Travels with my pashmina

The tiny ball that opens up to the size of a small blanket.

When pashminas came into fashion about ten years ago, you'd have thought the world had never heard of a shawl before, which is all that a pashmina actually is. Because I am so contrary, I avoided buying one for ages, as I did not want to seem to be following a trend. By the time I did, they had become very passé, and so I felt safe.

A really good-quality pashmina should be 100 per cent cashmere (pashmina is a type of cashmere). But, to keep prices down, the shawls are now often mixed with silk, which also adds strength - although cashmere is one the lightest and warmest fibres you can get, it is weak. My pashmina was incredibly thin, so much so that you could scrunch it up into a little ball and shove it in a bag; yet, when you pulled it out, it was the size of a small blanket. (And no, it was not an illegal shahtoosh, made from Tibetan antelope fur.) It sounds the stuff of glossy magazine talk to say it was great to take when travelling, but it really was, not only because of the warmth it imparted (I could literally feel the heat it trapped the moment it rested on me), but also because it is immensely comforting to have some thing luxurious but practical with you in unfamiliar surroundings.

I wore my pashmina on all my winter fishing trips over the seven years I was a fishing correspondent and sometimes, on really bitter days in Scotland, I'd use it to balaclava up my face. It was a fantastic companion. But sadly I got a bit too gung-ho with putting it in the handwash cycle of my washing machine. It has now fallen apart, though it is intact enough to be of use, and my daughter loves to be wrapped "in Mummy's special blanket" while sitting on her beanbag watching SpongeBob.

Pashminas make wonderful gifts for new parents. Des pite seeming like high-maintenance presents, they actually are not, because you really can put them in a good handwash machine cycle. I just did mine a bit too often, to get rid of fish detritus. A pashmina can be used unfolded in warmer weather as a baby blanket, but when the weather cools down you just fold it to make it thicker and warmer. Nothing can beat it. When you get up to feed a baby during the night, a pashmina is the most wonderfully comforting thing to wrap around you and the child. They are also fantastically useful for weddings, as they provide warmth with style and no bulk.

For ages, I thought what an unbelievable luxury a new pashmina would be, even though I still use my tattered one almost every day, and even though I spend more than the cost of a fairly good pashmina on food each week. Finally, today, I decided that as it's my birthday month, I deserve one. I shuddered with the decadence of it as I ordered one in purple, the colour of egomaniacs.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror