What is cashmere?
Cashmere is a very soft, insulating and highly sought-after wool that is combed from the downy underlayer of cashmere goats. Native to the mountainous regions of China, Mongolia, Tibet, and Nepal, these goats must survive temperatures that can plummet as low as -30°C. The fine, downy hairs that keep them warm in the harsh winters are combed out in spring and spun into the soft wool we know as cashmere. It is then used to make a wide variety of textile products, like hats, gloves, scarves, jumpers and blankets.
A little history…
Cashmere wool has been combed from cashmere goats for thousands of years. There are many legends surrounding its origins, one of which involves a sultan and a pair of socks, but it’s generally agreed to originate from the Kashmir valley in Northern India which is where it gets its name from.
In fact, cashmere wool is sometimes called pashmina wool, from the word pashm meaning wool in Urdu. (The word pashmina is used interchangeably to describe both the wool itself and the delicate shawls spun from it.)
Indian cashmere shawls had long been prized in the west, sold along ancient trade routes through the Himalayas. By the early 19th century France started importing raw wool and weaving their own imitation shawls, and gradually Scotland and other countries caught on. With the weaving machines of the industrial revolution, it became a booming business all over the world. Today the largest exporters of raw cashmere wool are in China, Mongolia, and Afghanistan, where goats are bred and herded.
What is a cashmere goat?
A cashmere goat is the type of goat that we get cashmere wool from, that lives in the mountainous regions of China, Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal and now Australia. They are named cashmere goats after the Himalayan region of Kashmir.
They have two layers of hair to survive the changing temperatures they live in: an outer coat of coarse hair (guard hair) that’s there all year round; and a very soft underlayer (or cashmere) that grows only in winter. The guard hair protects them from rain and sun while the insulating underlayer helps them survive the coldest winter temperatures.
There are many different breeds from the Changthangi (Kashmir Pashmina) cashmere goat to the Australian cashmere goat - each breed producing slightly different yields of varying quality and hair width. Most cashmere goats are white but there are some that are black, grey and brown too.
Why does cashmere cost so much?
There are a few very good reasons why cashmere is so expensive compared to other natural fibres like sheep’s wool.
- Cashmere can only be harvested once a year. This is because the goats need their soft downy layer all winter to keep them warm so herders have to wait till spring when the animals start to shed naturally.
- Once spring comes around the animals are hand combed which can take up to two weeks.
- The cashmere then needs to be carefully separated from the coarser guard hairs which guarantees the buttery softness we know and love.
- Cashmere goats produce a lot less wool per year than sheep. Though you only need one sheep to make 4 wool jumpers, it takes 4-8 cashmere goats to make just one cashmere jumper.
- Cashmere is also very delicate so needs to be treated carefully at every stage, from combing to washing, dying and spinning.
What makes it so desirable?
The main thing that sets cashmere apart from other wools is how incredibly soft it is. There really isn’t anything like it. From a delicate and fine cashmere shawl to thick cosy jumpers, its appeal prevails.
It’s incredibly versatile and makes for excellent hats, gloves, socks and more - keeping all your extremities from suffering in cold temperatures. It’s both super insulating and very breathable. So unlike a synthetic fleece layer it keeps you warm without making you sweaty.
Cashmere is also very lightweight and malleable so unlike sheep’s wool it won’t weigh you down, making for very comfortable wearing (and easy packing).
How to care for your cashmere
- Don’t wash it too often. (Wool is naturally antibacterial so airing it out between wears can work wonders.)
- Use gentle detergents and steer clear of fabric softener as this will break down natural fibres.
- Hand wash in cold water and dry on a flat surface, using a towel or rack.
- Use a pilling tool to remove any bobbles, though be careful not to use too often as the more fibres you remove the more likely you are to develop a hole.
- Protect your cashmere from moths by packing it away clean with lavender, cedar wood, sealable anti-moth bags or vacuum pack bags.
For more tips check out our blog, how to take care of your cashmere.