Macy's has just announced a Black Friday deal for a $39.99 Charter Club cashmere sweater. Last year, Kohl's offered a cashmere sweater for under $30. How does a luxurious yarn once prized for its scarcity now find itself sold in mass quantities at impossibly low prices?
Like anything else that sounds too good to be true, there's a catch.
Cashmere is the downy undercoat grown by goats in extreme cold. The majority of the world’s cashmere comes from Inner Mongolia, where 40m goats contend with temperatures below -30°C. In the spring, as they start to moult, the goats are gently combed to remove their fine underhair while leaving the outercoat intact. The combings are then washed and “dehaired” of any stray hair, so that what is left is pure cashmere.
Unfortunately, pure is not an absolute term.
The finest cashmere consists only of the whitest, longest, thinnest hair from the under fleece (usually underneath the neck area only.) Inferior cashmere manufacturers use the short fibers from the back, legs, and rear of the goats, where it is coarser and darker, but which also costs less to produce. They also often use shorter hair that has either not been properly de-haired or, worse still, mix them with other fibers (yak or rabbit) and label them "pure or 100% cashmere," which is not only deceptive but also illegal.
It's important to know that even cheap cashmere can feel lovely. Softness is not a good barometer of cashmere quality. It’s often difficult to know whether your bargain cashmere will pill or sag within days. (Pilling afflicts expensive cashmere too, though it should stop after the first wash.) But there are subtle signs of quality, and once you know how to find them, almost all of the cheaper cashmere on the market starts to seem a false economy.
First, look for tension in the knitting: stretch a section and it should ping back into shape. Hold it up to the light and you shouldn’t see much sky: paradoxically, the best cashmere, though made from the finest hair, has a density to it. Examine its surface: fluffiness suggests the yarn was spun from shorter, weaker fibres and will pill. More expensive cashmere may be harder to handle in the shop, but will ease up with wear and hand-washing. The best cashmere actually improves with age.
Also, try to find sweaters that are at least two-ply. Two ply means that more than one piece of yarn was twisted together to make the garment---meaning more strength, more warmth, and less chance of falling apart.
From an environmental standpoint, demand for cheap $40 cashmere sweaters means that massive herds of goats are now being factory farmed all over the world. The goats are treated with antibiotics and hormones, resulting in a loss of fiber quality. Even worse, these mass-produced goats are no longer being sustainably de-haired by gentle combing practices. Instead, they are being completely sheared of their fleece!
This shorn hair is then frequently chemically processed, chemically dyed, and produced cheaply in sweatshops on behalf of brands and retailers hoping to profit off the demand for cheap cashmere. This is NOT what has traditionally been defined as pure cashmere and it is NOT what you will find in most leading cashmere brands. Ivory Row takes many steps to work with suppliers to ensure that our cashmere is ethically sustainable and humane.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
Paying more for a cashmere sweater will get you a piece that lasts years longer, gets better with each wash, resists pilling and sagging, and is ultimately more flattering than a less expensive version. Cheap mass-produced cashmere is a drastically inferior product that also has significant environmental and humanitarian consequences.
The Cashmere Manufacturers Institute was established to promote genuine cashmere and to protect consumers from unscrupulous manufacturers whose only goal is to sell you inferior products. Visit www.cashmere.org for more information.