The Goats Are Hard to Get / Farm
When we think of sheep and lambs, we tend to think of soft, cuddly little animals with snowy-white fleece. When we think of wool jumpers, however, most of us have enough experience to know the reality is a lot itchier, heavier, and not always highly appealing.
Likewise, when we think of goats, we tend to think of bad-tempered head-butters that will eat anything – ANYTHING – they find lying around on the ground. We think of hairy, wiry coats and sharp horns. Just like our view of lambs and sheep is the opposite of our view of clothing made from their wool, we often don’t realise that the best – the very best – of materials for luxury-knit clothing comes not from little lambs’ wool or soft cotton, but from the undercoat of goats – and certain goats in particular.
There is a breed of goats, originating in the area of Kashmir but now found in a few other countries as well, that develops a sift undercoat in the winter. Especially if the summers are hot, the winters frigidly cold, and food a little sparse most of the year – which they’re fine with – the long, thin, soft fibres they produce to keep themselves comfortable translate into the best of high-end, knit-garment fabric: Cashmere.
There are other kinds of wool, but nothing comes close to the comfort, lightness, and warmth of 100% pure cashmere.
Quality is Key Here
Because there are only so many places that these goats live, and even fewer that result in their producing the fine undercoats of sufficient quality, there is a relative scarcity of the fibres used to make the yarn that is knit together into the fabrics and garments.
What this means is that it takes more than two goats to produce enough cashmere for a single two-ply jumper – sometimes up to five goats. The fibres are combed out of each goat only once per year, after the cold season, so that means two to five goats take a year to produce enough cashmere for a single jumper.
And it’s not just the goats who work hard.
To get the fibres out in the longer lengths desired for higher-quality cashmere, the process has always been done by hand. A human being must comb out the fine undercoat from the coarse outer coat during moulting season. The fibres must be meticulously separated, cleaned, and stored for yarn production, without breaking up the long strands.
What the scarcity and difficulty of production means to the market is that only about 6500 metric tons of cashmere are produced each year. Sound like a lot? Compare it to the two million metric tons of sheep’s wool produced annually, and you get an idea of it in context. That’s about 308 times as much sheep’s wool as cashmere! Considering it’s not 308 times more expensive, we’re actually getting a pretty good deal.
What is the history of cashmere clothing?
As the name suggests, cashmere use originated in the Kashmir region (‘cashmere’ is an older spelling of ‘Kashmir). The locals began using it for yarn and knit materials production as early as the 1200s, the time of the Mongolian Empire.
Important political and religious leaders wore cashmere garments in Iran and India from the 1500s to the 1900s, often bestowing cashmere shawls upon talented subordinates. This served two purposes. First, it honoured the subordinate by giving him (it was always a ‘him’ in those days) a visible item – similar in function to a medal or sash. Second, it highlighted the fact of the hierarchy – the one doing the giving was clearly seen as superior to the one receiving the gift.
Late in the 18th century, Scottish textile manufacturer Joseph Dawson discovered this soft, light, and warm knit material and began buying it, processing it in his factory in Scotland, and selling it to upper-class British women who prized this new, ultra-soft luxury fabric and would pay top prices for it. China is now the largest producer and exporter of cashmere – but Europe remains the top location for quality processing and manufacture of cashmere clothing.