February 14, 2021
Cashmere sweaters are a far more tricky commodity than the relatively straightforward alpaca sweaters. I know people who have been in the cashmere business for decades that say even they get confused sometimes. Here are a few things about cashmere cardigans and pullovers you may know which are actually wrong.
TWO PLY IS BETTER THAN ONE
In reality, one-ply cashmere is typically better quality, but not necessarily in the way you want. How can that be?
Cashmere quality starts with the fiber. Cashmere yarn is graded by three basic factors: the thickness of the fiber, (in microns), the average length of the fiber and (this is important) the percentage of short fibers in the yarn. It’s those short fibers that will work their way loose and start pilling, so if the percentage of short fibers is more than about 8-10%, there will be a pilling problem.
The ply is actually the number of individual threads that make up a strand of knitting yarn. So ply only affects the thickness of the sweater, not the quality. That two- or even four-ply sweater with a lot of short fibers is not going to look so good a few months from now.
What about one-ply cashmere? You have probably never seen a one-ply cashmere sweater. It is rarely used for knitwear, and when it is, it’s typically very lightweight and very expensive. Imagine a t-shirt made of cashmere and you get the idea. One-ply cashmere is extremely expensive because only the longest, most costly fiber is used, and the yarn is exceedingly fine. This yarn count is usually used for woven goods like cashmere scarves, shawls and pashminas, and it is wonderful. However, you will rarely see it in the marketplace.
THE BEST CASHMERE SWEATERS COME FROM SCOTLAND
Scotland does have some wonderful quality cashmere sweaters for men and women! (They also have some awesome castles) The Scots were the first to industrialize the process of de-hairing cashmere (separating the soft fleece from the rough goat hairs) and became leaders in the cashmere business in the early 1800’s. Scotland has a tiny native production of cashmere from goats they transplanted from elsewhere, but most of their raw fiber is still purchased in China’s Inner Mongolia. Scotland has excellent mills and, since they sell at a high price, they can maintain high standards for their yarn and their classic cashmere cable knit sweaters and V-necks. Italy, too, has an excellent reputation for cashmere fashion sweaters, with producers such as Loro Piana. A tightly-knit cashmere pullover of top-quality fiber will hold its shape and resist pilling for many years.
That being said, I have purchased expensive, poor quality sweaters from both Scotland and Germany. Both were at upscale department stores. One was a trendy designer brand. Never trust a country-of-origin. Look for thickness, hand-feel and tightness of the knitting. Loose knitting and an overly soft hand-feel should be avoided, as should loosely spun yarn. European origin is a good start, but not a guarantee. Many European brands now produce in China.
CHINESE CASHMERE IS CHEAP AND POOR QUALITY
There is some justification to this myth about cashmere knitwear. I have seen many absolutely terrible cashmere sweaters from China. I’ve also seen many excellent ones. Here’s why:
Northern China provides 60% of the world’s raw cashmere fibers. For millennia, the Chinese shunned cashmere and wool because they associated it with their traditional enemies, the steppe nomads. Cashmere was sold as a raw material to Europeans, and there was no domestic market. The Chinese kept warm with padded garments filled with cotton or silk fleece.
Hohhot, capital of Inner Mongolia, in the bad old days of 1991
About thirty-five years ago China began to export finished cashmere sweaters and scarves. Their early manufacturing was done with fifty-year old spinning and knitting machines, and technical expertise was often lacking. To make things worse, the high price of cashmere, up to $160/kilo in 1995 dollars, was a powerful incentive for both producers and marketers to cheat. Cashmere was a commodity and sweaters were priced by the gram. Reducing the weight by knitting more loosely was a common gimmick. Using low quality cashmere fiber, or adulterating it with merino wool or even acrylic gave another easy boost to the bottom line. Foreigners might say “Find a way to produce it for ten cents per gram” as a way of saying: “cut corners, but don’t tell me about it.” Loose knitting and over-finishing created a soft hand-feel that disintegrated after a week of wear. This resulted in a lot of bad sweaters sold to customers who didn’t know any better. It deservedly crushed the “Made in China: brand.
Fortunately, the Chinese government has stepped in to maintain the quality of cashmere exports. All cashmere yarn is rigorously tested to meet quality standards, and sweaters are tested before exportation to prevent forgery and adulteration. Suppliers that choose good quality yarn and use appropriate knitting tension can produce excellent cashmere sweaters in China. One caveat: If you are buying cashmere sweaters in China made for the domestic market, there are no guarantees.
China is also a source of many cashmere blends, but beware. Silk is a smooth slippery fiber that does not spin well with cashmere and pills badly. Cotton/cashmere, is also substandard. Stick with pure cashmere knitwear.
At Invisible World, whether we’re making men’s cashmere hoodies or women’s cable-knit cardigans our suppliers start with top notch yarns and always use the right tension to avoid pilling and retain shape. We wear it, our friends wear it and we take it very seriously For light weight warmth and luxurious classic style, nothing beats cashmere.
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