It’s no understatement to say that cashmere is the Rolls Royce of woollen yarns. The mere mention of the word conjures up an array of superlative adjectives. While cashmere was once the reserve of high society and royalty, procuring a garment crafted from the super soft wool is not only an investment that will last a lifetime, but a statement of intent against the world of fast fashion. But what is it about cashmere products that sets them at the top of the knitwear table? In this piece we aim to shed a little light and cover:
- Why cashmere is so revered as a fibre
- The history of cashmere products
- The different grades and some simple tests to ascertain the likely grade
- How to care for cashmere products
- How to style cashmere scarves
There are other wools of course, worthy of a mention, namely Shetland and merino, which absolutely have their place in the annals of menswear, but once you’ve sampled the best, you won’t go back.
What Makes Cashmere So Special?
So what are the unique ingredients that make cashmere so covetable? Cashmere belongs to a group of textile yarns known as ‘speciality hair fibres’, and “only the product of the Kashmir goat is true cashmere”. So what’s so special about the Kashmir goat?
While it varies in build and colour, the most highly-esteemed possess large ears, slender limbs, untwisted curved spreading horns and long, straight, silky white coats - which make them sound more like characters straight out of a Harry Potter novel.
The species is found roaming the hilltops of Asia, namely Inner Mongolia, China, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan. The mere fact that it takes a single Kashmiri goat one year to produce enough cashmere for a scarf will give you an indication as to why cashmere products are more expensive than other natural fibres.
Cashmere fibres, longer, smoother and straighter than sheep’s wool, are removed manually with a comb, starting from under the goat’s chin, then spun into a filament ready to be woven or knitted. In fact, so luxurious are the fibres of the Kashmir goat’s fleece that it’s alleged the Arc of the Covenant of the Old Testament was lined with it.
China accounts for around sixty percent of the world's supply of cashmere while the remainder is divided between Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Kashmir, Australia and New Zealand (according to the Oklahoma State University’s Department of Animal Science).
Kashmir goats thrive in conditions which are arid in summer and many degrees below freezing in winter (up to an eye-watering -45 degrees in fact), the perfect climatic conditions for the goats to grow their two coats: the outer which is hard and wiry, and the inner which is soft and luxurious. The remoteness of the raw material only adds to the mystique.
The History of Cashmere Products
The term ‘cashmere’ came to fruition in the 16th-Century, and was used to describe the shawls spun by Kashmiri craftsmen on the Silk Route bound for India. But it wasn’t until the late 18th-Century when cashmere shawls started to be exported to the West, that most found their way to Europe.
The shawl quickly gained a cult following among the elite upper classes in London and Paris, becoming a sort of status symbol to IT girls of the time who slipped them over short-sleeved, high-waisted dresses that were de-rigueur back in the day. One simply wasn’t enough for Napoleon’s first wife Empress Josephine, who allegedly assembled a collection that ran into the hundreds.
But there are different qualities of cashmere. Sure, you can pick up a cashmere scarf on the high street at a fraction of the price of a premium offering, but the truth is it will likely start to pill in no time - the old adage of ‘you pay for what you get' really runs true with cashmere.
But what should you be looking for when investing in cashmere? As one of the most valuable natural commodities on the market, it’s not surprising that the quality of cashmere wool varies substantially - factors such as its origin, the season, and even the age, size and type of Kashmir goat it is sourced from. Cashmere is graded according to its quality - ‘A’ being the premium and most expensive, ‘C’ being the lowest quality. It all boils down to the thickness and length of hairs in the fibre.
Which Countries Are Well Known Producers Of Cashmere Products
England Case Study
England, and specifically the Midlands and Yorkshire, made a name for itself in the textile industry during the Industrial Revolution, specifically producing cotton which was imported from the British Empire. A select number of mills also chose to focus on the more luxurious cashmere, and many of these mills are still working today since being founded in the 1700s.
Combining a rich history of working with textiles as well as the latest technologies, these mills today produce some world's finest cashmere and we are proud to say our cashmere scarves are produced in one of these very mills.
Italy Case Study
As the Asian empire grew, cashmere was traded to western countries. While the UK and France had first drop of the Kashmir shawls, Italy quickly became one of the largest weaving communities, namely in the area surrounding Perugia in Umbria and is well-known for its strong traditions and high quality craftsmanship of cashmere garments.
As the majority of the wool originates on herds of Kashmir goats in Asia, much of the raw material is shipped directly to Italy where finished garments and accessories are woven. As if cashmere were not premium enough already, the addition of a “Made in Italy” label naturally is a match made in Heaven.
Scotland Case Study
The Borders town of Hawick is the beating heart of the Scottish cashmere industry. With its rich manufacturing heritage and an international reputation for producing quality goods, this special collection of weavers and knitters are all located between the four bridges of Hawick.
Cashmere Quality Grading
The highest quality cashmere as the fibres will both be the longest and finest. The diameter of the fibres can be as low as 14-15.5 microns, with a length of 34- 36mm. All our cashmere scarves are made with Grade A cashmere.
This will be thicker, and not as soft as Grade A, with a diameter of 19 microns. This is still considered a high-grade cashmere, but will be noticeably less valuable and durable compared to Grade A.
This is the lowest quality grade for cashmere, as the fibres are much thicker with a diameter of around 30 microns. This is much cheaper than the other grades, and will not feel as soft.
What Do The Different Grades Mean In Reality?
Cashmere is renowned for its incredible softness and lightness of being. The higher the grade, the softer it will feel and therefore have better shape retention. Garments made with longer, finer fibres will pill less - meaning the effect of the fabric rubbing against itself or another surface will be far less noticeable and less-likely to bobble.
It may not be immediately obvious, but colour also impacts on the quality of the yarn. Naturally white, raw Kashmir hair is softer than dyed hair due to the lack of processing involved.
There are several tests you can perform that will help inform your purchase which we've set out below.
The Touch Test
A simple touch test will determine the softness - the cashmere should not feel scratchy. Also bear in mind that premium quality will be soft, but not overtly so as it softens over time. Be wary though, if it feels too good to be true, it probably is. Some producers trick the system by treating the cashmere with fabric softeners, but the truth is this will shorten the life of the fabric which has been placed under undue stress.
The Stretch Test
Gently stretch a section of the cashmere and see how well it pings back into shape. Premium cashmere will, inferior cashmere won’t. Then hold the cashmere up to the light and peer through it. For premium cashmere you’re looking for a tighter-knit weave. This is another factor in how well the garment will keep its shape in the long run. Pilling can be an issue with much of the knitwear available on the market, and lower quality cashmere is no different. This is caused by an excess of shorter, as opposed to the premium longer hairs in the weave.
The Eye Test
Simply by adjusting your focus across the surface of the garment will determine the quality. If you detect a small amount of fluffiness - 1-2mm - will indicate longer hairs were employed and pilling will be less of an issue such as the image below. Anything above 2mm and a much fluffier appearance will indicate the use of shorter hairs, meaning a greater propensity to pill and wear.
As a visit to an all singing, all dancing production mill will reveal, Cashmere in its raw state resembles anything but the finest fibre in existence - more like rather greasy-looking grey hair bundles piled high in huge wheelie bins. To give it its due, it has travelled halfway around the world from the outer reaches of Mongolia, China and Iran so you can forgive its rather bedraggled appearance. But you soon realise it is the extensive production process that makes cashmere such a prized commodity – as you circumnavigate the mill, you see for yourself as the cashmere is dyed, blended, carded and spun.
While many of the key weaving mills possess some of the most sophisticated weaving machinery in the world, it is heartening to discover that the humble teazle, similar to those found on a Scottish thistle, provides the pièce de résistance in the finishing process.
These prickly customers are lined up side-by-side in long lines on a mechanical drum, where they are sprayed with water (when wet the spikes of the head tease out) and comb the cashmere fibres to achieve the silky smooth finish we know and love. It’s nice to think of it as nature’s way of giving something back.
Five fascinating Cashmere facts
• Cashmere goats live in only 12 countries around the world
• A typical Mongolian herder owns about 100 goats
• The diameter of a strand of cashmere yarn is under 19 microns (one sixteenth of the diameter of a human hair)
• Cashmere is eight times warmer than lambswool
• "English" and "Italian" cashmere is woven, not produced in the country
Despite being lighter in weight, a premium cashmere scarf can keep you up to eight times warmer than a lambswool equivalent. While they are in their element during the colder months, you probably weren’t aware they can be worn all year round.
Because of the inherent high moisture content of cashmere, as the humidity changes so does its insulation, making it comfortable in all climates as it repels sweat away from your body. So, if you are looking for the perfect scarf material which not only keeps you warm but also adds styles to your outfits and draws compliments from your peers, then a cashmere scarf really is a no brainer.
As Thousand Yard Style photographer Robert Spangle once remarked, “if your neck is warm, so is the rest of your body”. As a former Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, he knows his stuff. Cashmere is as close to perfection as you can get when wearing wool in such close proximity to your skin - especially the area around the neck which sensitive-skin suffering gents often struggle with. If the morning’s cut throat shave wasn’t harsh enough, the last thing you want to do is add fire to the flames by looping an itchy lambswool scarf around said area.
How To Look After Cashmere
Owning a slice of cashmere is one thing, but what’s the best way to look after it? It’s not recommended to wash a cashmere scarf until at least a dozen wears. Generally speaking, you should ignore what the label says. Because it's a delicate yarn, many cashmere items are marked ‘Dry Clean Only.’ But as we learnt earlier, cashmere is derived from goats, whose fur, much like human hair, takes on a fluffier and more lustrous appearance after it's been washed. By contrast, dry cleaning will damage the fibres over time.
As a friendly word of warning, do not under any circumstance put your scarf in the washing machine unless you want a keyring-sized scarf to come out the other end... Always hand wash your cashmere in cold water for around 20-minutes using a very mild detergent. Cashmere is at its most vulnerable when the fibres are wet, so a degree of caution is required.
The downside is that wet cashmere can take days to dry out thoroughly, but if you stick to it, your patience will be rewarded. Do not attempt to wring out the cashmere, instead press excess water gently out of your garment, place it on a dry towel and carefully roll it up. Once the towel has absorbed as much of the moisture as possible, shape the garment and lay it out flat.
Styling Your Cashmere Scarf
There are a plethora of ways to style your cashmere scarf. By far the most popular is to wear one nonchalantly across your shoulders with equal lengths on either side, referred to as The Drape - definitely a look that leans towards style over function though. This is fine on sunnier spring or autumnal days when your layers are unbuttoned.
However, when the thermometer starts to plummet, you’ll need to button up. This is when something like The Parisian Knot comes in to play as you can fasten it up closer to your chin and keep the draught out. It also looks neat tucked inside your overcoat collar. Fold your scarf in half width-wise, then fold in half again length-wise. Drape the scarf over your neck, and then bring the loose ends through the hole formed by the folded end to tie the knot.
The Four in Hand is much the same as the popular tie knot. Much like its cousin The Parisian, it protects your neck from the elements in an equally stylish way. Fold the scarf in half length and width wise, and then drape it over your neck. Take one of the loose ends of the scarf and pull it through the loop formed by the folded end. Twist the loop, then pull the other end of the scarf through the loop to tie the knot. Continue to adjust the knot until it sits snugly under your chin.
As for colour pairings, the same rules apply as with tie and jacket combinations. Generally speaking - and it’s not to say you can’t pull off a stylish monochromatic look by pairing different shades of the same tone - the patterned scarves work better with a plain overcoat or jacket while the single colour scarves help tone down a livelier-patterned top layer. Having said all that, a plain red scarf against a blue overcoat is perennially chic and stylish.
However, if you're feeling daring, a patterned scarf can work really well with a patterned jacket if you have a plain coloured overcoat, over the top. This is because the overcoat takes up the majority of the visual area, so the patterned jacket and scarf effectively become accents to the overall outfit.
Cashmere is, in our humble opinion the gold standard when it comes to knitwear products. The softness and warmth it provides is unparalleled, and once you start on your cashmere journey, you will quickly find it hard to go back to more traditional woollen products. We would advocate that it's worth the investment for one or two key pieces of cashmere in your wardrobe, you will not be disappointed!