What is cashmere?
Cashmere is a fine and soft fibre that comes from the downy undercoat of a goat (capra hircus) - the outer hair, guard hair, is always much coarser. For goat hair to be classified as cashmere, the average fiber micron (circumference of fibers are measured in micron) must not exceed 19 microns. In comparison a typical human hair is usually about 76 microns. For the goats to grow this special hair, they have to live in a harsh climate where temperatures can dip well below - 40 C, it must be windy and the altitudes above 4000 metres. Cashmere goats thrive in the Himalayas (cashmere actually derives its name from Kashmir), Inner Mongolia and to a lesser extent Outer Mongolia, Afghanistan, Iran. The best quality comes from the Himalayas and Inner Mongolia because they have the harshest climate.
If the goat is taken away from this special climate their fibres will change as their natural needs change, thus they will no longer produce cashmere but just goat hair. Food and genetics can also influence to quality of the hair, but it is the climate that key when it comes to creating cashmere.
What makes cashmere special?
First of all, cashmere is a super soft fibre. It is lovely and scrumptious to wear against your skin and it is hypoallergenic and anti-bacterial.
Cashmere is up to 8 times warmer than its beloved cousin wool (comparing by weight, hence cashmere is not heavy to wear), this is due to a special crimp that cashmere fibres have. In fact the more crimp a cashmere fibre has the better the quality. The little crimp holds pockets of warm air close to the body and makes it warmer, however, the same air insulation can also keep you cool if it starts getting too hot. This is due to the fact that cashmere has a high moisture content, so the insulating properties of the cashmere changes with the humidity in the air, hence if you start feeling too hot, it will wick away the moisture from your body. In other words: it adjusts to your needs and keeps you warm when it is cold, and cools when it is warm. This makes our fine knit cashmeres perfect for all year round, and for wearing when during the day you go in and out of centrally heated and air-conditioned buildings.
How is cashmere harvested?
As with many other animals, when it gets warmer in the late spring and early summer the goats start shedding to get rid of the excessive winter coat. Cashmere goats are usually hand combed and not sheared. Shearing is obviously faster than combing, but because it will cut the fibres, it ultimately leads to shorter hair and therefore lesser quality cashmere for the herders to sell. This, in turn, will give them a lower price which is not to their benefit, thus, unlike with sheep wool, cashmere is usually combed. Another element to take into account is that since the sorting of the fibres is an important, but quite onerous task, it makes better sense to comb out the fibres with a special brush instead of having to sort the shorn fibres afterwards as shearing will produce a higher content of guard hair. Needless to say, that combing is much better for animal welfare.
Is cashmere wool?
Cashmere is wool, but it is not sheep wool. Since the term wool is often used synonymously with sheep wool there is some confusion over this matter. The difference between sheep wool and cashmere is an important one. People with wool allegory or wool sensitivity are rarely, if ever, allergic or sensitive to cashmere, let us explain why.
First, let us start by looking at sheep wool allergy. In truth, very few people have wool allergy, but many people have a sheep wool sensitivity instead. A real wool allergy makes you ill, usually you will get rashes, your eyes will be running and you will be sneezing - sometimes the symptoms will only appear a few days after you have been in contact with wool. The cause of wool allergy is frequently lanolin, or rather wool alcohols, which is the main ingredient in lanolin. Cashmere wool does not contain lanolin.
Whereas wool allergy is quite rare, wool sensitivity is more common. Sensitivity may be less serious than allergy, but it is not pleasant and should not be dismissed as trivial - skin irritation is never a good idea and it can trigger contact dermatitis in some people. Wool is a much coarser fibre than cashmere and this is usually the cause of the skin irritation. Scientific studies have found that if more than 5 percent of a garment's fibres exceed 30 microns or if a garments average micron is higher than 22 the wearers complain that the garment is itchy. Therefore it is highly unlikely that you will feel an itch when you wear one of our 100 % cashmere sweater or silk/cashmere blends.
This itchy feel from wool is often exacerbated by heat and/or humidity. People with thinner skin suffer more from sheep wool sensitivity, hence younger people, children and women are affected the most.
What is cashmere quality?
The quality starts with the quality of the yarn. The Chinese very poetically call cashmere for 'the soft gold' or 'the golden fleece', yet not all of the 'soft gold' is created equal. Cashmere can be spun into a light and fine yarn, because the crimp that gives cashmere its wondrous heat regulation propensities is the same crimp that helps fibres interlock during processing. In fact, the more crimp the better that quality. However, crimp is not something that can be seen with the naked eye.
Fineness of yarn
First of all there is the thinness of the goat hair to consider. For clothing to be classified as cashmere, the fiber must to come from the right animal (capra hircus), and the average fiber micron (circumference of fibers are measured in micron) must not exceed 19 microns. The best quality has a micron of 15 or less. Since the fibres get spun into a yarn, a heavier yarn (thicker) can be made of finer cashmere, but the other way around is unlikely. Yarn should always be firmly spun.
A cashmere item is only legally a cashmere item if it has a purity of 97 % (this can vary from country to country, but 97% is the most common guideline). This means that there must be no more than 3 % makeshift fibers in a cashmere product. In general the purer a cashmere is, the finer the microns and the better the fiber length (we will get to length in a moment). Cashmere is sorted after the combing, or shearing, of the goats. If the dehairing is well done, then the purity is high. The sorting process, which is done by hand, is a very important and time consuming step. Sometimes fibers are added afterwards (makeshift fibers such as wool, cotton, silk or synthetic fibres), either to make a blend or simply to make cheaper cashmere. Of course, once you mix in other fibers it is technically no longer cashmere but a cashmere blend. Some fibres are natural soul-mates for cashmere, e.g. silk has many of the same propensities as cashmere and is therefore a good fibre to mix cashmere with. Other fibres are less suitable and often just added to make the final product cheaper.
Length of fibres
The longer the fibres, the better the quality usually is. Premium cashmere fibres are 36mm plus. Why is length important? For one thing, you get the longest hairs when you comb them off the goats or collect them when they moult and rub them off. Does this sound like a lot of work? It is. However, longer fibers give you the smoothest and most silken cashmere products, plus they tend to pill less in the long run. In the short run, regardless of how good a cashmere quality you have, there will always be some pilling, but with the use of longer fibres there will be less and this will be more pronounced over time.
Quality of cashmere garment
Knowing about cashmere yarn is not the same as knowing the quality of the final product, so here are a few tips. However, there are no hard and fast rules.
First of all, look to the overall quality of a product. Hand finished products are usually of good quality, so if the seams are joined instead of sewn together is a good sign.
Look at the buttons: are they good quality? Do they match the product? Ask yourself this: Do you really want cheap white plastic or brownish flaky shell buttons on your red cardigan? Or let us put it this way: if you have bought a really nice wooden door with nice carvings, would you finish it off with a cheap plastic handle? Probably not. The same rule can be applied to other accessories.
When fine is too complicated
Fine and thin cashmere is more expensive than the thicker versions, it is also often difficult for big production machines to handle, hence, the companies that are very focused on volume and profit tend not to design and produce it. At Asneh we like fine cashmere, because it is excellent for layering and we are very focused on quality. However, be aware that you can have thick and heavy cashmere sweaters made from very fine cashmere - it depends on the yarn count.
Gauge - tightness of the knit
Another thing to look for is the tightness of the knit. Cashmere is sold by weight and therefore cheaper cashmere often has a looser knit (read: less weight) because by stretching the yarn and making it fluffy less raw cashmere is used. At a first glance, this makes a cashmere item seem very soft and airy, but it will not age well. We always use a high gauge because a tighter knit means that the item will keep better shape and over time pill less. If knitted cashmere has good tension it will bounce back when you stretch it.