Shahtoosh is the most expensive wool in the world and is used to make articles of clothing such as shawls and scarves. It is extremely lightweight and soft, yet is surprisingly warm. The fibers are extremely thin — approximately six times thinner than the size of a human hair. Generally, the wool comes from Tibetan antelope fur, specifically the very fine undercoat; the animal is also known as the Chiru.
The name is a Persian word that translates as "king of wools." Given the delicate nature of the fur, it takes an extremely talented artisan to work with this fabric, making these shawls quite valuable and precious. The shawls typically are made in Kashmir, which is a state in India.
Historically, shahtoosh shawls were used as dowry items in India; however, the latter half of the 20th century saw this fabric become a must-have item in worldwide fashion. Their popularity continued to grow, and the shawls were in high demand. The Chiru, whose fur was used for these shawls, began to be hunted excessively, and the animal soon ended up on the endangered species list.
More than 160 countries signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, making killing, harming, or trading the Chiru illegal throughout the world since 1979. It is now against the law to hunt these animals and no commercial trade in shahtoosh is allowed. The illegal and underground trading of the fabric, however, remains a problem.
Investigations have found shawls being sold for thousands of US Dollars (USD) in underground markets in London, New York, Delhi, and many other cities. This could indicate that there is still a demand for this type of fabric among the rich and famous. As long as there continues to be demand for these shawls, the ban likely will never be fully effective.
The trade or possession of a shahtoosh shawl can come with a hefty fine or possibly even a jail sentence. In India, the fine is six years in jail and a $500 USD charge. The shawls or scarves can be confiscated at the border of most countries around the world, and the possessor could be charged with the trafficking of illegal animal products. After the law went into effect, owners of these shawls were given a six-month period to declare them and obtain an owner certificate.
Experts estimate that there are approximately 75,000 Chiru left in the wild, compared to 1 million in 1950. About 20,000 of these animals are still being killed annually, according to estimates, meaning that the animal could quickly become extinct. It takes the fur of three to five animals to produce enough shahtoosh to make a shawl. There are alternatives to this wool, the most popular being the pashmina, which is made from the wool of Tibetan goats who shed their coats every spring and are not killed in order to retrieve the fur.