Cashmere, like many other fine materials, is easily taken for granted in today’s globalized and commoditized world. It is generally easy to find and it is more affordable now that it has been in the past. However, this exceptional fiber is worth a deeper dive, because so much important information is obscured by the clothing industry that you need to know to be an informed consumer.
If you want to appreciate one of the finest fabrics in the world, it pays to learn a little bit about it. The easy accessibility of cashmere today belies the fact that it is still one of the rarest, most prized fabrics in the world.
What is Cashmere?
Cashmere is the general term for fibers and fabrics that are constructed from the fine under hair of the cashmere goat. That’s right, a goat. Each animal grows a double fleece which is comprised of thick, coarse guard hairs that overlay a fine down insulating layer of hair. This unexpected source, on average, produces a mere 150 grams (0.33 pounds) of cashmere fibers annually per goat. It takes 2-3 animals to produce a sweater, for example, and 5-6 animals to produce a jacket. The annual world production of cashmere hair is estimated to be 15,000 to 20,000 tons, and once the hairs are processed to eliminate everything but the under hair, the final yield is estimated to be a mere 6,500 tons.
According to the definition set forth by the US government in the Wool Products Labeling Act, not all fibers from the cashmere goat are considered to cashmere. They must be:
- Originating from the fine, dehaired undercoat fibers of the cashmere goat
- The average diameter of the fiber is less than 19 microns
- Cannot contain more than 3% by weight of cashmere fibers exceeding 30 microns
A micron is equal to one-millionth of a meter. For reference, a human hair is about 100 microns wide, so cashmere fibers are exceptionally fine.
History of Cashmere
Cashmere has been a luxury product for nearly all of history. In recent times, the term “luxury” has evolved to mean many different things, but for most of the history of the production of cashmere, it has meant that the material was only accessible to society’s rich and elite. “Cashmere” is the anglicized version of Kashmir, the region in Asia from which cashmere production originated. The region now falls in parts of India, China, and Pakistan.
Though cashmere production has been around for thousands of years, the modern formation of the industry is traditionally believed to have started in the 15th century in Kashmir. Cashmere was woven into shawls that featured a paisley pattern, and this particular garment dominated the industry until the industrial age. Imported genuine cashmere shawls were rare in Europe, and due to the high demand, Europeans used other fibers to produce imitation shawls for centuries. By the 1800s, Europeans had imported cashmere goats from Asia and were spinning cashmere yarns on the continent. The cashmere industry particularly flourished in Scotland, and the country continues to be a center of European cashmere production to this day. Cashmere was introduced to the US on a large scale for the first time in 1947.
Cashmere remained an expensive, rare commodity until laws liberalizing international trade passed in China in the late 1970’s. The once-restricted industry was now far more open to development, and demand helped push cashmere further into the mainstream in the following decades. Cashmere cultivation expanded rapidly, ushering in an era of mass production that caused prices to steadily fall. Only serious environmental degradation of the goat grazing lands has forced the price of cashmere back up in recent years as fewer herders can find food for their animals.
Today, cashmere is considered an attainable, disposable luxury. Big box retailers order hundreds of thousands of pieces of cashmere every year, and prices for a sweater can be as low as $50 to $100. Prices that low and volumes that high beg some questions: Can you still find real, high-quality cashmere that is worth investing in? Is cashmere sustainable in the long term?
How is Cashmere Created?
Cashmere is called the “diamond fiber” in China, where 70% of the world’s production of fibers is centered. Mongolia produces 20% while all other nations make up the last 10% of production. The climate in central Asia is extreme in terms of both heat and cold, which causes the cashmere goat to grow a thick warm coat that is then molted in the spring. The under hairs are only collected once a year during this spring molting season.
The fibers can be collected using one of two methods:
- Combing is done by hand, and while it is far more labor intensive, this collection method results in purer cashmere with fewer guard hairs
- Shearing removes both the under hair and guard hair layers at the same time, resulting in a lower yield of pure cashmere fibers
Combing is the preferred method in China and Mongolia, while shearing is more common in the Middle East, New Zealand and Australia. Once collected, the fibers are sold to processors who then sort the hairs, washes them, and spins them into threads. The threads can then be twisted together to form a composite yarn, the thickness of which is indicated by the ply of the yarn. Two twisted threads are referred to as 2-ply, and three threads 3-ply, and so on. Since cashmere is a hair, it particularly benefits from the increased structure in the twisted thread. The higher the ply, the more durable the yarn and the less likely it is to pill, fuzz or unravel.
Environmental Consequences of Cashmere
The vast majority of cashmere is still produced by poor, nomadic herding peoples in high plateaus of central Asia, such as Mongolia. Traditionally, these nomads herded yaks, camels, horses, and sheep in addition to goats over vast expanses of high, arid grassland. Camels and yaks are minimal impact grazing animals, but goats tear up the ground surface with their hooves and pull grass out by their roots. The destabilized soil then blows away in the wind, leaving sand behind. As the demand for cashmere (and prices) soared in the 1980’s and 90’s, herds became increasingly dominated by goats. As a result, in the last 20 years, the traditional grazing lands have been subject to aggressive overgrazing and desertification. As much as 65% of Mongolia’s grasslands have been degraded. Sand and dust storms now plague large parts of Asia, affecting the health and livelihoods of its citizens.
Like most natural products, overconsumption of cashmere has had a far-off, though very real, impact on the lives of the people who produce it. While much of the control of the industry lies with the Chinese government, responsible consumption of cashmere by consumers can go a long way to curb the excesses of the industry.
The Best Quality Cashmere
The best qualities of cashmere are generally:
- Sourced from combed goats
- From goats raised in China and Mongolia
- Made from the thinnest (14-16.5 microns) and longest (up to 50mm) fibers
- The higher the ply, the better
Cashmere from Iran, Afganistan, and other small Middle Eastern nations is less desirable because the fibers are thicker (16.5-19 microns) and contain more guard hairs, which makes the finished product rougher to the touch. Longer, thinner fibers can be more tightly woven, and the resulting fabric is not only softer but it is also more resistant to piling.
How to Buy Cashmere
Most retailers provide frustrating little information about their cashmere offerings. For example, this sweater priced at $645 from Neiman Marcus is only labeled with “cashmere;” there is no indication of country of origin, the ply, the micron width or the fiber length. It’s shocking that companies expect consumers to spend that much money with so little information. This sweater could be the same quality as this $99 sweater from Macy’s.
Most retailers are happy to share information about the quality of their cashmere if it is better than average; buying anything else requires that you accept that the quality of the cashmere is a mystery.
In this case, use common sense; $100 cashmere sweaters are unlikely to be the best quality. Look for ply info if you can find it, the higher the ply the better, and test cashmere to see how it resists stretching. Pull it between your fingers a bit, and if the fabric springs back, it is tightly woven and likely to be a higher quality. If it doesn’t, don’t buy it. Look for a generous return policy and utilize it if the product begins piling after only a few wears.
Like all products, do your research!
Our Cashmere Buying DOs and DON’Ts
- DON’T be fooled by “gauge” claims. Gauge measures the closeness of the knit, but note that this says nothing about the quality of the actual cashmere. For example, here J Crew claims that a 14- gauge knit is “softer and lighter”, which it is, but in fact, a low gauge indicates that the product uses LESS cashmere and as a result, will be very thin and likely to lose shape over time. There is not much point to buying a super thin cashmere sweater.
- DO expect that retailers should have to show you the value for the asking price of a cashmere product. If they won’t,
- DON’T buy cheap, disposable cashmere. Considering the environmental damage that industry has caused, you can support a healthier cashmere industry by purchasing quality with the intent to keep and wear a garment for years.
- DO invest in classic cashmere pieces. Trends come and go, but a sweater in a classic cut and color can serve you well for a decade.
- DO consider the cost per wear when purchasing a cashmere product. We say this about every purchase because it’s a way to measure the long-term value of your clothing investments. A $500 sweater you wear once a month for 10 years (in the winter) equals $8.33 per wear, while a $100 sweater you only wear for a season will cost $16.67 per wear.
- DO buy cashmere for products that will best utilize the unique characteristics of the material. Sweaters, vests, robes, and scarves will employ the softness and warmth of cashmere to greater effect than harder-wearing items like socks.
- DON’T buy cashmere blends. Cashmere mixes can contain less than 5% cashmere, and mixed cashmere is rarely high quality.
- DO consider buying cashmere from heritage producing countries, such as Scotland, Italy, and Japan. Scottish, Italian, and Japanese producers of cashmere have long been known for producing quality fabrics, and many producers from these countries have been in the business for 200 years. While heritage is no guarantee of quality, they will be much more concerned about protecting their reputation than no-name cashmere.
Sources for High-Quality Cashmere
Even forthright retailers of cashmere will not always offer all the product details that would be useful to a cashmere buyer. Frankly, any brand that stipulates the ply count, the micron width, staple length, OR the country of origin are sharing more than the average retailer. Here are a few sources that have good reputations for cashmere that make an effort to share more detail about their products. You may be surprised by some of the prices you see, but the reality is that good cashmere comes at a price.
The Italian house Loro Piana is the largest global manufacturer of cashmere, and they focus on high-end products. Their cashmere averages 14.5 microns from adult goats and 13-13.5 microns from baby cashmere. Their fibers are sourced exclusively from China and Mongolia and woven in Italian mills.
In Scotland, Johnstons of Elgin, a 200-year-old knitwear company, offers classic cashmere sweater cuts in 2-ply Scottish-knitted cashmere originating from Mongolia and China.
Finally, at Fort Belvedere, we are fanatical about providing you real information about the products we offer. Our cashmere is sourced from Mongolia and China, is 14-16.5 microns in width and has a long staple length of 35-50mm. Each scarf is thistle-finished for an exceptionally soft feel.
How To Care for Cashmere
Cashmere can last for years if properly cared for. It’s best to avoid washing it more than necessary. First of all, never dry clean or machine wash cashmere. Both cleaning processes are too rough on the fabric, and they risk stripping the protective natural lanolin from the fibers. Purchase a low-alkaline detergent for delicates, or use baby shampoo as the cleaning agent.
- Fill a basin with warm water (80-85 degrees is ideal) and add a small amount of soap.
- Gently swirl the cashmere garment in the water for a couple minutes, taking care not to rub, stretch or pull the material.
- Empty and refill the basin to rinse the item. Repeat as needed until no more soap is detectable.
- Gently squeeze to remove excess water, and transfer the item to a towel. Blot dry.
- If the item is still very wet, roll it gently between two fresh towels to remove excess water.
- Allow the item to dry flat on a mesh drying rack or on a towel until dry.
Cashmere is worth the praise and admiration that has been lavished upon it for centuries. It’s ultra-soft, finely textured, and warm qualities make it worth owning and wearing for the long-term. What cashmere pieces are on your shopping list?