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This Winter's Fashion Fetish: Pashminas

Americans catch the craze for these delicate woolen shawls made from the fur of Nepalese mountain goats

In a cold, dank, shed-like factory here, Nepalese men with gnarled fingers work antiquated wooden looms, squinting at woolen threads that slowly form one seamless piece. Thanks to the meticulous handwork, it will take 98 workers an entire day to make just nine shawls - for export.

The fruit of their labor is destined to wrap chic Americans in this winter's fashion fetish: pashmina, one of the world's warmest, lightest wools.

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Made from the fur of pashmina, a mountain goat that scales the snow-capped mountains of Nepal, India, and Tibet, these shawls for centuries have been cherished as an investment, tradition, and even art form in South Asia.

Americans are only just starting to get hooked - but they're catching the craze fast. In December, Vogue magazine deemed the pashmina shawl "fashion's cult accessory of the moment."

Halfway around the world, in Kathmandu, shawlmaker Ashutosh Singh can't spout about fashion, but he can attest to this newfound pashmina passion. At Nepal Silk Industries, where he is manager, pashmina exports to the US and Europe jumped 30 percent last year. Average monthly production in 1997 was 500 pieces, up from 200 five years earlier.

"We could hardly keep up with our Christmas orders," Mr. Singh says, unlocking a metal cabinet bursting with the colors of a New York-bound consignment, from bright cherry red and startling lime green, to the more subtle natural tones of beige and oatmeal. "In the West, it has become a big status symbol to own a pashmina."

To be sure, the shawls - which start at $400 apiece and can reach several thousand dollars if embellished with embroidery - are not affordable to all who pass through the doors of Bloomingdale's, Barneys, and upscale clothing emporiums on Fifth Avenue.

Given the low labor costs in the developing world, tempted consumers might be forgiven for asking about the high price tag. "They're not just plain woolen scarves," notes New Delhi shawl trader Mohmad Shah, with a hint of impatience. "Feel this. Feel this," he says, caressing a 36-by-82-inch shawl the color of honey before balling it up in his hand to demonstrate a point: Pashmina is so delicate that it can fit into a human fist, belying its ability to keep the wearer toasty warm.

The true pashmina is made of wool from the neck and underbelly of the capra hircus, a goat that thrives only in arid Himalayan plateaus at 12,000 to 14,000 feet. The high altitude, combined with the goat's spartan diet and special genetic makeup, enable it to grow a coat of wool among the finest and warmest on earth.

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But if the pashmina is new to America, in India and Nepal it has had appeal for generations. Wealthy families are expected to include pashminas in a dowry, alongside jewelry and property. "For many Indians, pashmina shawls are an investment like gold," says Meenakshi Mohan, a resident of New Delhi who owns three. "They never depreciate in value."

Some South Asians frame their best pashminas and display them on their walls. But most of them are worn. One of Mrs. Mohan's pashminas, an antique piece passed down three generations, is covered with hand-embroidered paisleys in different blue hues, from icy steel to warm turquoise. She reckons it's worth $3,000. "Of course I wear it," she says. "But only on special occasions."

The most intricate stitching on a pashmina can take five years to complete. The work is done by male embroiderers in the territory of Kashmir, the center of shawl trade in South Asia where embroidery is a traditional craft passed from father to son.

In New Delhi, wealthy women often drape a pashmina over only one shoulder to better display the intricate embroidery. In the West, fashion-conscious women prefer solid shawls wrapped snugly around their bodies.

Nepalese pashmina shawls, which are usually blended with silk, have a glossy, elegant finish that's appealing to many Americans. They're more affordable than 100 percent pashmina, but cannot be embroidered and are slightly heavier.

For world travelers, it's worth knowing that a solid pashmina can be bought in India and Nepal for about $120, or nearly four times less than in the United States. Mr. Singh of Nepal Silk Industries in Kathmandu sells his solid shawls, which are mixed with silk, to importers for $60 to $100, depending on the ply and the size.

Pashmina can attribute some of its success to the international ban on shatoosh, the king of wools. Shatoosh is the fur on the chin of a rare Himalayan antelope, which is even lighter, softer, and more expensive than pashmina.

About two years ago, just when the king of wools was making an appearance in Europe, the antelope was declared a protected animal and trade in shatoosh shawls was banned.

Pashmina importers in the US and Europe have helped popularize pashminas by getting them onto store shelves with designer labels such as Nina Ricci, Chanel, and Guy Laroche. Now they are more coveted than even the softest cashmere.

In New York, some dealers throw "pashmina events," high-class parties where up-to-the-minute style mavens wrap colorful pashminas around their long, slim necks - thousands of miles and a world away from the factory in Nepal.

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