What is it about the fiber from a lowly goat that gives mystique to fashions across the world?
There is so much more to Cashmere than meets the eye: this is it's power and this is it's story.
Everyone is now familiar with the word Cashmere and understands that the most highly prized garments in their wardrobe are often made from it. Not everyone knows that the fiber comes from a goat and furthermore that this particular goat comes from only one significant region in the world with other smaller producing regions as sources of smaller supplies.
There are myths and legends surrounding Cashmere. One of the most often quoted is that "Scotland is the home of cashmere". This is not so, although very significant production factories for cashmere sweaters and scarves have traditionally arisen there. All the fiber they use is imported.
Also we hear in the press now and again that cashmere fiber comes from Australia, New Zealand and occasionally parts of the USA, however these are not viable sources of Cashmere fiber. In New Zealand there was a very determined effort to produce cashmere 25 years ago. However the results were disappointing and the fiber had to be classified as Cashgora. The name derived from the Cashmere goat and the Angora, (Mohair), goat. These fibres were too coarse and too lustrous and too long in length.
The goats used in that experiment after one generation went on to produce kids with coarser fiber and more lustre similar to a fine Mohair. Some testing houses consider these fibers as Cashmere, but there is more to it than just fineness. The genuine Cashmere is unique. It cannot be bred by man in other areas of the world and this is why it will always be sought after. The annual clip is limited by nature and so the laws of supply and demand take over…
The name "Cashmere" is derived from the word Kashmir which is the area of the Western Himalayas, around northern India and Tibet. The derivation of the word we use today is "Cashmere" and it is likely that this was used by the British at first when they occupied India to describe the fiber from the goats of Kashmir.
Today the Cashmere goat is found across many parts of central Asia, but predominantly on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia in China stretching into the Gobi dessert. China is the largest producing area followed by Outer Mongolia; other countries of some significance include Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkistan. None of the latter produce the superfine luxurious fiber obtained from the goats of the Inner Mongolian grasslands.
In terms of global annual production about 10000 metric tonnes comes from the Chinese source. Then 3000 metric tonnes from Outer Mongolia, the other countries making up the balance of between 3 and 4000 metric tonnes in total.
Hence the annual "clip" is about 16000 Metric tonnes. When demand is high the price soars as buyers compete to obtain the best fiber for their own usage from the limited clip. In leaner years when fashion houses across the world find the price too high to pass onto the consumer, demand falls and the price slides, usually slowly over a few seasons. The cycle then repeats itself and trading of fiber is as any commodity which is limited by supply.
The goats are usually controlled by groups of nomadic herdsmen who collect the clip each year in the spring when the goats moult or shed their hair normally as the temperature warms from the desperately cold winters and the climate changes into hot summer days. Sometimes the fibers are combed off the goat to assist in the process. Each goat will produce about 250 grams of fiber. Not all of this is useable as we will see later.
It is this very large swing of temperature from desperately cold winter nights (down to -20C), and very hot summer days on the fringe of the Gobi desert (+35C), which allows nature to provide fine insulation as protection against this harsh climate. Even in the depths of winter the goats remain outside. Add to this some very harsh grazing conditions, i.e. poor nutrition, another factor in producing fine fiber.
The Cashmere goat, (Capra Hircus Laniger), is unique!
There is no doubt that Cashmere shawls have been produced in Nepal and Kashmir for thousands of years. Many believe that the Arc of the Covenant from the Old Testament was lined and curtained with it.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica attributes the main founder of the Cashmere industry to the 15th century ruler of Kashmir, Zayn-ul-Abidin who introduced weavers from Turkistan into Kashmir to increase production.
The globalisation of Cashmere really started when a French General from the French campaign in Egypt sent back to Paris some of the Cashmere Shawls. It is said that the Emperor Napoleon gave 17 of them to his second wife, Eugene. In England Queen Victoria was said to be passionate about them. These were the ultimate luxury which only Kings and Queens could afford. The well-known phrase. "Cashmere, the fiber of Kings" was born.
In France however there was already a thriving silk weaving industry and one famous company; Valerie Audresset, set about spinning and weaving cashmere fiber which they imported themselves. After the fiber was received the first process was to beat the dirt out of it and separate the very coarse outer hair, (guard hair), from the soft fine down. Approximately 60 % would be discarded and the process to purify this by hand was very labour intensive and therefore expensive. It would be a full generation later before this was mechanised.
Scotland also had a textile industry based on the production of sheep. However by importing cashmere yarn from Audresset a cashmere industry started in the UK. The Scottish Manufacturing council in 1830 offered a prize of 300 pounds sterling to anyone who could spin the fiber in Scotland. The information behind Audresset's success was gathered over the next three years and eventually the prize was claimed by Henry Houldsworth and sons of Glasgow in 1833.
Manufacturing processes were now in the hands of the two largest trading countries in the Western Hemisphere and Cashmere was going global. It seemed the only constraint was the labour intensive, (often child labour), of cleaning the fiber before spinning.
However, enter the world's greatest player on the Cashmere stage. Joseph Dawson Limited of Bradford was a raw material trading company specialising in all types of natural fiber. In 1890 they invented the first de-hairing machine in the world. A process they successfully kept secret for over 70 years. The result was that for nearly a century Joseph Dawson, subsequently Dawson International was not only the largest buyer of Cashmere material, but it had the luxury of controlling the price.
Dawson eventually moved production to China and slowly the secret of their processing came out. Nowadays all de-hairing is done at source. Not only for the cost of the processing, but the cost of freight around the world. With 60% unusable for luxury clothing shipping costs are very significant.
Cashmere Fiber is the underbelly fiber from the Cashmere goat, Capra Hircus Laniger. The outer guard hair is discarded in the dehairing process which is very similar to a carding process. The fibers are passed through carding machines with especially fine card wire a number of times to ensure the guard hair is removed. Usually the dehairing goes down to only 0.02% guard hair remaining before spinning.
To qualify as Cashmere the fiber must be under 18 microns in diameter. In practice this is the fiber from the Middle Eastern countries and those bordering the Old Russian Federation. The Cashmere from Outer Mongolia is usually a maximum of 17 micron and will average 15.5 whilst from the Chinese provinces such as Inner Mongolia the average will be around 14 microns and 11-12 microns is attainable.
The coarser fibers such as those from Turkistan etc. tend to be of longer length up to 40mm, whist the finer fibers vary from 20mm to 36mm. The fiber for knitwear usage must be at least 34mm to avoid pilling problems in wear as so the longer fibers from the finer growing regions are the most sought after and expensive.
Knitwear yarns are therefore made from the most expensive cashmere and also these yarns tend to be finer. Two yarns are twisted together for the knitting process as individual yarns are deliberately spun without much twist. The twist gives strength, but the lesser twist increases the softness of the yarn and therefore the handle of the finished product. Because for knitwear two yarns are twisted together this is the origin of the phrase "two-ply".
For weaving the fibers can, and depending on the type of finishing sometimes should, be shorter. The finishing often includes a raising process to bring fibers to the surface, sometimes with the simultaneous use of water to give a ripple which is traditionally sought after on a cashmere scarf.
Nowadays yarns get finer and finer allowing for production of cashmere shawls with an individual weight of less than 50 grams per unit.
Cashmere production whilst still carried out in the UK and France is largely carried out in China, near the source of the material, and all the processing including dyeing, spinning, weaving, finishing is carried out to high specifications on modern machinery often imported from Germany and Italy as well as machinery produced domestically.