There is a natural and irresistible urge come winter and holiday time to be cloaked in something warm and soft, oftentimes whether the weather actually calls for it or not. And since the days of the acrylic Clark Griswold sweaters with holiday Fair Isle and light-up Rudolph noses passed us (for some, with deep regret), we reached a new plateau in sweaters, with cashmere serving as the mantelpiece of knit goods. We know it is soft and expensive and warm, but other than these things, our knowledge of it seems to disappear into the mysterious, downy ether.
So first, a short introduction. Cashmere comes from the long, fluffy-haired Kashmir goat, which mainly lives in the desert uplands of China and Mongolia. Unlike sheep, which can be shorn for wool in all four seasons, the hair from these special animals is only harvested once a year in the summer by combing through the undercoat of the animal as it sheds naturally. These fibers, which are extremely fine and ridged, cling to themselves — which makes it less itchy — and form an insulating barrier much thinner and yet much more effective than wool. A generously coated animal will produce about eight ounces of cashmere but after washing and processing yields only about five ounces of usable fibers. To put it into a more understandable context — it takes about four goats to produce one high-quality sweater.
As it goes with finite, rare, energy-intensive commodities, goods are priced accordingly. For example, Loro Piana, the centuries-old Italian wool and cashmere mill, sells a tasseled wrap for about $1,150, a tailored men’s blazer for $4,000, and a reversible cable knit cashmere and mink coat for upwards of $32,000.
It is a natural pairing, then, for fashion designers to utilize cashmere, given its inborn exclusivity and luxury. Italian sportswear designer Max Mara never skips a season of issuing its iconic cashmere camel-colored coat. Brunello Cucinelli, an ardent apostle of the cashmere gospel, used it in almost every single look, whether in the form of a scarf or midi-length dress or paper bag trousers.
It is a contradictory circumstance, then, that in the last 10 years the Western marketplace has seen an enormous surge of cashmere in mass retailers, promising the luxury of cashmere at a more manageable, if not rock-bottom, price point. If cashmere is truly a scarce, expensive resource, how did we arrive at floor-to-ceiling stacks of two-for-one $79 sweaters?
For one, a knitwear piece made of cashmere can be labeled as such as long as its contents come from the Kashmir goat. So, to arrive at the high volume of mass-produced pieces, factories will use the shorter, coarser guard hairs of the goat, which are normally discarded during production. In essence, the prized properties of cashmere are necessarily absent, leaving just the name and a good marketing team. In addition, many cashmere products are advertised as being “blends,” but only have to contain as little as 5 percent. The demand and limited mainstream knowledge of cashmere has also led to other issues, such as overgrazed pasture land, embargoes and volatile price inflections.
Still, the appetite for cashmere is greater than ever, especially in a booming economy. There is an ease and luxury in cashmere that cannot be replicated, which explains its allure and makes it the perfect companion in winter, wonderland or not.