The Most Expensive Fabric on Earth Is Totally Illegal to Own

You can’t buy shahtoosh! You can’t sell it! You can’t even own it!

Kashmir's Centuries Old Pashmina Shawl Identity
Yawar Nazir

Have you ever heard of shahtoosh? It’s a kind of shawl made from the hair of Tibetan antelopes that is rarely worn in public, so it’s perfectly OK if you haven’t. And if you’re patting yourself on the back for being one of the few people to actually own one...we hate to break it to you, but you’re a criminal. Regardless, to understand the allure and sin of the shahtoosh, we should look back to 1999.

Every now and then, a new word is added to our lexicon—one that does not merely capture the zeitgeist, but also defines it—and at the end of the last millennium, that word was pashmina.

L.A.PREMIERE OF ANDY TENNANT'S'ANNA AND THE KING'
500 Internal Server Error

Internal Server Error

The server encountered an internal error and was unable to complete your request. Either the server is overloaded or there is an error in the application.

Frank TrapperGetty Images

500 Internal Server Error

Internal Server Error

The server encountered an internal error and was unable to complete your request. Either the server is overloaded or there is an error in the application.

It’s been 20 years since the word pashmina has been deployed in conversation without being a punch line. But the fact that it came to prominence at all is in large part due to the controversy surrounding shahtoosh, a much more precious fabric from the same region of the world with an even more exotic and mysterious name.

shahtoosh
A shahtoosh shawl confiscated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife

Like real pashmina, shahtoosh is also from the Himalayas—it was a choice wrap for the 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar the Great—but instead of goat hair, shahtoosh is made from the locks of the chiru, a species of antelope indigenous to the Tibetan Plateau in China. The problem: Since 1975, these majestic horned animals have been an endangered species. Of course, that didn’t stop the shahtoosh trade—it merely made the scarves rarer, and more expensive and desirable. They were brazenly presented for sale in windows of tony shops on New York’s Madison Avenue, as well as in magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, as late as 1998. The price tags were commensurate with its rarity—that is, extortionately expensive. Back then, a shahtoosh could lighten your wallet by as much as $15,000—far more than the cost of other luxurious fabrics like vicuña and cervelt.

Emperor Akbar in converstion with Jesuit
The wardrobe of Emperor Akbar the Great was heavy on shahtoosh.
DEA PICTURE LIBRARYGetty Images

After some time, government agencies around the world, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, began cracking down on the illegal importation of shahtoosh. Bringing it into the United States knowingly could result in a five-year sentence in federal prison and a six-figure fine. At the very least, you’d have your ill-gotten accessory confiscated by U.S. Customs officers.

In 2001, Vanity Fair reported that a group of wealthy, high-profile women, including supermodel Christie Brinkley and socialites Karen LeFrak and the late Nan Kempner, were issued subpoenas by federal agents for owning shahtoosh. Denise Hale, another socialite, told the magazine: “Darling, everyone I know has one or two. Or three or four or five. This is the first time I hear it’s illegal.” And the scandals didn’t end there—in 2017 Martha Stewart told the New York Times Travel section that she packs her shahtoosh on every trip. An editor’s note was later added to clarify that Stewart’s shawl was cashmere and not a real shahtoosh.

Tibetan Antelope at Dagze Lake, Shuanghu, Tibet
Shahtoosh is made from the hair of the chiru, an endangered Tibetan antelope.
Feng Wei PhotographyGetty Images

Aside from its rarity, the real reasons shahtoosh was—and still is—the object of so much desire are its ultrasoft texture and extremely fine threads. (It’s said that the fabric is so thin, an entire shawl can easily be squeezed through a wedding ring.) “It’s the forbidden fruit of fabrics,” a source tells 吉林快3. “It weighs nothing and vicuña is like sandpaper by comparison. It feels like it’s been woven from the hair of an angel fallen from heaven.” To know that feeling in 2019, vicuña—or your old pashmina—must suffice. Heaven, as ever, will have to wait.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Trends