“It’s late on a bitterly cold December evening in 2014….
I’m standing in the middle of a London boutique. My friend is trying on her 100th pair of Levis and as many other items as she can physically carry to the changing rooms without having to ask for assistance. She will be a while and so, left to my own devices, I wander off around the shop. I can feel the festive spirit in the air, carols play softly over the radio and the scent of apple and cinnamon drifts past my nose. A light dusting of snow is resting along the window and pavement outside. It is the idyllic Christmas shopping experience, like something taken straight out of a movie.
Before long I find myself in front of a £310.00 Cashmere sweater. It would be perfect in this weather, a real treat for cold winter nights. I turn to the owner, full of hope, a simple question that needed an answer before I considered it further. Little did I know that my perfect shopping experience was about to be brought crashing down. Little did I know that I had just come face to face with a gentleman I can only assume, was deep in training for the village idiot competition."
to be continued…
Cashmere is, and always will be, one of the last words in luxury. This natural fibre is highly sought after for both its inherent warmth and beautiful softness. Nothing quite compares to it.
A question I am frequently asked in the shop, is why the price of cashmere can vary so drastically between brands and stores. It is a perfectly reasonable question when we consider that a high street store will sell you a cashmere sweater for £80.00 whilst a specialist boutique may charge upwards of £400. If both have a label boasting 100% cashmere, then they should be as good as each other, right??
I'm afraid not.
However, before I pick apart this fallacy, let us look at exactly what Cashmere is and why we covet it so much. For those of you wishing to jump straight to the answers and how to test for quality cashmere feel free to scroll down to the question "Presented with two cashmere sweaters..." further down the page. For those wishing to understand the reasoning behind those answers and knowledge of cashmere in general, let's begin...
Aside from its relative rarity compared to other fibres (annual world production of sheep wool is around 1.3 million tons compared to just 6,500 tons of cashmere), two of the biggest reasons that we covet cashmere are its inherent softness and warmth. It can be up to 8 times warmer than normal wool and when placed against the skin it is the epitome of luxury. As anyone who has worn quality cashmere will attest, there is no feeling quite like it
At it’s most basic level, cashmere is the winter under fleece that goats grow to shield themselves from plummeting temperatures. As the seasons change, and temperatures become warmer, the goats shed this under fleece, at which point they are combed to extract the cashmere. The Cashmere is then processed, washed and spun into garments. In this simplistic version of events, it all seems pretty straight forward…
Comb a goat, process the cashmere, make some clothes.
So where in this process does the price of a jumper fluctuate so dramatically?? Unfortunately, the answer is that every single point in the process has variables that dictate the quality and subsequently the price of a garment. It is important from the outset, to realise that not all cashmere is equal with regards to softness, warmth and longevity. Far from it.
Let's start at the beginning. Ladies and gentlemen, choose your goat…
Many breeds of goat produce cashmere; basically any breed that grows a secondary undercoat during the winter months. However, different breeds and the various climates they live in, lead to varying qualities of cashmere produced. As cashmere is prized for it’s warmth, common sense suggests that a winter coat gown to protect against the coldest temperatures will provide cashmere fibres most adept at retaining heat when woven into garments. And so it proves to be true. The best Cashmere comes from goats situated around Inner Mongolia. A goat prancing about up a -30℃ mountainside needs some serious insulation which naturally results in the warmest cashmere.
Now, for those wishing to really wow/bore their friends, arguably the absolute finest cashmere comes from the Changthangi breed of goats situated in the region of Kashmir. The place name is no coincidence, the history of cashmere started when these goats were used to make clothing for the King of Kashmir in the 14th century. Indeed, the word ‘cashmere’ is simply an old spelling of the word ‘Kashmir’. Anyway, this particular cashmere is incredibly rare, it makes up less than 0.1% of global cashmere production and is used in only the pinnacle of luxury goods. Don’t worry though, the cashmere produced by the average goat wandering around a -30℃ mountain in Mongolia is still incredibly soft and warm. Anyone that has felt our cable knit cashmere ponchos
can attest to that as this is where we source our cashmere from.
So you have chosen your goats, Spring has arrived and you have combed out the loose underfleece. It’s time to sort the hairs. This is the most important point at which you really make or break the quality of the final garment. When a goat is combed, all sorts of hairs come out. Long hairs, short hairs, fat hairs, thin hairs, dark hairs, light hairs, stiff hairs soft hairs and guard hairs. For the best cashmere you want the thinnest, longest and whitest fibres which are found on the underbelly and neck. You want these qualities for the following reasons...
The thinnest strands will be the softest and warmest when made into a garment.
The longest strands bind together far more securely resulting in a durable garment with higher tensile strength that is less prone to pilling.
The whitest strands require the least amount of dying. Dying any fibres will cause a certain amount of damage to them, making them coarser. The less dying required, the softer the resulting garment.
On a quick technical aside, whilst any fibre thinner than 30 microns can technically be called cashmere, to be considered truly exquisite cashmere each strand must be about 14 microns in diameter (a human hair is about 75 microns) and in excess of 36mm in length. Cashmere of this quality will command the absolute highest price and be woven into the finest, softest and warmest garments.
Obviously, the more you chase perfection and sort out only the finest strands, the more inferior strands you are discarding. Therefore, the more goats you need to make a garment. To put this in perspective, The Cashmere Tunic
requires the winter fleeces of roughly 4 goats to make each tunic. That means that each, year a flock of 1000 goats will only produce 250 of those tunics.
Consider then, the cost of keeping 1000 goats for a year and the hours put into combing them and sorting the hairs to make only 250 jumpers a year. Starting to see why good cashmere costs money??
It is also easy to see the temptation to use all of those discarded hairs which technically still qualify as ‘cashmere’. This is exactly what many makers do. Inferior quality cashmere uses shorter thicker strands. Worse still, it might include the short, stiff guard hairs which are incredibly coarse. To make cashmere cheaper you are sacrificing the two qualities we prize most - softness and warmth. Not only that, short fibres do not bind together securely which results in garments that lose shape and pill constantly as the fibers come loose. For those unsure, ‘pilling’ is those tiny balls of fabric that form on the garment after use or washing. They are fibers that have fallen out of the weave. It means your cashmere is basically disintegrating before your very eyes, getting thinner with each use until it eventually becomes unwearable.
Now, just before you grab your £400 cashmere jumper and panic that there are a few signs of pilling, don't fret. Even the best cashmere products might pill ever so slightly (not enough to affect it at all) with the first few uses. This is nothing to worry about, it will stop. It is only cheaper cashmere that just keeps on disintegrating until it is threadbare.
Good quality cashmere will last a lifetime.
If you go cheap, you pay the price of sacrificing softness, warmth and durability. To be honest, it makes buying the cashmere somewhat pointless. Not only do you lose the qualities we prize highest in cashmere, you also having to replace it every year due to it falling apart. Cheap cashmere is one of the most obvious false economies in todays clothing market. A £5 high street polyester slogan t-shirt is not fooling anyone and that's fine. You know it's cheap and cheerful, you know it will fall apart, it's £5 so who cares, right?? Nobody buys it thinking, 'I will hand this exquisite piece of neon down to my children in 20 years. I hope throwaway lurid slogans are still popular then'.
A 100% cashmere label, however, invites people to assume quality and longevity which in a lot of cases is simply wrong. A £100 'bargain' cashmere sweater starts to looks very expensive if you have to change it every year.
The old adage - “you get what you pay for” rings especially true here. The initial outlay on a high quality piece of cashmere will be offset by they fact that it is an investment piece that will last a lifetime.
We’ve covered quite a few bases here and I assume most of you are asleep by now, but hopefully I've shown how the differences in price are easily explained when we consider the differences in quality and longevity. If nothing else, you can bore your friends with a remarkable knowledge of cashmere and it's origins in the 4th century.
For those still awake and following, it's time for the practical implications of this cashmere article with the obvious question you are all thinking...
Presented with two Cashmere sweaters, both boasting ‘100% cashmere’ labels, how can you tell which is the quality piece and which is the rag??
The first thing is to look at the price, but not as you may think. Most would assume that a higher price means better quality. On the whole this might be true, but you must remember that it is easy for a brand to sell poor quality cashmere at high prices. However, it is impossible to sell great cashmere at low prices. If you’re looking at a traditional 2ply cashmere sweater for under £100 be very wary of it. The cost of the raw materials alone would mean that it could not be made from high quality cashmere so keep looking around. Once you have found a piece that is sitting in roughly the right price range it’s time for a hands on test.
Check for an overly woolly or fuzzy texture. If the cashmere has an obvious woolly appearance it would suggest that it has been made from short fibres that are already starting to unravel before it has even been purchased!! To test, gently rub the palm of your (clean) hand along the surface of the garment. If it pills under your touch, avoid like the plague.
Give the jumper a light stretch and see if it pings back. A quality piece of cashmere that has been made well with long fibres in a tight durable weave will ping back to its original shape and have good elasticity. To cut costs, some makers keep a loose weave to use less cashmere. These garments will quickly sag and lose their shape. A few uses and your jumper will start to look like a flamboyant tea cosy. Please be gentle with this test. I’ve heard a few stories of people swinging off jumpers like they are church bell ropes. Stretching a jumper from one end of the room to the other will prove nothing and is generally frowned upon. A gentle tug and release will show you all you need to know.
Trust your hands and feel how soft it is. The more contact you have with different cashmere, the quicker you will be able to distinguish between different qualities. It’s hard to explain but great quality cashmere just feels like luxury. Lightweight, incredibly warm and incredibly soft, you’ll know it when you feel it.
Look into the brand. This is such an important indicator that people often overlook. Do a little digging into the brand itself and its reputation for selling quality. Investigate, not only where the raw material is sourced but how and where it is manufactured. We have already established that Mongolian goats produce beautiful cashmere. This, however, is only half of the story. How it is then prepared and made into the garment is just as important. A jumper made from the most beautiful quality cashmere will still fall apart if it’s put together by the Chuckle Brothers. Conversely, a great manufacturer will produce garments that last a lifetime.
As a rule, the best locations to hear in this respect are Italy and Scotland. Both countries are renowned for their experience and workmanship techniques. Any brand having their garments made in these countries is almost certainly trying to keep standards high. Obviously, there are plenty of exceptions where brands use fabulous manufacturers from other places, which is why investigating the background of the brand and their reputation for cashmere quality is so imperative. Quite often, it can be just as informative as a hands on assessment.
Any brand that is unsure of the origins of it's cashmere should be treated with caution. As you can see, there are variables throughout the process that are all important to the finished product. A brand that does not know each step in its own process may well be charging high prices for poor cashmere which leads me nicely back back to my story...
So, there I am in the middle of London on a freezing cold Winter evening, a £310.00 cashmere sweater held in my hands. It is the shops 'own label' clothing line and the owner of the shop is standing in front of me. If anyone can answer my question it should be him. I ask him the simplest of questions.
“Where do you get your cashmere from?”
He looked up from his crossword, looked at me, looked at the jumper in my hands, looked back to his crossword and mumbled..
“I don’t know, but cashmere is cashmere isn't it??”
Now, my initial instinct was that this man had told us a little white lie and wasn't actually the owner of the brand after all. This, however, would imply that whoever the real owner was, they were sending their staff on a customer service course run by Basil Fawlty. I found this highly unlikely and so was left with two options.
Either, I was dealing with a man who didn't know anything about his own cashmere and did not care or I was talking to a man who had genuinely no idea about cashmere in general.
Either way, I was facing a brand so disassociated from their product, that they could easily be selling inferior quality at extortionate prices. Worse still, they could be selling a cashmere blend mislabeled as 100% pure. (There have been cases in the past where makers so desperate to produce cheap cashmere garments, have blended the cashmere with yak or rabbit hair and sold them to unwitting brands. The labels of 100% cashmere on these items were simply a lie.)
Suffice it to say, I did not purchase the jumper. My friend, however, left with enough denim to start an avant garde folk band.
Anyway, I hope this has answered some questions on Cashmere. Good quality cashmere costs good money but it will last a lifetime. There are no shortcuts. Now that you know what to be looking for and what to be asking about, don't be afraid to ask questions about the cashmere you are purchasing. For those of you here purely for the knowledge, please feel free to stop reading now, what follows is simply an anecdote I love to tell...
I was having lunch with an old friend a few months ago, and the conversation turned to him bemoaning the price of good quality cashmere. He is what I would call a cashmere fiend, someone who really buys well and looks after each purchase. I told him that, given the inherently high cost of the raw material, the only way to reduce the end price would be to reduce the manufacturing costs. I then flippantly informed him that I was...
“...chasing up a lead on a rare species of Cableknit Goat which I was hoping would save the hours of knitting it took to make our ponchos.”
In that perfect moment when his brain wasn’t quite in gear, and his concentration was distracted by the stainless steel teapot leaking boiling liquid everywhere, he nodded enthusiastically and said
“Thats a brilliant idea!!”
I kept a straight face and the conversation quickly moved onto the next topic. We finished lunch, went our separate ways and I thought no more of my little fun. Later that evening I received a somewhat disgruntled phone call. Apparently, he had relayed my winning idea to his wife (who I could hear laughing in the background), and she had pointed out that I may have not have been entirely serious. He finished the phone call with a simple..
“Cableknit goats??!! You’re such an idiot”
Now, I must admit I have used a tremendous amount of poetic license with the word “idiot” there. The string of words he actually used to describe me were rather less flattering and rather more French.
Whist I like to remind him of this story as often as possible, and whilst I do love the idea of patterned knitted goats roaming Mongolia looking somewhat fabulous, the sad fact is that I can’t see it happening any time soon. Good cashmere costs good money and there is no getting around that fact. Invest and you will be rewarded with a beautiful piece that lasts a lifetime.
That’s it for this article I think. For anyone still awake and following, I hope you enjoyed it and found some answers. Please do share it with anyone you think it may be of interest to.
Next time I’ll be picking apart the much coveted phrase “Made in Italy” as the indisputable hallmark of quality in leather handbags and leather in general. I’ll be examining exactly why we rate The Bridge so highly, how to really go about finding good quality leather and how to avoid handbags that end up looking like they’ve had cheap plastic surgery after a year of use.
I’ll see you next time…
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