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Cashmere is the under-down of goats that live in the high, dry plateaus of China and Mongolia that surround the Gobi Desert. Under the goats’ coarse outer protective coat lies cashmere, a much finer fibre, which insulates these animals from the bitter cold.
The harsh geography of this area supports a very limited number of goats who are combed by hand every spring. It takes one of these rare goats a total of four years to grow enough cashmere to make one sweater.
The quality of cashmere varies significantly. There are variations in fineness, color and length of fibres. Finer cashmere is softer, whiter, and uses less dye in the coloring process. Its’ longer fibres create a stronger weave which make it more resistant to pilling. All of these variables play a role in the cost differences between seemingly similar garments.
Your fingers are very good judges. A cashmere sweater should feel smooth, soft and luxurious. The other critical factor is density/weight. Stretch the sides of the sweater and then let them go. The sweater should snap back to its original shape. Loosely knit, limp fabric is the hallmark of a cheaply made sweater. A good sweater should still feel substantial even if it is indeed lightweight.
The world’s finest cashmere comes from northern China and Mongolia. Chinese garments traditionally have the highest level of handiwork and the labour costs are relatively low, so in turn these garments are usually good value for the amount of work and skill involved. Garments produced in Europe have a reputation for exceptional style and color, and this is almost always reflected in a higher price.
Dying affects the ‘feel’ of all natural fibres. Experienced producers can minimise, but not eliminate, the difference in ‘hand’ between lights and darks.
Pilling is a natural occurrence on cashmere and wool products and is usually caused by friction from a seat belt, purse strap, or even the synthetic lining of a jacket. Persistent pilling is the result of a high percentage of short fibres or a loose knit. Lower quality manufacturers use shorter fibres because they are far less expensive. Not all sweaters will pill since all natural fibres have their own chemistry that differs from yarn to yarn. However, a quality sweater should not pill excessively. If pilling does occur, carefully pull or cut the pills off, or use a cashmere comb to remove them, then wash according to the instructions on the garment. After a few washes you should find the pills disappear.