What is Cashmere and Where Does it Come From?
What makes cashmere... and what makes it so special?
The word ‘cashmere’ invokes thoughts of luxury and softness for almost everyone, but what about thoughts of breath-taking faraway mountains, and the rare, beautiful textiles produced there? Because, although the end product we see is usually soft, delicate and refined, each of those fibres has taken a long and arduous journey characterised by meticulous care, collection, sorting, spinning and weaving.
At Mia Fratino, our love of the beautiful fibres used in our garments is compounded by a sense of awe when we consider the time and dedication that goes into this very special material. Below, we cover some of the remarkable origins and qualities of our favourite fibre.
What is cashmere?
Cashmere is a highly sought-after 100% natural fibre. Cashmere fibres are produced by goats – more detail on that below – in relatively small quantities, when compared to the fibre yield of animals like sheep. The fine nature of the fibres make cashmere incredibly soft and luxurious, but also very long-wearing and warm for its considerably light weight. The name ‘cashmere’ is derived from the Kashmir Province in the Himalayas, where the fibre was first produced and used. However, this area is no longer one of the leading suppliers, but families in the region still produce traditional cashmere.
What country does cashmere come from?
Most cashmere is produced in the high plateaus of Asia, namely countries such as Mongolia, Southwest China, Afghanistan, Tibet, Iran, Northern India and Pakistan. New Zealand and Australia also produce cashmere, but not on a comparable scale.
According to The Schneider Group’s Cashmere Annual Report 2016 China is the largest producer, processor and exporter of cashmere in the world. Mongolia and China produce roughly 75 per cent of the world’s cashmere. Mia Fratino's cashmere comes from Mongolia.
What animal does cashmere come from?
In its raw form, cashmere is collected from the Kashmir or cashmere goat, which originally roamed throughout parts of highland Asia. These goats moult annually, shedding a mixture of their fine, soft undercoat and course outer coat, or ‘guard’ coat. To extract the fibres used to create cashmere for clothes, this moulted fur is collected, by hand, and the fine undercoat is separated out for use, dyed if desired, and spun into sumptuously soft yarn.
Interestingly, cashmere goats are a type, not a breed. Most goat breeds, except Angora, can produce the soft cashmere down in varied quantities and may be called cashmere goats. Indeed, cashmere goats are bred in Australia from local stock. However, it is believed that the best quality cashmere is still produced by goats raised in the Himalayan highlands.
Why is cashmere so expensive?
Put simply, cashmere is expensive because it is beautiful, rare and has unique qualities that make it prized above other fibres.
Cashmere is produced in vastly smaller volumes than other fibres such as wool – compare an annual worldwide wool production of around 1–2 million metric tonnes, with anywhere from 4 000–10 000 metric tonnes of cashmere produced annually. According to the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute CCMI, worldwide cashmere raw material production is approximately one per cent that of sheep’s wool for apparel.
Each cashmere goat can produce around 100–200g of cashmere each year, making this fibre much more low-yield compared to other animal hair fibres. For example, a sheep can produce between one and 13 kilograms of wool each year. To put the scarcity of cashmere in perspective, a single, average-sized sweater requires the entire yearly fibre yield of between three and five goats.
Additionally, the labourious manual collection and separation of the fibres is a costly process, and the tight specifications for what passes as cashmere make it impossible to produce on a larger scale. According to an article published by Fortune, attempts to crossbreed cashmere goats with bigger goat species in hopes of yielding more hair have failed, resulting in less fine fibres.
Is all cashmere created equal?
Cashmere is classed into three grades: A, B, and C, according to fibre fineness and length.
Grade A, as would be expected, is the best quality cashmere available for the fibre, at about 14-15.5 microns thick. Grade B cashmere is slightly cheaper, but still creates beautiful and luxurious yarn, at around 19 microns thick. Grade C cashmere is not considered as pure cashmere by many, with a thickness of around 30 microns.
What makes cashmere so soft?
Cashmere is very fine, in fact, up to six times finer than human hair – and the thinner the fibre, the softer it is. This softness also means cashmere doesn’t produce the ‘itchiness’ of some other wool products.
What makes cashmere so special?
Apart from its incredible softness making int incredibly comfortable to wear, cashmere has other special qualities that set it apart – including being a 100 per cent natural fibre.
Clothes made from cashmere have a better warmth-to-weight ratio than fibres produced by other animals, such as sheep or camels. Cashmere yarn can be up to eight times warmer than clothes made from sheep wool, while remaining much lighter in weight. Because the fibre is crimped (rather than wavy), it has ‘loft’ that provides warmth without weight.
Cashmere is typically also very long-wearing, when cared for correctly. While not as strong as sheep’s wool, it can readily outwear it.
Cashmere or Kashmir?
‘Cashmere’ is the 17th century spelling of the word ‘Kashmir’ which, as mentioned earlier, is the province from which cashmere goats and the use of their fibres originates. The cashmere-with-a-c spelling is now used to describe the goats and wool they produce, while Kashmir-with-a-K, which is closer to the original Sanskrit rendering of the word, remains as the place name.
What to avoid with cashmere…
Given that cashmere is a rare luxury fibre, it’s important to look for genuine quality and be wary of bargains that appear too good to be true. Look for garment labels that detail cashmere percentage (ideally 100 per cent, like all Mia Fratino garments!) or fibre type, and be especially wary if it’s marked as a ‘Cashmere blend’ – it may contain only 10% or less cashmere fibres.
Even within the 100% cashmere category, there can be variations in quality. Longer, finer fibres are ideal, with the best being about 15 microns thick, and 40mm long.
You can manually test a garment by touching it for softness and lightness, and touching it to your neck to assess itchiness. Additionally, if the garment already seems fluffy, or if the fibres roll up slightly when you run your hand over its surface, it may have a high percentage of shorter or less resilient fibres.