Cashmere's soft and warm appeal

As a former Londoner, I've owned my fair share of knits. As a youngster, I couldn't understand why I hated my woolly school sweater but loved the way my sister's green scarf felt around my neck. Unlike the itchy sweater, the scarf was impossibly light, almost magically enveloping me against the icy English winds I faced on the way to school each morning.

What was this Golden Fleece? The clues on the label read "100% Cashmere" and "Made in Scotland."

Cashmere. Just the sound of it conjures images of sophistication. Like caviar and pearls, the fiber has humble beginnings. Who would think that the hair on the underbelly of the Mongolian goat would be in such high demand? But it has been for centuries, and because there is relatively little of it and because processing costs are high, it has traditionally been an expensive indulgence.

So why is it that nowadays even Costco is selling it? Walk into any mall, especially as Christmas nears, and you'll come across cashmere sweaters in such a variety of prices your head might spin: $1,000 or $59.99?

Karl Spilhaus, president of the Boston-based Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute, believes the difference in price is often an indication of quality. "It's a question of significant lower quality," he says.

Which gets back to the clues in my scarf's label. As with most items associated with luxury, the justification for a high price is often that the item is rare or that it requires a lot of work or time to make it. All of which is true of cashmere.

It takes one Mongolian goat about four years to naturally shed enough hair to make one cashmere sweater. Thus without expensive manual "harvesting," 100% cashmere may be hard to come by. Then the hair has to be washed and sorted by hand: Only the longest and finest under-fleece -- the hair close to the goat's skin -- on the belly and neck is spun and woven to make good-quality cashmere.

Once the raw material has been harvested, it must be spun into yarn and made into a garment. Spilhaus says that if he spends $300 to $400 on a cashmere sweater, he looks for a brand manufactured in Europe or Japan, although many cashmere sweaters and pashminas now carry the "Made in China" label. Although China supplies almost 60% of all cashmere on the market, that's only the raw material. Manufacturing is a different matter, and although China turns out some items of reasonable quality, the European manufacturers are better, he says.

"The Chinese manufacturing of cashmere has developed in the last 30 years, whereas the European manufacturers have a history of several hundred years. In China, they often lack the design capabilities of the high-end luxury mills," Spilhaus says.

In particular, Scotland and Italy have developed as traditional centers of excellence when it comes to spinning and knitting cashmere -- hence the second clue in my scarf's label.

Of course, not everyone wants to pay the price for good-quality 100% cashmere made in Europe, and there's nothing wrong with wanting cashmere on the cheap. But it's important to be an informed buyer and know what you're getting in your bargain buys.

First there is the question of fiber quality, which is measured in length and thickness. Fiber length ranges from 0.8 inch for cheap cashmere to up to 2.5 inches for the most luxurious. The diameter of the fiber must be less than 19 microns to be considered cashmere. In comparison, human hair has a diameter of 75 microns. Finer cashmere (often around 14 microns) is what's going into luxury garments. Thicker, shorter (scratchy) hair will be made into less expensive garments and is often used as part of a blend.

These blends combine cashmere with wool, silk or synthetic fibers. It's these cheaper fibers that are often reflected in a lower price.

Buying a blend comes with trade-offs, and you're probably going to be compromising on the very things that make cashmere so sought after: softness, weight and its insulating properties. The inner coat that grows in the cold winter months helps goats withstand the severe temperature fluctuations between night and day and the harsh weather conditions of Inner Mongolia, where the best cashmere comes from. The less expensive garments won't have these unique properties, will pill more readily and will lack the soft sumptuous feel that makes cashmere so highly coveted.

Cashmere is eight times warmer than sheep's wool, yet significantly lighter, which means that to reap its full reward, a buyer should invest in 100% cashmere of good quality.

Still, buying at the lower end might be good enough to satisfy your emotional craving for something labeled "cashmere."

If you don't want to splurge on a $1,000 sweater, are not interested in making a lifetime commitment, are not bothered about the made-in-which-country label and want a cashmere starter garment, then a stylish mid-priced cashmere sweater could be a fine alternative.

Banana Republic is a good source for wardrobe staples and the simple V-neck, two-ply cashmere sweaters they're carrying this season in a spectrum of colors feel OK, look trendy and are well-priced at $139.

J. Crew also has jumped on the mid-priced cashmere bandwagon and is carrying a wide selection of designs, as are major department stores such as Macy's. Nordstrom has a large assortment of sweaters and coats ranging from less than $100 to more than $1,500.

To get the most for your money, Spilhaus suggests that bargain-minded consumers go first to higher-priced stores and spend some time examining the cashmere. Then go to the less expensive stores and compare. Just remember that at prices lower than around $100, you're mostly buying into the cashmere name and the connotation of luxury without getting any of its real benefits.

For those with the money and desire for only the best, there are companies whose offerings are luxurious and exclusive. Loro Piana, the 200-year-old Italian company whose name is synonymous with the finest cashmere, has a mill outside Milan and a herd of white capra hircus goats in Inner Mongolia. They've recently introduced a collection of ultra luxurious, baby cashmere, which is obtained from the harmless process of combing the under fleece of the youngest kids. The result is the softest, finest possible cashmere that feels like you're wearing clouds. It's also very expensive. A baby cashmere classic V-neck style sweater runs around $995.

The Chicago-based Queen of Cashmere company, another high-end purveyor, offers custom monogramming on cashmere products of the highest quality. Each Queen of Cashmere cardigan is created specifically for the person who wears it, making it distinctly personal. These garments are made in Scotland so meticulously that it takes 40 steps to finish a sweater by hand. A slightly oversized boyfriend cardigan is $750 and available at Saks.com.

Whether your cashmere is monogrammed, an heirloom, pricey or inexpensive, take every opportunity to wear it. Just as a Persian rug improves with age, cashmere's soft feel improves with wear.

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