Cashmere is known and appreciated for its warmth and softness around the world. Once it was restricted to the most privilliged in the society, but today it is at a pricerange where all of us have access to this wonderful fiber. My passion for cashmere started when I first received as a gift. The soft texture of the scarf were something really special and the beginning of a livelong passion.
However, the journey to a delicate cashmere scarf is long, and takes its beginning in the hostile areas where the cashmere goats live.
The cashmere goat (Capra hircus langier) and its fibers take its name from the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan west of Himalaya. Today, only a small portion of cashmere is produced in this region, and the largest part is produced in China, Mongolia, Tibet and Afghanistan. Also Iran, Australia and New Zealand account for a smaller part of the total world production.
The height of a cashmere goat is about 70 cm. The males and females weigh 60 and 50 kg. respectively, and have an average life expectancy of 7 years. The fleece is open with coarse outer hair covering the undercoat. Every goat produces in the range of 110 and 160 g. of cashmere fibers every year.
The undercoat is very fine. The diameter of the fibers is only 12.5 - 19 microns. The length of the fibers is in the range 35 - 50 mm. The fine undercoat makes the goats able to withstand the harsh winter cold. When spring comes and the temperature rises, the goats shed their undercoat to avoid overheating.
The cashmere fibers are made of keratin with a chemical composition similar to wool. Thus, the techniques used from the wool production can be somewhat transferred to the cashmere processing. However, because the cashmere fibers are smoother and reflect light differently than regular wool fibers, it might be necessary to adjust the colour formulas to obtain the same shades.
During the history, there have been a lot of interest in cross breeding different animals. Huarizo for instance is a mix of alpaca and the llama. Cashgora is a cross breeding of angora and the cashmere goat.
The total world production of cashmere about 10.000 tonnes originates mainly from China who is accountable for about 60% percent of the annual production. More than half of this is produced in Inner Mongolia. Another 30% is produced in Mongolia, and the rest of the world production is spread over numerous countries, where Iran and Afghanistan have the largest share.
In China and Mongolia, the cashmere fibers are collected by brushing the animals in the moulting period. Also hairs on the ground and in the bushes are collected by hand. In Iran, Afghanistan and Australia the goats are typically sheared.
After collecting the fibers, they are sorted by colour and quality. The sorting is done by hand, and requires great skill and experience. After sorting the fibers, dirt and small branches are removed by shaking the fibers in a designated machine. At last the dehairing is performed which separates the coarse guard hairs from the fine underdown.
The quality of the dehaired fibers is determined by the length, diameter and colour of the fibers. The average diameter must be in the range of 14 - 19 microns, while the length should be between 150 and 450 millimeters. Chinese cashmere is considered the best with a diameter of 14 - 16 millimeters. Cashmere from Mongolia tends to be a little thicker as a result of cross breeding with other animals to maximize the yield.
Goats from more temperate climates do not produce fibers as fine as the goats living in their natural environment. Yet their fibers are still soft compared to other animal hair.
Fine white cashmere cost about $130 a kilo. The average diameter is the primary factor determining the price. Iranian and Afghan cashmere is typically 2-3 microns thicker than Chinese cashmere. Thus, the price is about 40% cheaper. The colour is also an important feature, since white cashmere can be dyed any colour, including the light shades, while brown cashmere is cheaper since it can only be dyed in the dark shades.
There are many terms describing cashmere quality. Grade A and Superior Cashmere class 1 are just some of them you often encounter, but these terms do not really say anything about the quality, and is merely used as marketing.
It is not easy to talk about cashmere quality without getting technically, but we will give it a shot.
There are basically two spinning methods. Worsted spinning and regular wool spinning of carded wool. The best cashmere is worsted spun yarn, since the process requires long fibers, while in regular wool spinning the shorter fibers, and even leftovers from the worsted spinning, can be used.
By only using long fibers, the yarn can be spun thinner and smoother. All the way down to a yarn count of 200, meaning that 200 meter yarn only weigh 1 gram. Our 2 ply twill shawls are examples of garments woven with worsted spun yarn.
When the fibers are long, the yarn can also be twisted harder (twists per inch) resulting in stronger and more durable piece of garment. Wool spun cashmere often have a tendency to pilling, where small balls of fabric form on the surface of garments, since the short fibers are hard too keep in place.
Wool spun yarn often results in a more fluffy finish, opposed to worsted spun yarn which have a smoother and lighter finish.
The liberalization of the Chinese economy in the 1980s led to a period with increasing cashmere prices while the quality dropped. Sales of cashmere knitwear decreased by approximately 30%. In order to stabilize the distribution and quality of the coveted fibers, the Chinese government introduced regulations in 1989 which should improve the quality of luxury fibers for export. It was now a requirement that the exported fibers were quality tested. In 1990 Cashmere Foreign Trade Center where founded to ensure higher quality and to and control the price of exported luxury fibers.
In 1991 the Chinese government introduced additional regulations, demanding that all textile products should be labeled with origin, and could only be exported to countries which had a bilateral trade agreement with China. Today the situation is different. The market for cashmere and other luxury fibers are more liberal in China and is no longer controlled by the government.
The term pashmina have lost is meaning by now, since it is used so loosely, and it is hard to distinguish between myth and fact regarding the origin of pashmina fibers.
Originally pashmina shawls and scarves where manufactured in the Kashmir region of hand spun and woven cashmere fibers collected by hand on the ground and in the bushes where the goats lived. India is not a major producer of cashmere, but in the Kashmir region there is still made scarves and shawls of very high quality.
Later some manufacturers started to market cashmere shawls as pashmina, though they were made outside the Kashmir region. This led to some confusion, but today used cashmere and pashmina synonymous.