In 1812 William Moorcroft had a vision: England should become the world’s leading producer of fine cashmere shawls. To understand how he came to this conclusion, you will have to know a little bit more about William.

 William was born in England and studied to become a veterinarian. In this capacity he travels to Calcutta in 1808 and starts working for the East India Company where he has the responsibility for their horses. While working here, horse-man William gets to hear about Turkoman horses. Turkoman horses are slim and elegant and strong and can endure riding for very long distances without food or water – in other words: they are perfect! William now knows that all East India Company needs for a better future are Turkoman horses.

woman wearing pashmina
Woman wearing pashmina

William presents his case for the East India Company and off his goes in search of the wonderful horses of Bukhara.

He never quite makes it to Bukhara on this trip, but William is not disheartened because he has travelled the Himalayas and discovered a few lakes and cashmere shawls! He returns to Calcutta and presents the cashmere shawls: “Aren’t they wonderful? See the marvellous embroidery? Feel how soft they are?” William is full of enthusiasm as he presents the wonders to his superiors. However, the directors of East India Company snort at William’s fine pashminas and tell him to stay in Calcutta and mind his horses instead of running around finding lakes and fondling cashmere shawls in the Himalayas. Poor William, imagine how very different his reception would have been if there had been some women on board of the East India Company.

 

Moorcroft dressed as a gosain
Moorcroft dressed as a gosain

However, our dear William is not too browbeaten and a few years later he is off again, this time dressed as Hindu trading pilgrim (gosains, they are called). William the horse-man is slowly morphing into William the goat-man, because you see, he becomes even more convinced on this trip that there is no reason why England should not become the world’s leading producer of fine cashmere stoles and shawls. This dreamed is fuelled by the observation that Kashmir, especially Srinagar, is a rich and prosperous place thanks to a flourishing pashmina trade. For centuries Kashmir had virtually had a monopoly on the cashmere trade and William, being a patriotic Englishman, sees no reason why he should not be able to change this. To accomplish this dream, the determined William hires a painter to reproduce on paper all these wonderful patterns that William sees woven and embroidered onto the pashminas. The copied patterns are send to England and the entrepreneurial William is toying with the idea of shipping home a few Kashmiri families, so that they can teach the trade to the good people of England.

 

The plan to break the Kashmirian monopoly on the cashmere trade and start a thriving business in England is well on its way, however, there is still one small detail that William needs to deal with: cashmere procurement. Now, a less visionary and ambitious man than William might have contended with buying some bales of raw cashmere at this point. Buying cashmere would not necessarily be the world’s easiest task as there is the Kashmirian monopoly to deal with. However, William has big plans, and he believes that there is no reason why the soon-to-be English cashmere trade should be dependent on the haggling of the cashmere traders of Tibet and the Himalayas, when England can produce its very own fine cashmere. The energetic William manages to buy a sizeable stock of cashmere goats (capra hircus) to be shipped home to mother England.

Cashmere goats and a few birds
Cashmere goats and a few birds

 

The goat herd is not to be shipped home on one boat, the majority travel on one ship bound for England and the rest on another ship. For some obscure reason, the she goats all go into one boat and the billys onto another ship. Sadly, the ship with all the does never make it to England, so William’s plan of breeding wonderful cashmere goats in the rolling hills of England is not going to be. Of course, the billy goats do mate with does in England and produce a number of cute little curly-haired off-springs. However, their curls may be cute, but it isn’t cashmere! Ah well, you may think, at least the unlucky William has the billy goats to comb and make shawls from. Nope! The goats not only integrate in England, they assimilate. The relatively mild climate of England is very different from their natural habitat; hence these goats do not grow an inner coat of super fine fibres anymore. So all the lofty ambitions that the visionary William had all came to naught.

So to summarise the lesson that dear old William had to go through all that hardship to learn: fine cashmere is only produced in a very limited area of the world, because the goats need a specific type of climate before they start growing it. After all, their goal is to keep snug and warm, not to provide you with a nice pashmina or a soft cashmere sweater.