Think of the most classically luxurious garment a man can wear and cashmere comes immediately to mind, whether in the form of a suit, sports jacket, topcoat, sweater or even a pair of socks. Soft. Plush. Comfortable. Luxurious. For those who would surround themselves with the finest possible quality, there is no substitute for cashmere. Indeed, a truly fine cashmere garment is often as prized as a rare vintage Burgundy or Bordeaux and likewise will become more valuable to its owner in time.
As with no other fiber or fabric, cashmere identifies the wearer as a connoisseur, a man with consummate taste who appreciates cashmere’s urbane style and regal history—legend has it that the Caesars’ togas in ancient Rome were made of cashmere. But where and how was this buttery soft fiber created and why is it always so expensive?
These natural fibers were always separated by hand until the late 19th Century, when Joseph Dawson, a Scottish wool manufacturer invented a method for doing this mechanically. Dawson’s invention essentially shifted the manufacture of this precious fiber to Scotland, ushering in the modern era of cashmere knitting.
These days, China is heralded as the source of the world’s largest supply of fine quality cashmere knitwear, an altogether fitting tribute when one considers that this is where the fiber has its origins. As with the Roman Caesars, throughout history cashmere has always won favor among the noble and wealthy. Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, popularized cashmere among the French upper classes after having the fiber locally woven into her famous "ring shawl" - so called because the fiber was woven so fine the shawl could be drawn through her wedding ring. Fact or fiction? It’s anyone’s guess.
Cashmere is considered to be one of the world’s most luxurious fibers for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that almost all quality cashmere knitwear is commonly knitted by hand. After each goat is individually combed in the spring—its shedding season—the fibers are washed, de-haired, dyed and spun mechanically with the most technologically advanced machinery.
Fine cashmere yarns are then hand-framed to a particular garment’s specifications. It is a tedious and labor-intensive operation, and one that usually results in a high quality yet expensive garment. When one considers that up to four miles of yarn goes into one super fine cashmere sweater and that it takes a single Tibetan goat four years to grow enough fleece for a man’s sweater, it is not surprising that cashmere is considered a luxury.
A fun fact: the annual worldwide production of cashmere is only a fraction of that of wool or cotton. Consequently, supply and demand factors into the high cost of cashmere at retail. Since a goat can only produce about four ounces of cashmere fleece in a year, it would take five years for a sport coat, ten years for a man’s full length overcoat.
While China today turns out fine cashmere knitwear at relatively affordable prices, there are those who believe that the best quality still hails from Scotland. Romantic lore contends that the purity in the waters of the River Tweed, where the yarns are first washed, lend the fiber the optimum in softness and silkiness. More likely, the soft hand of Scottish cashmere knitwear is a result of the work of local artisans who have been processing and knitting the luxurious yarn for generations. Ditto for Italy, where companies such as Loro Piana, Agnona and Ermenegildo Zegna have spun new fashion twists on this traditionally elegant fiber.
Like so many fashion icons, cashmere has a history steeped in misinformation and myth. Many believe that if two-ply cashmere is good, three-ply will be better, four-ply even better still and so on. But in truth, a three-ply cashmere sweater, rather than being superior to a two-ply one, is merely weightier. The three-ply simply means a third strand was added to the yarn, which makes it thicker, not necessarily better.
Also contrary to popular belief, not all cashmere is created equal. Factored into the ultimate quality of cashmere is where the fiber originated, how it was collected, separated, bleached, washed, dyed and spun. Super fine cashmere yarn of the best possible quality can only be made from long fibers. The longer the fiber, the tighter the knit or weave, which means a longer life to the final garment. When a cashmere knitted polo or sweater “pills” it is usually due to the fact that the garment was made from shorter fibers, which can sometimes release from the yarns after continual wear. The short fibers that pull away from the yarns in the weave or knit actually form into tiny balls, which can eventually render the garment unwearable. Some experts suggest taking an electric razor and “shaving” these pills or tiny balls that form on the fabric, but it should be done with the utmost care; the slightest slip may ruin the sweater or jacket forever.
Over the years, cashmere manufacturers have attempted, unsuccessfully, to breed more cashmere goats in other parts of the world such as the British Isles, Australia and New Zealand. Unfortunately, the weather in these regions can hardly approximate the windy and frigid conditions in Mongolia and Tibet—conditions that may well have spawned the local goats to grow the insulating fleece under their bellies in the first place.
When it comes to the luxury of cashmere, necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and a force, unlike fashion, that will not be changing anytime soon.