Cashmere has a soft, unique feel about it that is cozy, yet luxurious. This fiber is relatively rare and comes from the hair of Kashmir, Pashmina or other goats, not to be confused with wool from sheep. The word ‘cashmere’ descends from the old spelling of Kashmir, a northernmost region of the Indian subcontinent, where cashmere fiber originated in the 13th century as part of the Mongolian Empire. Today, cashmere is sourced mostly from goats in the Gobi desert, a vast expanse from northern China and parts of Mongolia. More recently, cashmere has also been sourced from Afghanistan.
In May and June, goats molt, or shed excessive hair, for the upcoming spring and summer seasons. Underneath the more coarse hair, a superfine fiber is concentrated in the undercoat on the goat’s underbelly.
Workers comb-out this soft, warm underbelly hair and sort it by hand to separate it from the more coarse strands. Combing is used instead of shearing because cashmere uses the long fibers of goat hair. The hair must be gently combed-out intact at full length, whereas wool is sheared and produces shorter fibers.
This is a distinct advantage of cashmere over wool, because the shorter fibers of wool are more prone to pilling.
One goat yields 6oz-9oz of hair for cashmere. One two-ply sweater requires fiber from two goats. After combing and sorting, the fresh hair is sent to a regional facility where it is cleaned and processed for refinement. The hair is then bailed and shipped, mostly to Europe and North America to be spun into yarn.
Quality cashmere has two plies (double-knitted), is weighty and knitted tightly. Another factor in determining quality is color. Heavy dyes and bleach degrade the hairs’ softness.
“Natural” cashmere is a developing niche that doesn’t dye the hair at all, but is prided on its purity.
Cashmere is a niche itself, as the world produces only 6500 metric tons of the fiber annually, compared to two million tons of wool from sheep.
The labor-intensive process and low rate of production are factors that contribute to the usually higher cost of 100 percent cashmere goods. The upside is a qualitative product that will last and knowing that the fiber is coming from happy, well-treated goats, because only happy goats produce fine fibers.