In the days before everyone from Brunello Cucinelli on down to Uniqlo carried cashmere, buying the ritzy fabric was a relatively simple thing explains "Cashmere Confidential", an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal's lifestyle section. The fibers were harvested from the bellies of goats in India & Tibet, spun in Scotland and when you went shopping for a sweater, you got what you paid for.
"In the old days, cashmere had a certain allure, and the allure created a certain price point," notes one cashmere veteran who has repped Pringle of Scotland as well as a number of other Scottish woolen mills. However, now that cashmere is no longer rare or necessarily expensive and can be had - brand new! - for under $100, cashmere has become "generic, like a jockey short."
Part of the reason is that the supply chain has expanded beyond India & Tibet into Afghanistan, Iran & Mongolia, and many manufacturers, including some of the most respected purveyors not only sell lower grades of cashmere but engage in questionable practices. Many use fibers of varying lengths, spin the wool after dyeing before it's fully dried and wash the sweaters in an artificial softener or repeatedly in order to soften them up - which makes them fluffy and soft on the sales floor but can really cut into how well an item will wear, especially how soon it begins to pill.
Some ways they suggest to test the quality of cashmere:
- When cashmere is of high quality, the knit will be dense, so when you stretch it with your hands, it reverts immediately to its former shape. Inferior cashmere contains cheaper fibers and the resulting fabric doesn't snap back quickly.
- Hold it up to the light; it should be dense enough that you cannot see through it. If you can, it means inferior quality. "Cheaper brands knit with more space because it takes less time and cashmere," adds Cedric Turk of the upscale French cashmere brand Zilli.
- Look at the overall weave of the knit. If you see any ripples or wrinkles, dubbed "chicken feet" by cashmere insiders, it means it was knit too quickly.
- Higher ply is always better (= more cashmere) and helps give the final product heft while at the same time feeling light as air. Even if it feels a tad coarser than you might have expected (especially with high-quality Scottish cashmere), it just means it wasn't excessively washed or otherwise abused before arriving in the store (which can happen with French or Italian cashmere) and it will last for a long time without pilling, decades even, becoming cozily perfect with time and use.
- Lesley Scott
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