Since Merino is ranked at the top of the wool ladder, is there a point to paying a bit more for a cashmere garment of similar quality level? Let’s consider the two with regard to warmth, softness, and comfort. We will also consider the intended purpose of each, to determine if one is better than the other for certain occasions or activities.
Let’s begin with some definitions.
What is Wool?
Wool, sometimes known as fleece, is the hairy covering of certain animals like sheep, goats and alpacas. It is often used for making clothing, furniture coverings, blankets and other goods requiring a warm and versatile fabric.
Wool has been used for thousands of years and, unlike leather or other hides, the animal is not killed or harmed in the harvesting of wool. The fibres are removed from the animal by shearing, a technique similar to a haircut. Animals are generally sheared once per year, when the weather gets warmer in the spring.
All wool is a pretty good insulator, but even so, it varies a lot in qualities and price.
Sheep’s wool is a term applied to the wool taken from adult sheep of various breeds. This is the most common wool, available all over the world at relatively low prices. It is resistant to moisture and bacteria, and doesn’t absorb odours as much as many other common materials. Sheep’s wool is warm, but it is also heavy and tends to be coarse and scratchy.
Sheep’s wool should be differentiated from lamb’s wool, which is harvested from baby sheep. The fibres of lamb’s wool are very fine, but tend not to hold up to much use so, though they are soft, they quickly break and pill.
Up one step on the quality ladder is Merino wool, which traditionally comes from Merino sheep from Australia and New Zealand. Merino wool is known for ‘wicking,’ moving moisture from next to the body out through the clothing. It is often used for performance clothing, for just this reason.
It holds its shape well after washing, does not stretch overly easily, and is not prone to easy wrinkling. Merino wool garments are therefore well suited to travel and hiking.
Nowadays, the term ‘Merino wool’ can be applied to wool of fine fibres that was not harvested from Merino sheep specifically, but which has similar properties. For genuine Merino wool, check the country of origin; you want it to come from Australia or New Zealand and, ideally, to say specifically that it comes from Merino sheep. That said, generic Merino wool is a similar-quality product.
We might tend to think of sheep as softer than goats, but in reality, the soft undercoat found on goats is made up of very fine hairs that are uniquely suited to making fine knit garments. True cashmere comes from Kashmir goats that inhabit areas of Mongolia, China, India, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.
Instead of shearing the animals, as is done with sheep, cashmere is harvested by hand during the spring moulting season. Only 50-80g is harvested from each sheep, and only once per year, so the scarcity and high quality of the product combine to raise the value of it, and therefore the price.
High-quality cashmere garments drape beautifully, are light and soft, very warm, and feel silky to the touch. Cashmere is truly one of the most luxurious fabrics to wear.
Cashmere vs. Merino—What’s to Choose?
In summary then, cashmere is seven to eight times warmer than Merino wool. Cashmere is softer too. Merino wool wins in the durability department, and it will last longer under similar care and use. Merino wool, due to its greater durability, is easier to wash too.
When it comes to putting on a formal appearance though, cashmere takes another first place. There is simply no other wool-like fabric that holds a candle to a high-quality, well-made cashmere garment.