Owning a classic cashmere knit garment has always been a cherished symbol of luxury fashion. The UK is home to some of the most famous cashmere knit manufacturers and retailers. This beautiful chunky knit turtleneck for Fall/Winter 2018 is designed in 100% Mongolian cashmere from one such store, N. Peal. In October, I walked into this luxury London store. You’ll never experience such softness melting in your fingers. I may just knock-off this cabled beauty at some point. But for now, I want to give you some information about this most readily available luxury fiber – cashmere.
What is it?
Cashmere refers to the downy undercoat of the Capra hircus Laniger or cashmere (Kashmir) goat. The cashmere down provides the animal with insulation against the cold weather.
Originally cashmere came from Kashmir, a high valley between two mountain ranges of the Himalayas on the Indian continent, between India, Pakistan and China. China is now the largest producer of cashmere products. Mongolia, Tibet and Afghanistan have all been sources of cashmere. Mongolia is the supplier for N. Peal.
The dual coat of the cashmere goat consists mainly of guard hairs, that are straight and stiff. These hairs are unsuitable for knitting yarns. Beneath the guard hairs grows the extremely soft down called cashmere. These hair fibers are very fine in diameter, and 30% lighter than wool fibers; providing warmth without the weight. Cashmere fiber has crimp but isn’t as elastic as wool. Cashmere is also a weak or more delicate fiber than wool.
Quality cashmere production is maximized by four important traits: the defining characteristic is the fineness of the fiber; quantity; the fiber character or how the fiber feels and looks; and a clear distinction between guard hairs and cashmere. Too many guard hairs in the product decreases its quality.
How do we obtain it?
Cashmere fiber is collected a few different ways. A goat sheds in the spring and summer, releasing large clumps of fibers. In China and Mongolia, the down is usually combed off by hand with a wide tooth comb. This is the best method to collect a high percentage of pure cashmere, with a minimum amount of guard hairs. In some countries, the animals are completely shorn, and then the collection has to be dehaired to separate the guard hairs from the cashmere fibers. This process requires skill or the fine cashmere fibers may be damaged. The high price tag is related to how and when the cashmere is harvested, and other production processes.
There are varying grades of cashmere, dependent on whether or not any guard hairs are present. For example, a poor quality purchased cashmere sweater will often have long, stiff fibers projecting from the surface, and the hand will not be as soft as the finest cashmere. As you would with a purchased cashmere product, check that there are few, if any guard hairs spun into the yarn. They appear as firm, shiny fibers poking out of the yarn.
Beware of yarn labels that don’t indicate the fiber content in percentage. Just saying cashmere or cashmere blend may be a sign of poor quality. Although unscientific, feeling a ball of cashmere yarn is a pretty good gauge of quality; it should feel incredibly soft. Also, you shouldn’t be able to easily pull off the “fluff” that forms cashmere’s soft halo on the surface; fibers should be spun with enough twist to hold them together.
Because cashmere is a premium fiber, yarn manufacturers cut costs by adding a small percentage of cashmere to form a blend. Cashmere will add its best traits of warmth and softness without the bulk. Common blends include cashmere and merino wool, cashmere and silk, and cashmere with baby alpaca. These blends are just as luxurious as 100% cashmere. Be wary of the broader blends that mix many different natural and synthetic fibers, with a small percentage of cashmere. Doing so diminishes the quality and luxury of the yarn.
Knitting With Cashmere
What are you going to make with this delicate, soft yarn? Surly a subjective call. Purchasing cashmere yarn is a splurge, so put some thought as to the appropriateness of the yarn to the project. Because of its softness, cashmere is lovely worn against the skin – scarves, hats, mittens, gloves, and throws. Many high end leather gloves are lined in cashmere for this reason. A retro sweater set is lovely knit in a fingering weight cashmere or cashmere blend. There are many other types of projects like the turtleneck shown above, that are beautiful knit in high quality cashmere.
Should you knit socks with it? Have you shied away from purchasing or making cashmere socks. I haven’t. But I wouldn’t wear them in hiking boots or every day; indulge oneself only on special occasions.
Care of Cashmere
Cashmere is delicate, but if you properly care for your cashmere knit items, they will last a long time. You can safely hand wash all cashmere knits, rather than sending them to the drycleaners. Hand wash with a fine fabric wash in room temperature or cool water. Rinse, roll up in a towel to remove excess moisture, and lay flat to dry. Fold and store your sweaters in a drawer, and never hang them. A nice touch is to place a piece of tissue on the garment before folding, and putting it away.
Washing cashmere makes the fibers “bloom”. Blooming refers to a yarn’s characteristic of fluffing up and becoming fuller when washed and dried. A halo of softness results from the yarn’s diameter increasing a little when exposed to water. It’s similar to curly hair expanding and appearing fuller in humid climates. This is the reason why cashmere looks more beautiful after the first washing. After owning many cashmere sweaters over the years, I’ve also noticed that quality cashmere suffers little from pilling.
If you’ve yet to work with this luxurious fiber, I highly recommend knitting a cashmere project. It is one divine experience.