's main market. "Machine-made designs are more trendy, much cheaper and attract customers."
Another problem facing the pashmina industry is lack of proper branding. The name "pashmina" is used indiscriminately by weavers, and can be found on cheap, synthetic-fiber shawls as well as wraps made with a mix of wool and silk fibers.
Many customers do not have the knowledge to differentiate.
"The fake pashmina products have now infiltrated most of the pashmina outlets in and outside Kashmir even abroad," Parvez Ahmad Shah, a prominent Kashmir art dealer, said.
"Even the Kani shawl, which is pride of Kashmir, has a duplicate now," added Shah referring to special type of pashmina painstakingly woven knot by knot on looms with the help of "kanis" or special bobbins.
Earlier this year Indian authorities said they were patenting the pashmina to prevent imitations. "After the government declaring it an intellectual property right, pashmina will bear a definite logo and will help it from fakes," a spokesman said.
But many Kashmiris are skeptical about the government's claims to help out the war-weary region.
"Shahtoosh shawls are nearly extinct, and the fake Indian pashmina has invaded Kashmir now," said Fayaz Punjabi, a wholesale pashmina dealer. "Only God can save it."
Editing by Miral Fahmy