Cashmere has become, in a way, watered down in recent years. Both the quality, as well as the discipline and knowledge around the continuing maturation of cashmere in your keep by way of hand washing, has been lost in our generation.
What was once always a highly prized, luxury item, has now become ubiquitous, but this comes at a price. Although a lot of cashmere today is being touted as high quality, it is often only one part of the production that is premium, whilst other parts are not, resulting in a piece that may keep well for a few years, but certainly not for decades like how cashmere used to be. It's very good, but not the best. If you’re not in the textiles industry it’s hard to discern what is and what isn’t high quality cashmere, so we’ve put together a quality cashmere guide to help explain how to determine whether an item is the highest quality cashmere knitwear, how the best cashmere behaves and how to look after it well.
All cashmere is made from the fibres of the coats of a specific breed of goat that lives in Mongolia. As mentioned above, although all cashmere garments essentially come from the same raw material, you’ll find cashmere of varying degrees of quality on the market. What makes cashmere high quality? The answer is three-fold: the fibres, the spinners and the knitters. And only by using the very best at all three stages of manufacture, will the very best cashmere be produced. Merely ticking one or two out of the three boxes will produce something that is decent, but not the best.
Firstly, the fibres, which are the very foundations of the garment. Being a natural raw material, cashmere fibres exist in varying lengths. For the best quality cashmere, you need the longest and finest fibres. Longer fibres make a more durable garment that’s less likely to lose shape or pill and finer fibres ensure a garment is soft to the touch. The fibres chosen by the yarn spinners we use here at Colhay’s are around 3.8mm in length and 15.5microns in length. For reference, ordinary wool fibres are often upwards of 25mm wide, so are far more coarse.
Cashmere Yarn Spinners
The second factor is the spinners who take the fibres and turn them into yarn. At Colhay’s we work with world renowned spinners, Todd and Duncan, who are one of the world’s top three spinners of cashmere. As an aside, each material has spinners who are the best at spinning it (e.g. Zegna Baruffa for extrafine merino, Cariaggi for cashmere silk etc.). Established back in 1867, Todd and Duncan are based in Scotland and use traditional methods which yield the very best cashmere yarns. Just like in every industry, there is a hierarchy of producers (be it engines for cars, chips for phones etc.) so too does knitwear. In the case of cashmere yarn spinners, Todd & Duncan, together with two other Italian yarn spinners, are regarded as the very best at spinning cashmere. It is just a matter of cost for many brands whether they choose to use these yarns but if you want the very best cashmere, it is critical to only source from one of the top three cashmere spinners. Again there are three key ingredients that contribute to high quality yarns. They are durability, hand feel, and overall consistency, meaning that every single cone in each batch of yarn is of superior quality. The spinners solidify their reputation as the best at spinning a particular material through decades, sometimes more than a century, of proving themselves through consistently producing the highest quality yarn, helped by a healthy dose of competition from its rivals (think Apple v Microsoft!).
Knitters complete the high quality cashmere puzzle. The knitters we work with are based in Hawick, Scotland, which is one of the industry's most revered knitting town, where the craft has been passed down through generations. Our knitters use traditional techniques which result in far higher quality garments but are often abandoned by producers to enable quicker production times. This is not the case with our knitters who use their knowledge and expertise to create garments that are of the very best quality they can be.
One of these techniques is hand-linking. Our garments are all fully-fashioned, which means that each component is made separately, rather than the shape of the garment being cut from a panel of fabric. Each component is then hand-linked together. It’s a time-consuming and meticulous process where each individual loop of the component is, quite literally, linked together by hand. The result is smooth seams that are incredibly strong and help to ensure the garment doesn’t lose its original shape.
Knitting densely is also integral to a high quality garment. This technique is fairly self-explanatory, but the results are perhaps less obvious to the untrained eye. Our knitters use up to 40% more cashmere per garment than the industry norm. The more cashmere used, the more durable the garment will be. This is actually a characteristic of Scottish made knitwear and is just one reason why it's known across the world as the very best. Of course as you can imagine, a higher quantity of a material that is already expensive, further adds to the cost of the garment, and that is the reason only the world's most premium knitters who are committed to producing at this very highest level, such as the Scots in Hawick, still knit with this high density.
To know you have the highest quality cashmere, you must tick off all three of these factors. One is good, two is great but if you’ve ticked off three you can be certain your garment is of the finest quality.
How High Quality Cashmere Behaves
On first purchase, cashmere of this quality will feel quite tough. It’s in its raw state and very new still. It will, in fact, feel tougher than cheaper cashmere and will have a slight crunch to it if you squeeze it. It’s not common knowledge unless you are in the industry, but this is actually a good sign! It’s much like denim in that the best quality jeans will all feel stiff at the start. It won’t stay this way though, during the first year it will soften naturally. And this is one of the biggest differences between high quality cashmere versus poorer quality cashmere - high quality cashmere starts off stiff and softens naturally over time, allowing it to age and last decades whilst poorer quality cashmere starts off soft, but loses shape quickly over time.
Most people expect high quality cashmere to feel buttery soft with a "flowing" texture from the get go, but this is not true and is actually a sign it won't hold up very well. Much of the cashmere on the market is very soft simply because it has been knitted thinly and the knitwear has been overwashed. Washing is part of the knitwear production process and is, again, a honed skill that requires the correct knowledge and expertise. It’s a case of commerciality versus substance. Cheaper cashmere that is soft from the start will perhaps last 2-5 years, but with truly high quality cashmere, you can expect it to last for decades.
With high quality cashmere, the more you wash it, the better it gets. This is because the washing process actually settles the fibres and prevents pilling. This is only true of the highest quality cashmere, because the fibres used are so long, the yarns are the highest quality, and the garment has been knitted densely with an abundance of yarn. With cheaper cashmere, the reverse is true. No matter how much you wash and care for it, it will inevitably lose shape in a few years. The evidence of this is plain to see in vintage shops, where you can often find Scottish made cashmere garments produced all the back in the 1950s and 1960s, aged to perfection after 50 years, and in pristine condition, as if they are brand new. The old adage that the item is in its worst state when new, certainly applies to Scottish cashmere.
We explain more about this in depth in a video we made together with Kirby Allison on his youtube channel, which you can view here.
Cashmere Care Guide
Investing in high quality cashmere is the most critical step to ensuring that you have a garment that will last decades. To help it age beautifully over the years though, hand washing the garment, even just once a year, is the best thing you can do. It was common knowledge back in the day that hand washing cashmere knitwear was a fundamental part of maturing it and lengthening its life, but with the advent of fast fashion, much of this household discipline has been lost.
When you first purchase high quality cashmere, there will be some pilling after the first couple of wears. This is entirely normal, as the slightly shorter fibres are being pushed to the surface. After the first couple of wears, use an emery board to remove the pills, and then hand wash it. The more you hand wash high quality cashmere, the more the fibres will settle and lock into place, thus reducing pilling. On the other hand, cheaper cashmere will pill increasingly due to the poor quality fibres used and yarns spun.
As mentioned before, washing is perhaps the most important part of caring for your cashmere. We don’t recommend using a washing machine, even if you have a gentle setting. We believe hand washing is the best route. You might want to use a dry cleaner for chunkier garments which take a long time to dry, or for all your cashmere if you are time poor. If you choose dry cleaning, make sure it’s a business you have used before and trust fully.
When you first purchase the garment, we recommend hand washing it after the first three or four wears and, after this, at least once a year. You can find all manner of cashmere care products on the market, but even simply a bottle of baby shampoo which is easy to find, will do the trick.
When washing, it’s important not to wring the garment and handle it very delicately. It’s a good idea to measure before you wash. That way you can lay the garment back out to its proper size in accordance with the measurements to ensure that it keeps its original shape as it dries. Once you’ve washed it, lay the garment flat to dry, rather than hanging it up. Hanging up wet knitwear will almost certainly cause it to stretch due to its weight.
We collaborated with Kirby Allison on his youtube channel to produce a second video which contains a very helpful step-by-step guide to hand washing knitwear. You can view this here.
If you find a stain on your garment, you’ll need to remove it carefully. Often a spot clean with a slightly wet cloth will do the trick. Just gently dab the spot and don't wipe. Use cold water here, as warm can alter the size of the fibres. If the stain is fresh, fizzy water can work well too. Food stains usually consist of a protein that needs to be broken down before it can be washed away. With these kinds of stains you could try using a bit of washing up liquid (but not detergent). You would let it sit on the stain for about an hour before a thorough hand wash. If you’re unsure what to do or the stain won’t come out, try talking to a trusted dry cleaner.
For a quick and comprehensive step by step set of instructions, take a look at our washing guide here.
The final step in good cashmere care is storage. During the colder months when you’ll be wearing your cashmere garments, it's a good idea to keep them folded flat in drawers. When hung up, gravity means that the garment can stretch and lose shape. When you’re storing for longer periods, we recommend hand washing first and then storing in a ziplock vacuum bag. Using these will prevent moths and mould and keep your cashmere in the best condition until you need it for the next year’s wear.
By purchasing only the highest quality cashmere and following these steps to look after your garment properly, you can be sure it’s going to truly last.