What is Cashmere?

In the world of fashion, Cashmere has become synonymous with luxury that is highly coveted thanks to its supreme softness and exquisite quality. For these properties and more, cashmere is one of the most expensive natural fibres, but what is it and where exactly does it come from?

What is Cashmere and where does it come from?

Cashmere wool, also referred to as "golden fleece" or the "king's fibre" is obtained from a particular type of goat (scientific name: Hircus Blythi Goat) commonly found in Asian Highlands, especially Mongolia, China, Tibet and Afghanistan. In these zones, high-temperature excursions between day and night encourage the underfur growth also referred to as duvet. The outer layer of coarse hair is known as guard hair. This precious gift from Mother Nature has been giving this creature an ultimate thermo-regulating qualities and thereby protecting it from a wide range of temperature fluctuations. That is the main source of this noble fibre which is known worldwide as cashmere.

Cashmere goats where cashmere come from

The arrival of spring and rising temperature stimulates the moulting season. Usually occurring between March and May, the goats naturally shed their thick undercoat, and the natural cashmere can be harvested. 

The best cashmere comes from the places where the temperature changes the most between day and night. That is why we only source raw Cashmere which outside Europe and then is transformed in Italy to get the best 100% pure Cashmere yarn.

How is Cashmere better than other wool?

Cashmere is so highly prized as the natural fibre is much softer and finer than sheep wool, which makes for garments that feel smooth and fluid against the skin.  It is not just the sublime fluidity of cashmere that makes it so special. There is a reason that your favourite cashmere wrap was such a good investment, lasting you through several winters. There are many properties to cashmere that make it such an exceptional fibre:

  • Cashmere is Soft – The finer the fibre the softer it is. For a fibre to legally qualify as being cashmere, it must be 19 microns or less in diameter – a human hair is 50-70 microns in comparison. Cashmere is one of the softest and most luscious feeling materials there is, coming with none of the itchiness of regular sheep wool.
  • Cashmere is Insulating - Cashmere wool has exceptional temperature regulating properties. At three times more insulating than sheep wool, a cashmere sweater will keep you warm in the coldest of weather. Furthermore, cashmere has thermoregulation properties, meaning that when wearing it, body temperature will remain unchanged in all weather conditions.
  • Cashmere is Durable – Cashmere makes such a good investment as its natural elasticity means that it will retain its shape throughout many years. The sturdy fibre will not stretch or warp, and your cashmere pieces will not fade if they are cared for properly.
  • Cashmere is Breathable – Cashmere is a natural fibre that absorbs both water vapour and sweat, making it breathable and comfortable to wear. Even after a long day in your cashmere jumper, your skin will still feel fresh and smooth, making it ideal for all occasions.
  • Cashmere is Lightweight – Due to the fact that the cashmere hairs are very fine, they produce an extremely lightweight yarn that in turn can be knitted into lightweight garments. By comparison, sheep wool or man-made fibres tend to produce bulky garments that do not have the ease of wear that cashmere has.
  • Cashmere is Smart - The natural electrostatic distribution of cashmere wool gives it the quality to prevent dust attraction and build up and thereby leaving the fabric clean and neat at all times.

How is Cashmere wool made?

The transformation processes involved in the making of cloth fabrics are usually very delicate and they are mainly hand-made. The processes include harvesting, selection, washing, spinning and knitting. Harvesting of duvet usually commences between May and the beginning of summer. This is the period during which moulting takes place on the animals’ underfur. This practice which is a tradition that has been in existence for up to a thousand years requires skilful hands that will harvest the fluff from the goat's under fleece without damaging it or inflicting any injuries to the animals: this operation is normally carried out only twice with 3 to 4 weeks of time interval. This practice can yield from 200 to 500 grams of duvet that decreases by half after transformation into yarn. Selection of finest parts of the fibres comes next after transformation. This is done by hand to separate the bigger fibres from impurities.

cashmere fibres

Next, the fabrics undergo thorough wash and spin cycles until perfect homogenised fibres are obtained. At the end of the production chain you can get, from a single Chinese goat, 200 grams of duvet on average (less than a single cashmere jumper). This, together with the provenience ‘long distance, explain the high price of this very fine material.

The pure cashmere can them be dyed and spun into yarns to be knitted into a wide range of garments, such as cashmere jumpers, scarves, shawls, hats, gloves, ponchos and socks, amongst others. It can also be woven onto fabrics to create the likes of outerwear and tailoring, as well as home furnishings.

How to Spot Quality Cashmere – The Difference between Good and Bad Cashmere Wool

Not all ‘cashmere’ is cashmere. Despite what it may say on the sign, what some brands call cashmere is a blend of mainly wool, with some cashmere added. Industry regulations make labelling easy and clear, so be sure to take a look, because this can make a profound difference to the quality of the product.

Blends, or even poor-quality 100% cashmere, can require just as much care as proper cashmere jumpers, and yet be subject to pilling, coming apart, and feeling ‘squeaky’ or rough. You can save money by buying a cheaper option, but you’ll get less value for it. A high-quality cashmere jumper is an investment and will last a long time in very beautiful condition if properly cared for, so it’s worth paying that extra money up front to ensure a great look that lasts. Your ‘cost per wear’ will be cheaper, and the experience better.

Now that you know why to look for a higher-quality product, let’s take a look at how to tell if a product is better.

The Length of the Fibres

This is a key factor in technically-high-quality cashmere. It’s similar in function to the ‘thread-count’ when buying linens. The longer the fibres, the more durable the item will be, the less prone it will be to pilling, and the better it will look, especially after a few washes.

The neck and underbelly are key places to find these long fibres, and they should be nearer the top end of the 28 to 42mm range to qualify as a high-quality product. The price will climb significantly as the length of fibre does.

Some brands, especially higher-quality ones, will show the fibre length on the label or packaging. The ideal is around 40. If not labelled, examine the surface closely. Too much fluffiness is an indicator of shorter fibre length. In addition, if you move your hand over the surface and the fibres begin to roll, there is likely a high percentage of short fibres.

How Thick are the Fibres?

Along with the length of fibres is the thickness of fibres. You might think thicker is better, but actually the thinner the fibre, the softer the jumper will be. Diameter can range from 15 to 19 microns. You want to avoid the very thick and of the spectrum, but also so-called ‘baby cashmere’ which is less than 15 microns thick, so fine that it does not hold up long. The very thin fibres break, meaning that the length of fibre is constantly decreasing by significant amounts.

Some brands, especially higher-quality ones, will show the fibre thickness on the label or packaging. The ideal is around 15. If there is no label to help, touch the fabric to feel for softness and lightness. Check if it is scratchy by placing it against your neck. Beware of resin coatings that may have been added to keep them soft in the store; these will wash off in a cleaning or two.

The Number of Ply

Garments in which two strands of yarn are twisted together to give a more durable knit, are called two-ply. Single ply is cheaper, but may develop holes or tears more easily. Two-ply techniques also allow tighter knitting, which will make the jumper both softer and warmer. Most, if not all, brands should include on the label the number of plies used, but if this information is not available, check how tight the knitting is; this is a decent indicator of the ply used.

What’s the Origin of the Fibres?

Cashmere comes from cashmere goats, and the place they live changes the nature of the fibres harvested from them. Goats from areas with a high variation in annual temperature tend to have finer, more premium fibres. The goats’ diet is also a key factor. A place like inner Mongolia is ideal, and cashmere from this area is considered premium.

The Colours of the Fibres

Fibres come in three colours (before dying): white, beige and brown. The darker the natural colour, the more dye is required to produce bright or clear colours on the finished product. White fibres are therefore the most desired for white garments, lighter-coloured garments, and for higher-quality garments for which more care is taken to produce a specific colour. Even for darker-coloured garments, higher-end manufacturers will use a higher proportion of white fibres.

The Type of Fibre Used

Fibres come in one of two categories: virgin and recycled. As you might guess, the latter comes from waste yarns or old fabrics, while the former has been made into yarn for the first time. Recycled fibres are much cheaper, and more commonly used by mass chain retailers, but the virgin fibres are stronger, softer, and less prone to causing itch.

The Knit

All of the other factors may be of high quality, but a poor knit will still be able to decrease the quality of the final product by a high degree. Tighter knitting is better. A jumper should be able to stretch slightly and will automatically pull itself back into shape. Italy and Scotland are known for high-quality-knit cashmere and China is known for lower-quality. However, it comes down to the individual company and there are some exceptions to the rule on both sides. Check the company and check the quality yourself; that’s the best way to ensure a good product.

How to Care for Cashmere Wool

Wool wears out and can get rougher over time, but cashmere does the opposite. As it is worn and washed, the softness increases and the outer layer can get slightly fluffy, increasing this effect. Good cashmere keeps its shape better than wool, too.

Knitted cashmere clothing

When you wash your cashmere garments, first turn the item inside-out. Use a washing detergent with a Ph of 8 or higher – there are products designed for this (i.e. Woolite). Specialist products usually contain some softener as well. Baby shampoo can also be used – after all, cashmere is hair, not fur – and often produces even more softness. Wash the garment in cool water (about 30°C), by hand or on the ‘hand wash’ cycle of a good washing machine, and a cycle no longer than 30 minutes. You can use the spin-dry (no heat) if you don’t leave the garment in the machine afterwards. Never use bleach on cashmere garments.

Once your garment is washed, excess water (if any) can be pressed out with a towel. Never wring a cashmere garment or hang it to dry; either action will stretch it and it will lose its shape. Instead, lay the garment out flat in its original shape, stretching it to shape if necessary. You can let it dry like that overnight or over an airer, but don’t set it in direct sunlight or it will likely fade and fibres may become brittle.

You can even iron your garment. Use a pressing cloth as a divider – never iron directly onto cashmere – and use a low temperature.

If this sounds like too much, don’t worry; a dry cleaner can take care of it for you. Be sure to ask for delicate detergent, just to be sure.

How Best to Maintain and Store Cashmere Clothing

Cashmere clothing should be folded for storage, never hung, in order to maintain the original shape. If you know you won’t be wearing a garment for one or more seasons, it’s a good idea to place it inside a dust bag or sealed container to protect it from moths. Placing lavender inside will also deter moths, and smells much better than mothballs (which are very effective of course).

If pilling occurs on your garment, remove it with a shaving machine or cashmere comb. Do this on a dry garment only.

It’s also worth noting that nylon can damage cashmere, so avoid direct contact with seat belts and even some jacket liners, as these can reduce the fine appearance of your item.

Cashmere Allergies

Symptoms of an allergic reaction include sneezing, watery eyes, runny nose, and accompanying sniffling. If cashmere is worn next to the skin of a person who is allergic to it, redness, itchiness, and even a rash can break out.

Preventing/Solutions to Allergies

The best way to reduce reactions is to wash the garment frequently and vacuum the closet or cabinet in which you keep it.

Common Allergy Misconceptions

Allergies to wool do not necessarily mean allergies to cashmere. The sources of the fibre are different, and therefore a person can be allergic to the one and be fine with the other.

Allergy Considerations

If an allergy to cashmere is preventing you or someone you know from enjoying this wonderful fabric, try a jumper with acrylic in it. It won’t be quite the same but can be a decent second option.

 

Conclusion

Well, now you know all about the beautiful natural material that is cashmere wool!

Here at Italy in Cashmere, we have a lovely range of cashmere clothing to buy online, with a selection of Ponchos, Wraps, Jumpers, Hats and Baby clothes to browse.

If you have any questions about our cashmere clothing, then feel free to email us at:

info@italyincashmere.com

References:

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s13570-015-0040-y

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0040517507087679