Think of the word cashmere, and thoughts of luxurious, high-class, soft, delicate and expensive products come to mind. But to understand what makes cashmere so valuable – and, as a result, expensive – it’s necessary to delve into the background of where it comes from, how it is made, and why it differs from other materials.
Where does cashmere come from?
From fibre sourcing, to spinning of the yarn and ultimately knitting of the garment, true high-quality cashmere demands a delicate and time-consuming approach to production.
Of all the thousands of raw and synthetic materials from which clothes can be manufactured, cashmere is one of the most sought-after, and is considered among the most luxurious. This noble fibre is largely produced in Asia’s high plateaus; in countries such as Mongolia, Southwest China, Afghanistan, Tibet, Iran, Northern India and Pakistan.
Mongolia and China are the leading producers of cashmere, delivering around 75 per cent of the world’s cashmere, with China recently standing out as the world’s largest producer, processor and exporter of cashmere. Sadly, not all cashmere goats are reared under ethically compliant conditions - in some cases resulting in animal cruelty and often degraded qualities of cashmere (because the fibre is not from healthy goats!) Mia Fratino adheres to strict standards to ensure all its cashmere is ethically and sustainably sourced from Mongolia. Garments are manufactured in their own vertically operated factory, ensuring 100% diligence of fair working conditions.
Australia and New Zealand also produce limited quantities of cashmere, however, it is believed that goats raised in the Himalayan highlands yield the highest quality fibres.
How is cashmere made?
In its raw form, valuable cashmere wool is collected exclusively from the Kashmir or cashmere goat. Originally, these goats were only found in isolated regions high in the Himalayas; and in order to survive the rough mountain winters there, the goats evolved a unique and exceptional fleece. During the summer, their fleece protects them from dust and sun, but during the winter they develop an additional soft under-layer that works as a high-performing insulator.
This insulation is the precious part of the fleece: the cashmere. The goats moult once a year in the warmer months, shedding a mixture of their fine, soft undercoat and course outer coat, or ‘guard’ coat. This moulted coat is not shorn or shaved like a sheep, but is instead collected either by hand, or gently combed out with great care, and only during the shedding time. Refinement of the fibres starts during this combing process, with the undercoat separated out, selecting only the finest premium white ‘blanc on blanc’ long filament fibres (from the front chest or under chin section).
The refinement continues as the raw cashmere is sorted according to colour, texture, quality and length. At this point, the fineness of selected fibres is a key consideration, as true cashmere must have a raw material fibre diameter of less than 0.019mm. Strict adherence to this quality measure ensures that the unique cashmere feel and the high quality of this rare material is maintained, worldwide.
Some companies, like Mia Fratino, have stricter, internal guidelines to ensure even higher quality. Under these rigorous combing and selection standards, 1.2kg of combed fibres per goat will usually yield only 300–400gm of final cashmere raw material.
Following this collection and sorting process, the fibres are dyed if desired, and spun into sumptuously soft yarn, which is then knitted into delicate, opulent garments.
But why is it so rare?
Cashmere is rare because each goat can only 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 13kg of wool each year.
This puts production on a vastly smaller scale 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.
And so far, efforts to scale-up the production of cashmere have been unsuccessful; with goats outside of the Himalayan highlands not producing the highest quality fibres, and attempts to cross-breed with larger goats resulting in coarser yields.
Additionally, the laborious 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.
So, why is cashmere expensive?
The origins and manufacture of cashmere clearly show how laborious and delicate the production process is. But another reason for the cost of cashmere is that it is sought after and highly prized, largely due to the quality of the fibre, and its vastly superior performance characteristics.
Namely, clothes made from cashmere are considerably warmer than clothes made from sheep wool, despite being a lot lighter in weight. And to top that off, the cashmere hair is extremely fine and soft to touch, making it a perfect fibre for people who don't like other fibres (like wool) directly against their skin.
But why can I buy cashmere for cheap at some stores?
Cheap cashmere means one thing: something has been compromised along the way – be it quality, purity or worker’s conditions. Cheaper cashmere often means it is blended with a synthetic or other fibre, or it is of one of the lower quality classifications, or it is sourced from a compromised supply chain.
Cashmere is classed into three grades according to fibre fineness and length: A, B, and C. The general rule of thumb as to the quality of cashmere is as follows: the longer and finer the hair, the better the quality. Poor quality cashmere can have irregular fibre thickness, resulting in a garment that is patchy in thickness - evident when you hold it up to the light, it will look patchy and will develop holes quickly.
Grade A, of course, 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.
Additionally, how the yarn is spun influences the performance of the final garment in certain ways. Raw cashmere is twisted into thread, or a single-ply yarn. Twisting two threads together produces a two-ply yarn, which is generally stronger than one ply yarn, because of the offset of the torque that exists in a single yarn. During this process, the quality of the original fibre does not change, only the thickness and weight of the product increases.
Often, additional plies are used to add colour or weight, but an increase in ply doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in quality. In fact, the difference between fine and inferior goods occurs way back at the collection stage: with the quality of the raw cashmere material and its processing making all the difference. Thick, multi-ply knits require a higher percentage of material, and may be more expensive, but similarly, very fine cashmere knits require more delicate and time-consuming processing, which adds to cost in its own way.
The nature of cashmere production means a high-quality 100 per cent cashmere product simply cannot be produced on the cheap. If we were to put it simply, cashmere is expensive because it is beautiful, rare, costly to produce, and has unique qualities that make it superior to other fibres.
Mia Fratino uses only the highest quality, sustainably sourced cashmere from Mongolia, which passes through the hands of socially responsible spinners before being manufactured in our very own factory. We are incredibly proud of the supply chain and quality product we offer at every step of the supply chain to produce our final garments.