In the West at least, Cashmere’s luxurious connotations date back to Victorian times, when the British started exporting it back home, and to the rest of Europe and the Americas. We might not quite appreciate its sense of luxury and opulence nowadays, but back then it was most definitely associated with the ruling classes and the aristocracy. Queen Victoria herself wore it, of course, partly thanks to an annual gift of the finest Cashmere from the Maharaja (although she could probably afford it anyway).
Back then, the wider world was still seen as exotic, magical and mysterious to Brits, and this unbelievable fabric emerging from places people had only seen on maps was guaranteed to endow it with fairytale qualities.
Like so many delicacies, though, it was a novelty to nineteenth-century Britons only because it had just recently been revealed to them. The locals from the mountains of Northern India, Mongolia, China, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal had known about its exquisite qualities since time immemorial and had been using and trading it for generations.
Its name, Cashmere, comes from the region in which it was first taken, the Kashmir Valley, which became a larger region now controlled by India, Pakistan and China. The spelling is just a Eurocentric way of presenting it. It happens to be a handy way of differentiating the region from the wool and the region, but it’s doubtful anyone was thinking that far ahead when they named it. The locals didn’t even use the Roman alphabet, don’t forget.
As well as its rarity and value, there must have been something else to give it such luxurious connotations – rarity doesn’t always mean quality, after all. With cashmere, its qualities are threefold.
First, it is exquisitely soft. Some sheep wool can be a little itchy, to some people more than others, but you’ll never hear anyone complaining about an uncomfortable cashmere sweater. It can be worn against the skin quite readily – in fact, there are companies who make cashmere underwear for those who love its silky feel.
Second, there is its warming quality. As we’ll see below, it’s the result of millions of years of evolution and is perfectly adapted to keeping its original wearers – wild goats – safe and warm in some of the harshest environments on earth. In the days before central heating, it was normal to layer up indoors, even in the most affluent of households. The emergence of this light fabric that was as warm as wool several times thicker, as well as being more comfortable and less restrictive on movement, must have been a revelation to its early adopters.
Third, cashmere is a versatile and strong fabric. Because it can be thinner than woollen garments, it gives more styling options to anyone wishing to push the boat out. And like silk, its luxurious softness doesn’t come at the cost of fragility. Good quality cashmere is a hard-wearing fabric, so don’t be surprised if your favourite sweater gives you five to ten years’ warmth.
Sweaters might be the thing that springs to mind when you think of cashmere, but it’s used right across the board, in scarves, dressing gowns, blankets, gloves, vests and even highly luxurious hot water bottle covers. Why wouldn’t you?
To understand cashmere better, we need to look at what it is, and how it’s different to other textiles. It will also give an idea as to why it’s such a prized fabric, and why even farmed cashmere might be a little more expensive than everyday sheep’s wool.
If you’ve ever seen a photograph of a cashmere goat, you’ll no doubt be drawn to all that lovely cashmere wool dangling off its back and belly. You might even wonder how that can be so rare.
Well, the outer layer of wool is not the part that’s used in wool production. The visible part is actually quite coarse, similar to normal sheep wool, and definitely not the type of hair you would see on a domestic goat on a UK farm. To give a clue about its qualities, just consider that it is used in things like paintbrushes and strengthening garment components where comfort isn’t important, like button backing or collars.
The cashmere used in wool is a soft underlayer that grows close to the skin of the goat. It’s as different to the wool as down is to feathers, and serves a similar purpose to down: keeping the goat warm, especially when it’s a kid. It grows seasonally and is thought to be a natural response to the shortening of the daylight hours rather than the temperature.
While this layer is much softer than the outer hair, it isn’t even the same all over the goat – the finest cashmere comes from the area around the chin and neck.
As the season changes to spring and summer, the goat sheds its insulating layer, and that’s when the herdspeople can gather it, usually by a combing action. There’s an art to knowing the right moment to harvest – the last thing they want is for the goat to moult and let the valuable crop waft away in the breeze. But harvesting too early might endanger the lives of the goats up in the mountains. This skill is another element in its value.
Each goat will produce just 250 grams (9 ounces) of cashmere wool a year, and that’s before it has been purified by removing those strands at the coarser end of the spectrum. That reduces the high-quality yield to about 100g (4 oz) per animal per year. A typical sweater weighs about 300–500 grams, so you can easily see why this wool is expensive.
Compared to normal sheep’s wool, the softness is by far the most noticeable thing if you’re new to cashmere. Sheep’s wool that has been conscientiously shorn, treated, dyed and knitted can of course be soft, and blended with other materials it can retain its insulation and be much softer. Most of the time, you’d be wearing another layer underneath it, so practically speaking, you’ll get the benefit of the warmth at a fraction of the cost.
But it’s not just warmth that matters. Cashmere can be worn against the skin, so you don’t need that extra layer, which can really matter if you’re layering the other way, for example, if you’re wearing a coat or jacket. It’s also lighter, which means it’s more flexible and comfortable, especially when layered.
Cotton is another alternative and is certainly cashmere’s equal when it comes to lightness. But pure cotton is nowhere near as warm as cashmere, and it will lose its shape after multiple washes, whereas cashmere will go on and on.
Like most fabrics, cashmere is graded depending on its quality. It’s a good way of economising without losing the essence of cashmere – for example, a pure cashmere sweater might have lower graded wool where it is less in contact with the skin.
Dual-layer knits can have a higher grade on the inside and a lower grade on the outside. It’s visibly indistinguishable and retains its insulating properties, but the cost is lower. It’s no different from the way high-quality furniture has the most beautiful woods on show, but the structural parts that are never seen can be made of tough timber without the varnish and finish of the visible.
The grades start with Grade A – the finest of the fine, which has been separated from the grades below it almost strand by strand. It’s rare to find garments that are 100% Grade A cashmere, as they would cost many hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds, and hark back to cashmere’s Victorian era.
Grade B is the second step in quality. It’s still excellent wool but isn’t quite as pure as Grade A. That means it can be harvested and prepared more cheaply and is a much more economical way to use it.
Finally, there’s Grade C. This is the coarsest grade, and while it’s still softer than sheep’s wool, it’s noticeably less soft than Grades A and B. It’s just as warming as the other grades, but would probably be used in parts that don’t touch the skin.
There are several breeds of goat that produce cashmere, and they produce fibres that are similar to the point of indistinguishability to all but the best-versed connoisseurs. The best known are the Changthangi, Tibetan Plateau, Liaoning, Inner Mongolian, Hexi, Zhongwei and Australian cashmere goats. All are excellent breeds for cashmere production, especially considering the grading, cleaning, treatment, spinning and weaving that goes on after shearing.
Merino is another alternative to cashmere. It comes from the merino sheep, not a goat, and is prized for its softness, warmth and durability. It’s slightly different in structure to cashmere, but compared to common wools, is much softer and doesn’t have that scratchy feel that lower quality wool can have.
Bearing in mind that most people would not pay a thousand pounds for a sweater, blending cashmere with other materials helps to keep them an affordable luxury garment. Creating the blends is a skill in itself, as any winemaker would tell you (Bordeaux, champagne, chianti and Côtes du Rhône are all blends, after all).
At Luella, we love the 30% cashmere, 40% merino wool, 20% viscose and 10% polyamide blend for our sweaters, cardigans and tank tops. With 70% of the fabric coming from two of nature’s softest fleece materials (made even softer through grading and treatment), there’s all the warmth, comfort and lightness you could ever want from your knitwear. Polyamide is a silky smooth man-made fabric that brings elasticity and structure to garments, meaning you can our jumpers over your head hundred of times without them losing their shape. It’s how we can make cashmere garments for under £100, without sacrificing any of the qualities that make cashmere so prized.
Cashmere wool might have the robustness it needs for life in the mountains, but that doesn’t mean it’s indestructible. In this section, we’re going to deal with how you should care for your cashmere garments, which means washing, cleaning and storage, so you’ll get years of pleasure from them.
Every cashmere garment you buy should have cleaning and care instructions on the label, so that should be your first port of call. As well as being the sensible thing to do, it will also mean you can return the item if it gets damaged even though you had followed the manufacturer’s recommendations. Also, some garments might have specific components, for example, suede panels or down filling, that require specific washing techniques.
Essentially, however, most cashmere and cashmere blend garments will require you to follow the same washing and care procedure.
Start with a gentle comb using a specialised cashmere comb to de-pill your garment. Pills are just little twists of wool that appear on the surface and can be removed harmlessly with the comb. You can de-pill your garment even if you’re not washing it – it will keep it looking fresh.
We’d always recommend that you hand wash cashmere, and do it gently. That applies to 100% cashmere or the blends that we use at Luella. However, we find that our fabric blends are much more forgiving than pure cashmere when it comes to both wear and care, which is one of the reasons we love them so much.
You probably wouldn’t hand wash at high temperatures anyway, but the water should still be at the lower end of the scale – about 30 °C. For context, a baby’s bath should be about 37 °C, and a hot bath you’d enjoy as an adult would be around 40–45 °C. In other words, the water should feel quite cool. If you can control your boiler’s temperature, you might be able to temporarily set the tap water to that, but the simplest way to get the right level of heat is to use a thermometer – a baby bath thermometer is perfect.
Don’t use a strong detergent to wash cashmere. Normal boxes of washing powder you buy from the supermarket might be too active and could damage the intricate fibres. Look around the shelves for washing powders or liquids designed specifically to work on wools at lower temperatures, as they should do the job. However, some of our cashmere aficionados swear by baby shampoo – it’s inherently mild, so just adding a small handful to the water will usually work wonders. If it doesn’t remove any stubborn stains, move up to the wool detergent.
To wash, just immerse the sweater in the water, and gently swirl it around. Don’t squeeze, wring or strongly agitate the sweater in any way. Just gentle circular or figure-of-eight motions with your hand should be enough. It’s the time and the soap that are lifting the dirt, not so much the motion. You should do this for about five minutes. We’d recommend washing different colours separately, working from the lightest to the darkest. You should be fine using the same water over and over.
After five minutes, transfer the item into a shallow bowl of just water, again no more than 30 °C, and give it another swirl. You should see most of the soap emerging, but you might want to repeat the process a few times with fresh water, or set up a production line if you’re washing multiple garments. Gently push the garment against the side of the bowl to drive off the water – no twisting or wringing!
Like washing, hand-drying is much kinder for your cashmere sweater. The easiest way to do this is to lay it out on a clean, dry towel, flatten out any creases, and roll up the towel and garment into a sausage shape. Give it a gentle squeeze and almost all the water will be transferred to the towel. If you’re washing multiple cashmere tops, use multiple towels – a fresh one for each garment.
Finally, lay the garment flat on a drying rack, ideally one where air can flow through it, and leave it overnight. Hanging the garment on a line or a radiator could cause it to stretch, so always use the flat method. Remember, this is a natural product, and nature always knows best!
If your washing machine has a hand wash setting, that should be OK, but if you’ve ever experienced damage to woolens using it before, cashmere will probably be no different. It’s the same with drying. Make sure you use the gentlest spin cycle – no more than 700 rpm. You can always pick and choose the hand/machine techniques you want from washing, rinsing and drying as above.
The most important thing to remember with cashmere, or any knitwear for that matter, is never to hang it up on a coat hanger or hook. Always, always store it flat. The easiest way is in a chest of drawers, with your sweaters lying flat, with plenty of space around them so they don’t crease. Divan beds with storage drawers and wide shelves are just as good if you have them.
Try not to pile them too high, as the ones at the bottom could start to become a little overcompressed, and please don’t shove too many in a drawer – give them space to breathe.
Unfortunately, moths can have taste for cashmere, so if you are planning to store them for any length of time, ensure your drawers are moth-proof or keep them in breathable anti-moth pouches. They come with a zippable fastener to seal them safely away. We wouldn’t recommend plastic bags, as cashmere does need to breathe to keep moisture perfectly balanced.
Ironing cashmere should probably be filed under “best avoided”, but as long as you use the lowest temperature setting your iron will reach (or a specific “wool” setting), you should be fine. If the alternative is a creased sweater, iron it – but gently. If it’s badly creased, you would probably be better off washing it and flattening it during drying as described above.
As woolen items, cashmere clothes can be considered winter garments, but that’s not necessarily the case. They’re breathable and light enough to wear certainly into spring and autumn, but some garments can be worn all year round. If it’s the warmth you need, then it’s clearly a personal choice – some of us cope with the warm and the cold much better than others! You can always take extra layers to add or remove as the temperature changes.
A cashmere sweater can be worn in some formal situations, but if it’s being worn with business clothing, a cardigan is a little lighter and more versatile. It’s also better for showing off your neck jewellery if you love to wear it.
Cashmere knitwear tends to be on the informal side, however. It’s cosy and warm, which means it’s perfect for wearing outdoors or when you’re shopping or socialising. But thanks to our blends that ensure the fabric keeps its shape, it retains a smart profile – look at our Hot Pink Lurex jumper, for example.
A cashmere tank top is another perfect way to layer, too. You can wear it with a T-shirt or long-sleeve tee if you’re going really casual, but pair it with a loose casual blouse and jeans or canvas trousers and you’ve instantly got that rural look down to a tee – perfect for a glass of wine at the bistro or a wander around the artisan market.
At Luella, form and function are equally as important when we’re designing new clothes. That’s why we’re stringent in our choice of designers, but just as careful when it comes to settling on cashmere blends. We love the look and feel of 30/40/20 cashmere/merino/viscose, with the last 10% going on structural elasticity and perhaps a bit of glam with metallic thread.
If you’re looking for a whole outfit, a great place to start is in our dresses and skirts section. You’ll find beautiful garments to pair with a cashmere cardi or tank, and these summer classics can be worn in completely casual situations or for that al fresco summer wedding you’re looking forward to.
When you’re layering to stay warm or cool, stick with Luella to find a whole collection of complementary garments, including our flattering and light long-sleeve vest tops that our customers simply love to have in their drawers and suitcases.
We hope this introduction to cashmere has sparked plenty of styling ideas and filled in the gaps you might have had about this remarkable fabric. As you can see, it’s versatile, stylish and so cosy that once you’ve tried it you’ll probably never go back to normal wool – and we’re here to help in your newfound appreciation.
Twinned with Luella’s commitment to designing garments in blends that keep the cashmere feel without breaking the bank, we’re sure you’ve found the perfect place to stock up on these beautiful Italian-made essentials.