By Carole Masters
Come the winter, there is one item in my wardrobe I always like pulling out. It is my cozy soft cashmere sweater a gift from my husband years ago. It’s warm without being bulky and that’s what fascinates me about this fine delicate fiber and its long history. It can be more affordable today, but its luxurious feel along with its scarcity made it a status symbol for the wealthy and royal in the past.
“Ugly and expensive, but warm and light,” wrote Empress Josephine of France around 1798 after receiving her first cashmere shawl sent to her by her husband Napoleon in Egypt. Evidently, she came to find them more beautiful, for cashmere shawls became her fashion statement and highly desired by wealthy and aristocratic ladies of the day, not only in France but also throughout Europe. French, Scottish and Italian weavers were quick to adopt this fiber, develop better means of processing and create more than just shawls. Well known are the cardigans worn by Queen Elizabeth and the royals, made in Scotland as well as the body hugging Italian and French sweaters worn by 1950s movie stars such as Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn.
“Cashmere” is the Anglicized name given this wool because the processing first developed in Kashmir, a region bounded by the Himalayas and the Pir Panjal mountain ranges of India. In the 14th century, a Persian, Sufi Ali Hamadani, encouraged the production of the shawls in Kashmir and “Pashmina” derived from a Persian word is also commonly used when referring to ultra fine cashmere used for shawls.
Whereas most wool comes from sheep, cashmere comes from mountain goats found early on not only in Kashmir but Mongolia and Nepal as well. Living in extremely cold temperatures, they are double fleeced with a protective coarse outer coat and a dense but fine downy undercoat. It is only this soft insulating undercoat that is used to make cashmere. In the Spring the goats will molt their winter coats and the fleece will be combed to obtain the undercoat. It is then scrubbed, washed and de-haired of any coarse hair from the outer coat. One goat may produce only 3 to 4 ounces of fiber to be spun into yarn.
The highly laborious process and the small yield per goat, explains why cashmere is so expensive in comparison to the wool from a sheep. The wool collected from 1 merino sheep can produce enough yarn for 4 – 5 sweaters, while one Cashmere goat provides only one-third of one sweater, according to London W11 an English cashmere boutique.
This natural fiber is lightweight because it has a diameter finer than any other wool and an insulating hollow tube like structure. In fact, it is 6 times finer than human hair and 3 times more insulating than sheep’s wool, according to Naadam (https://naadam.co) an online retailer that has eliminated the middleman and buys direct from Mongolian herders. This hollow lightweight fiber also makes it easy to blend cashmere with other wools like merino or combine it with silk. Blended sweaters will cost less.
For function and comfort alone you would think cashmere would be in demand. However the desire for cashmere is still that cache of elegance and sophistication. “It’s just a classic to have in any wardrobe, whether it’s a beautiful draping wrap, a V-neck sweater, or cardigan” said Haley Mazza, style consultant at Garmany, 121 Broad Street in Red Bank. As far as trends, Mazza believes we will see “more colors and patterns especially this Spring. Cashmere sales were big at Christmas. “This past year we included a new brand of cashmere, Repeat, which has been a big success,” responded Mazza.
In Garmany’s mens department, cashmere sweater sales were “excellent.” Manager Moe Gonzalez explained, “men really like cashmere sweaters because they feel warm but are light and in a restaurant for example you don’t feel bulky. It’s nice to layer.” Garmany’s mens department carries mostly Italian cashmere brands: Loro Piana, Brunello, and Cucinelli. “You have to be careful, garments made in China are not as good as Italy. Besides sweaters, sports jackets are big and they are really an investment that you can have for years,” said Gonzalez. https://www.garmany.com/
There was plenty of cashmere clothing to choose from at “the bee” in the Brook 35 Plaza, Hwy 35 Sea Girt. “You just feel pretty wearing cashmere; classy and sophisticated”, said Lisa Gregory, General Manager.
They carry three clothing brands of cashmere: Minnie Rose, Margaret O’Leary, and 27 Miles. “They are top cashmere lines and very competitive. We sell a lot of wraps that are great for dressy dresses especially the ruffled cape by Minnie Rose,” said Gregory. She added that many of their customers are buying wraps or capes for travel. https://thebeestores.com/
Besides specialty stores many of the national chains such as J.Crew and Banana Republic offer cashmere clothing. Like any desirable fabric or commodity, there are different degrees of quality fiber and production that dictate price. Mongolia is known for some of the best cashmere, as their winters are longer and extremely cold, producing a longer fiber that is stronger. According to Wikipedia, China is the largest producer of raw cashmere followed by Mongolia, with lesser amounts of raw cashmere produced in Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and other Central Asian Republics.
The more industrial the process the less the quality pure cashmere is obtained. The best and most expensive cashmere fiber is gathered completely by hand from the combing to the hair removal and washing.
So how can you tell good durable cashmere from the lesser valued. Price usually is a reflection of quality and cashmere can run from hundreds to thousands of dollars. However, competition is also helping to bring more affordable cashmere clothing to the market. Here are some things to look for when purchasing cashmere:
- If a label says 100% cashmere, place it on your neck to see if it is itchy or not. Cashmere should be soft without any itchiness.
- Yarn made with two threads twisted around each other, 2-ply, will be stronger and more tightly knit for durability and warmth. Sometimes it will say this on the label. Single ply will not be as durable. Stretch the fabric apart. If it is 2-ply it should spring back to shape. Wrinkle the fabric. Good cashmere doesn’t wrinkle.
- Less expensive cashmere is made of shorter fibers. Excessive initial fluffiness might mean the yarn was spun from shorter and less resilient fibers. Similarly, move your hand on it and see if fibers begin to roll up: this could be due to a higher percentage of short fibers, which will pill more.