Anything made with cashmere sounds really good straight away.
Once you try the queen of yarns, there is no going back, the world is a different place.
The luxury of cashmere
Cashmere is more expensive than any other fibre. Up until the 1980’s it was still considered a rare, luxury item. Reserved for ‘best’ and found only from specialist suppliers and a few of the higher priced brands. It did not have a ‘cool’ image, as it was so expensive people expected it to last and represent good value. Designs were classic, verging on the frumpy side.
When treated appropriately, far from being a delicate yarn, it was tough and long lasting. It wasn’t unusual for the British to wear inherited ‘grandpas’ cashmere pieces, reinforced with leather elbow patches!
Until about 1978, most cashmere came in ‘natural,’ goat like colours. It was a stylish Italian, Brunello Cuccineli, who had the innovative idea to bring about the development of coloured cashmere which shaped the world as we know it.
Traditionally raw cashmere comes only from the underside, of a rare breed of goat raised in Mongolia (and some parts of China.) Goats, naturally, shed part of their fleece during the warmer months, but harvesting beforehand, would ensure valuable material, doesn’t go to waste.
The animal was not harmed during this process, which involves painstakingly combing the goats hair. Slow & laborious. All that work would produce only about 200-250 grams raw, impure cashmere per goat. About 60% of the ‘harvest’ would then be discarded, as substandard. This no longer happens and substandard cashmere finds its way into the lower priced brands.
Real cost of cashmere
More alarmingly, in recent years, an increased demand for ‘low cost’ cashmere has put animal welfare on the back burner. It also brought a number of other more serious, environmental problems: the mountains which are the goats natural habitat, have to support an ever increasing population of animals, decimating the sparse resources and throwing the Eco system out of sync.
Cashmere is collected in its three base colors – brown, grey and white. Subsequently these are manually sorted, to remove impurities. Another slow & laborious process. The harvest is then ‘graded’ and sold on.
The longer fibres are more desirable, as the will not pill easily and the finished item, be it knitwear or cloth, will hold its shape. There is only a limited supply of the desirable high grade cashmere and will usually get snapped up by the specialist companies who employ experienced cashmere buyers.
Experienced companies, like Brora, are based in Scotland and have their own mill to process ‘raw’ cashmere. The processing at the mill, as well as the initial grade, will determine the quality as well as the price of the final item.
Cashmere being a natural and relatively rare product, does not translate well for huge production runs, as it’s hard to keep the consistency. Each item will vary.
Lower grade cashmere is often mixed with silk, wool or camel hair to produce less expensive items. These may, or may not, be of good quality, but they are not the same as pure cashmere and the base cost is substantially lower.
Cashmere in the wardrobe
So two jumpers may both say 100% cashmere on the label, but vary significantly in price and quality. One will pill and loose it’s shape, the other will go on, season after season. Some of the best quality ones, (like Brunello Cuccinelli, Hermes, CHANEL and Brora) may be hand finished, so the seams lay flat, the buttons are specially commissioned to match the colour, that sort of small detail, which is not immediately apparent is a mark of good quality.
How to recognise quality cashmere
Softness is not necessarily, an indication of higher quality. In fact good cashmere used to feel quite substantial and a little rough, it was the using, washing and wearing -that created the divine softness, everyone raves about nowadays.
To cut a long story short, good cashmere improves in feel with wear and is a tough long lasting fabric.
Generally, cashmere items produced in small batches will be better quality, than anything that has been ordered en masse.
Price is a vague indication of quality.
Although you can find high priced, poor quality cashmere, the way it’s produced and the rarity of the yarn, means there is no such thing, as cheap and good quality. Brora still controls its own cashmere mills, and I have found their cashmere comparable to much higher priced brands.
A quick way to tell, is to look at the seams and the finishing of a good brand and compare with the less expensive one. Rubbing between fingers should not shed fluff or leave excessive wrinkling. If you gently stretch, it should bounce back into shape. Do not attempt this method in a shop! Much better to know & trust your brand.
Any initial piling should be gently lifted with masking tape. Store with care using sealed bags and acid free tissue, to avoid moth infestations – moths view your quality cashmere as a michelin star feast! Tailored items cannot be washed and required different type of care. (Post coming soon)
Shopping for cashmere
Something to be done slowly and with consideration for the goat and our wallet. When buying cashmere, check out the origins of the yarn and the manufacturer’s credentials. A manufacturer owning their own mill, controls the entire process and is able to offer consistency. ‘Made in Scotland’, is still an excellent bet.
The informed buyer, Buys with longevity in mind – it is far better to buy good quality British wool, rather than cheap cashmere which was produced God knows how, and will be all bobbly after a couple of wears. Poor quality cashmere will bring disappointment and an empty wallet. If you are hoping to build a long term classic wardrobe, skip the bargain cashmere for the simple reason that one will have nothing to wear (literally!) by the end of the season. Some won’t last long enough for the credit card bill to arrive.
Buy well and buy wisely, treating those cashmere jumpers, with respect befitting the queen of yarns.
© Lady Sarah in London
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