|Via French By Design|
A few months ago, a lovely reader emailed me about shopping for cashmere. In my opinion cashmere is one of life's little luxuries. Wrapping up in cashmere is one of my favorite things about cooler weather. I rely on cashmere year-round. During the summer I keep a lightweight cashmere cardigan at work to defend against aggressive air conditioning. Even in intense Hong Kong heat, I found it useful to have a cashmere wrap or cardigan in malls and restaurants. I'm partial to cashmere because I'm a bit allergic to most wools.
When it comes to shopping for cashmere I'm admittedly picky. Here's my guide to shopping for cashmere.
What Is Cashmere?
Cashmere is a soft woolen fabric derived from the wool of the Kashmir goat. It's a wonderful lightweight insulator. Cashmere has a smooth, soft texture that is incredibly warm. Cashmere fibers can be spun into lightweight or thick yarn for clothing.
Where Does Cashmere Come From?
Cashmere wool comes from the underbelly of the Kashmir goat. The fibers found on a goats underbelly are the longest staple fibers. The Kashmir goat has a double fleece which contains a soft, fine undercoat. This is the wool that is used to make cashmere sweaters. Kashmir goats are native to the Gobi desert; northern and northwestern China and Southern Mongolia. Kashmir goats are also bred in India and Tibet. China is the largest producer of raw cashmere.
From March until May nomadic herders who care for the goats take them in for the wool to be harvested. The coarse outer coat is separated from the softer cashmere fibers found on the undercoat. The harvesting of pure cashmere is incredibly labor intensive and makes cashmere garments expensive. Everything from a goat's diet to the harshness of the winter impacts the softness of the cashmere. The dying and production process affects the softness of cashmere as well.
Where to Begin
Since cashmere is a natural fiber there is great disparity when it comes to quality. Higher end sweaters are made from the softest fibers from the goats belly and neck. Mass-produced sweaters are made of shorter-staple fibers from the back and legs of the goat. A garment's label won't indicate that it's made from shorter-staple fibers, but when you pick up the garment it may be coarse, bumpy or rough.
When it comes to high quality cashmere, it's best to buy from a company that specializes in it. Tse, Johnson's of Elgin and Loro Piana are among the best when it comes to luxury cashmere. Generally speaking Italy and Scotland produce some of the worlds finest cashmere garments. I've had great success with high-end department store cashmere. Larger specialty department stores put their cashmere through rigorous testing, so it tends to be of superior quality.
I highly recommend J.Crew for affordable cashmere that doesn't sacrifice quality. J.Crew offers the most vibrant colors- hands down. I've also found that J.Crew cashmere doesn't pill terribly. Regardless of price, cashmere has to be taken care of properly and maintained. Even if you purchase the most expensive cashmere, if it's not cared for properly it won't hold up.
Raw cashmere is found in shades of grey, brown and white. The dying process significantly impacts the softness. It use to drive me crazy when I would touch the same cashmere sweater in different colors and notice that each color felt a bit different. I ended up adding a few bright cashmere garments to my wardrobe because they felt the softest. Darker colors, such as navy and black are never as soft as their bright counterparts because the yarn absorbs more of the dye.
I'm big on checking labels to see where garments are made and the materials. In the US, The Federal Trade Commission regulates that cashmere garments are properly labeled. Garment labels must list the exact fiber content, country of origin, manufacturer and maintenance/care instructions. Only garments made of 100% cashmere can be labeled as pure cashmere. If a sweater is a blend, then the manufacturer is required to state the percentage of the garment that is cashmere and the percentages that are made up of other materials.
I'm extremely skeptical of cashmere blends when it comes to knitwear. In most cases, very little cashmere is used and the garment isn't noticeably softer. Coats are one exception I make when it comes to blends.
Ply refers to the number of strands of cashmere used to make up the yarn count for any knitted garment. The more plies the stronger and warmer the garment. Additional plies will also make a garment appear chunkier. If you're searching for a super warm garment you can go up to four or eight plies, but a two ply garment should provide more than enough warmth. Be weary of cashmere that you can see through- that's a good indicator that it's 1 ply and won't be very durable or warm.
Pick It Up
When it comes to cashmere, picking up the garment is the only way to gauge whether the garment will pill.
Cashmere should drape. It shouldn't wrinkle when you ball up the fabric. Good cashmere will spring back to its' natural shape.
Gently rub your hand over the sweater. If it's made from a shorter-staple fibers even the most gentle rubbing will cause pilling and fuzz. It's important to note that wearing your cashmere creates pills overtime. Pilling is one of the nuances of cashmere. The higher the ply the less pilling.
Don't be shy about checking to make sure that a garment isn't itchy. I use the back of my wrist or underneath my chin to determine if an item is going to be too irritating.
This weekend's snow storm (yes it really snowed ALREADY) has me thinking about pulling out my favorite cashmere pieces to stay warm. How do you stay warm?