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The Upgrade: High-Quality Cashmere

By: Marc RichardsonDate: 2023-01-05

The Upgrade is an ongoing series about the intrinsic value of investing in quality when it comes to clothing: buying the best to buy less. Some pieces are crafted to last decades — others, to last a season. Ever wondered why there’s such a disparity in the prices of, say, cashmere sweaters or jeans? Allow us to explain.

There’s arguably nothing that’s more closely associated with the ideal of luxury than cashmere, and with good reason: few things are more satisfying in the dead of winter than pulling on your favourite cashmere sweater — always incredibly warm and unbelievably soft. Always, that is, if you’ve invested in a quality cashmere knit. Otherwise, after the first wear, it might not seem as soft, nor as warm, nor as well-cut as it was when you bought it or tried it on.

Thus, cashmere isn’t just the archetypal luxury item: it’s the perfect example of getting what you pay for. Proof positive that, in the long run, investing in the best means having to buy — and spend — less.

When it comes to cashmere sweaters, the top line difference is this: the level of craftsmanship and the quality of the materials, which, together, give you a sweater that will keep its shape longer, while resisting pilling and maintaining that ever-so fuzzy, soft texture and appearance.

To understand why a mass-produced cashmere sweater doesn’t measure up to an artisanally-crafted one, you first need to understand what makes cashmere so special and where it comes from.

While cashmere is a form of wool — in that it’s an animal fibre consisting of protein and lipids — it’s obtained from goats, rather than the sheep that traditional wool is harvested from. And very specific goats, at that: cashmere goats that are found primarily in the colder Himalayan parts of the Kashmir region, namely in Mongolia, China and Afghanistan. Warm and soft as cashmere may be, it’s incredibly labour-intensive to harvest. A cashmere goat might produce a few hundred grams of cashmere in a year, which is painstakingly brushed rather than being shaved or sheared during harvesting, before being de-haired to yield the fine fibre that you find in your sweaters. It’s a long process that yields little in the way of usable fibre, which means that one sweater might require the contribution of more than a half-dozen goats.

As the demand for cashmere has grown, and with the proliferation of quantity-over-quality-driven businesses, the solution has been to increase the number of cashmere goats roaming the plains of Mongolia, China and Afghanistan. While they might yield considerably less fibre than other mammals, cashmere goats still require plenty of water and food — which, in turn might require even more water. On an environmental level, the proliferation of cheaper, more affordable, mass-produced cashmere via a veritable explosion in the cashmere goat population has been disastrous, turning entire swaths of land into arid desert, which has gone on to spark dust storms that have been detectable as far away as North America.

That might feel abstract when considering a sweater, but there are also qualitative implications to increased cashmere production. Like with most things, trying to get more juice from a proverbial orange often leads to shortcuts — or a watered down product. Over-grazing and overpopulation mean overworked herders, farmers and harvesters, as well as more sickly and malnourished goats. Together this impacts the quality of the cashmere, either because the animals aren’t getting the nutrition they require to produce high-quality cashmere, or because of human error triggered by a disproportionate goat to human ratio in herds. Lower quality cashmere leads to sweaters that are more likely to pill, warp or lose their colour.

A good cashmere sweater — the kind that will last you decades — sets itself apart thanks to the accumulation of small details in the production process from beginning to end. Think of it like compound interest, but in the form craftsmanship.

Sweaters from the likes of Brunello Cucinelli or ZEGNA use cashmere sourced from smaller herds that are better-managed — that means that the cashmere goats producing the fibres are healthier, stronger and have higher-quality coats than those who are just fighting for survival in difficult conditions. Trickling down from that, having fewer goats means that handlers can be more attentive when brushing their coats and harvesting the raw cashmere, leading to less breakage of the fibres. A slower, more delicate process invariably means that it takes more time — and thus costs more money — to produce the raw cashmere.

This is where the tangible differences between your more expensive sweater and cheaper alternatives become more apparent. The best cashmere sweaters use the aforementioned higher grade raw cashmere, which, owing to its quality, produces longer fibres. In turn, those longer, better quality fibres can be used to produce yarns that are softer and more durable, as longer fibres result in less breakdown of the textile over time and, thus, less pilling, which means that your cashmere sweater will look better and feel softer for longer. Using only high-quality cashmere and knitting it tightly, rather than with lots of slack, ensures that a sweater will keep its shape over time, rather than sag or stretch — which is worth the extra cost.

Last, but certainly not least, it takes skilled craftspeople and elaborate finishing to turn even the highest grade yarns and textiles into beautiful sweaters. Because the highest quality cashmere is so delicate, it has to be dyed and allowed to air out without the use of heavy chemicals, which would reduce cashmere’s trademark softness. The natural dyes and more artisanal processes used here cost more than using highly-synthetic dyes or machine-powered drying. Milling sees the textiles washed in water to remove any imperfections and makes the finished garment softer to the touch. High-quality detailing — which you’ll notice in the ribbing at the cuffs, collar and hem, or in the stitching along the yoke and at the arm holes — is what gives sweaters that je ne sais quoi, a refined look that’s also sturdy and ready to stand the test of time.

It might be tempting to buy a more inexpensive cashmere knit, but there’s no denying that it comes at a cost — social, environmental and even financial. The hundred dollars might seem more affordable now, but if you need to buy a new sweater every year for the next decade, you’ll be better off with something that’s a little pricier today, but better for the environment, better-made and crafted to actually last.

Photos courtesy of Loro Piana.

Marc Richardson is a fashion writer and photographer based in Montreal. His work has appeared on Fashionista, Grailed and Garage Magazine.

TAGS:#Style Advice,#Style,#Sustainability,#Sweaters & Knits,