With thousands of years of history, cashmere has qualities that are well known. The fine and cosy fibre is derived from the undercoat of cashmere goats, found in regions such as China, Inner Mongolia, India and Australia. Going by where top luxury apparel companies such as Brunello Cucinelli and Loro Piana source their cashmere, the Capra hircus goats of Inner Mongolia produce the best-quality fibres – which help to keep them warm in winter, when temperatures can fall below minus 40°C.
While pure cashmere is often used for knit sweaters and scarves, it is also mixed with other fibres, such as silk and wool, to create blends that hold their shape better than cashmere alone, and is thus ideal for suits. And while your favourite cashmere overcoat can withstand some rain, an increasing number of menswear companies are coating the material with high-tech membranes for greater water resistance, so you’re not just limited to crinkly nylon windbreakers and rubbery raincoats when it’s storming.
In recent years, cashmere has lost some of its cachet due to the rise of other quality fuzzy fibres such as vicuna and alpaca, proliferation of mass-market cashmere, and environmental concerns resulting from overgrazing. Nonetheless, cashmere remains shorthand for cosy luxury – giving a luxe vibe to everything from sweaters to sweatpants, socks and even skivvies (recall designer Maurizio Amadei’s cashmere-blend boxer briefs that cost USD250). Here’s what else you need to know about this fine fleece.
How to give your cashmere closet an upgrade.
01 UP YOUR ATHLEISURE GAME
If you had to guess which item in Ermenegildo Zegna Couture’s Fall 2017 collection contained cashmere, which would you pick? If you went with the overcoat – which seems the likeliest choice – you’d be wrong (it’s made of wool). Instead, artistic director Alessandro Sartori has put a street-meets-sophisticated spin on sports luxe, evident in relaxed yet refined pieces such as a pair of cashmere-cotton sweatpants, a cashmere-silk pique polo shirt and a cashmere beanie.
02 GO EVEN FINER AND FLUFFIER
Cashmere is, by nature, in short supply: The fine, downy undercoat (not the long outer hairs) of goats grows in winter and is shed in spring, which is when herders comb the fleece for harvesting. Even rarer and finer is baby cashmere (such as that produced by Loro Piana), which can only be collected from a goat once, during its first 12 months of life. This juvenile fibre has an average diameter of 13 microns – 15 per cent finer than adult cashmere.
03 GO FOR THE GREEN STUFF
Consumption often has a flip side: The increased demand for cashmere has led to overgrazing and desertification in the Mongolian steppe. Since the 1990s, the region has seen a fivefold increase in the number of goats, which are notoriously voracious grazers. Fashion designer Stella McCartney, who eschews the use of leather and fur, now uses regenerated cashmere, or cut-offs from the factory floor. This material has just eight per cent the environmetal impact of virgin cashmere.
04 SUBVERT TRADITIONAL TRAPPINGS
In 1992, designer Marc Jacobs created a grunge-inspired collection featuring pieces such as silk shirts resembling flannel gear. Today, Californian fashion brand Amiri channels that spirit of rebellion using cashmere – designer Mike Amiri has used a cotton-cashmere blend for his checked flannel shirts, and lines the holes of ripped jeans with a wool-cashmere underlayer.
THE WOOL STORY
A step-by-step look at how high-end fabric and clothing specialist Loro Piana processes baby cashmere.
01 BABY SOFT
Cashmere from China and Mongolia arrives at Loro Piana’s Roccapietra mill in Italy. The mill is the largest cashmere-processing site in the west.
02 GET CARDED
Following quality inspection with a fine-tooth comb, the fibre is sent to the carding machines. Here, tufts of short fibres are passed through rollers with small teeth, which gently comb them without breaking them. The result is a fine sheet of fibre called a batt.
03 SMOOTH STRANDS
The batt is separated into slivers. At this point, these strands lack tensile strength, a quality that the subsequent spinning process will endow.
04 TOP SPIN
The slivers are transferred by robot to spinning machines, where they are pulled and spun at high speeds. Should a thread break, a skilled operator knots it before returning it to the machine. The winding process follows – a sensor checks if there are thicker areas of yarn resulting from the fixed breaks, and where necessary, a robot reconstructs the yarn so it is even.
05 MATERIAL WORLD
The processed yarn is then stored as cones, each weighing a kilogram. They are then either sent to Loro Piana’s mill at Quarona, to be woven into fabric (pictured), or sent to a facility near Borgosesia to be made into knitwear.
5 QUESTIONS WITH… SAM KERSHAW
The buying manager for menswear e-tailer Mr Porter shares his top tips on choosing and caring for cashmere.
01 HOW CAN YOU TELL IF CASHMERE IS OF GOOD QUALITY?
Really good cashmere should be very thin, with longer fibres and very light. When you touch fine cashmere, it should feel soft and silky-smooth. Lower-quality cashmere tends to be thicker and harder, and leave little stinging sensations on your fingertips.
02 WHY DO YOU THINK CASHMERE HAS REMAINED SO POPULAR?
Being one of the most luxurious natural fibres, cashmere is refined and delicate. It is durable and doesn’t harden over time, and stays dry and absorbs moisture nicely.
03 HOW DOES ONE KEEP CASHMERE LOOKING AND FEELING GOOD?
It’s good to clean cashmere before putting it away for the next winter. Dry-clean or only hand-wash it gently in a clean sink with body-temperature water. Always be gentle when hanging it, and try to lay it flat to air-dry.
04 THERE’S BEEN A RISE IN RELATIVELY LOW-PRICED CASHMERE PIECES. HOW GREAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THESE AND PRICIER ONES?
Cashmere is difficult to harvest and the quality ranges widely. Brands may choose different-quality cashmere for different usages and price-point offers.
05 WHAT CASHMERE ITEMS SELL BEST ON MR PORTER?
Other than sweaters, cashmere coats and jackets are very common. We also carry quite a few cashmere socks from brands such as Brunello Cucinelli and Saint Laurent; they are priced between HKD1,892 and HKD2,323 per pair, and are very sought after.
TEXT LYNETTE KOH
PHOTOGRAPHY VERNON WONG
ART DIRECTION FAZLIE HASHIM
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