Where does cashmere come from actually?
Cashmere was known already in the Roman Empire. Traders brought the famous imperator scarves woven from the finest cashmere, the "pashminas" of Srinagar and Kashmir over the Silk Road to Europe.
The precious fibre is obtained even today by nomads in the high plains of Inner Mongolia from the undercoat of the cashmere goats.
Only on this barren, storm-lashed high plains with temperatures down to minus 40 degrees in the winter, the cashmere goats make the extremely soft and fine undercoat, the so-called "Tiflit". No other material is so tender and soft, so warm and light as cashmere.
How is a cashmere sweater actually made?
Before we go into the specifics, which are related with the knitting of cashmere yarn, some basic knowledge about knitting should be briefly conveyed. In contrast to hand-knitted knitwear, industrially manufactured knitwear is produced mechanically on circular knitting machines. Professionals distinguish between flat and circular knitting machines. For us mainly flat knitting machines are a topic.
In the flat knitting machine, latch needles are moved simultaneously up and downwards through the back and forth movement of a slide, whereby the thread is being supplied. Depending on the division, the number of these needles are quoted for each English inch - coarser or finer fabric is produced.
In circular knitting machines, the goods are produced by circular needles arranged in tubular form. This is being mentioned only for reasons of completeness. Flat knitting machines have the advantage that you can work normally on them. In other words: by increasing or removing the needles the knitwear can be widened or reduced during the working process on the knitting machine.
In the production of knitwear and even with warp-knit goods, a distinction is made between regular goods and sliced goods. Regular goods are processed on the knitting machine. The desired shape of the individual parts, such as hull and sleeve results from addition or removal of meshes on the flat knitting machine.
Goods manufactured in this way are of very high quality and have good fitting and flat, fine seams.
In case of cut goods, the desired shapes are cut off. This results in visible seams in contrast to regular goods. Not rationalism and state of the art machines, but rather traditional, largely artisanal production methods guarantee the top quality of the manufactured knitwear. It starts with the preparation of yarn for the knitting operation. Using specially designed equipment for this purpose, the cashmere yarn is treated with paraffin in strands or coils. This ensures a uniform processing and friction-reduced work on the knitting machine.
In case of cashmere this effect changes depending on the fibre structure and colour and thus the goods need to be washed, dried and ironed between the operations several times.
Why is cashmere so precious?
In spring the nomads comb the animals and the fleece obtained is collected in the regional centres and passes via the trading centres of Ulaanbaatar on the long route to the Scottish and Italian mills.
The goats are combed before and after the summer high mountain stay with a wide comb. The cashmere goat produces very little lanugo: just around 150-200 grams every year. To produce a classic sweater, the production from 4 to 6 animals is required. For a multithreaded cardigan, about 20 animals may be required!
How do you recognize a good cashmere sweater?
Today, there are cashmere products of different qualities and prices. Be careful: Cashmere is not present inside every time that cashmere is mentioned! More cashmere products are sold every year when there are in fact raw materials... I am often asked about how to recognize a good cashmere sweater. It's like everywhere: quality comes at a cost. If you believe to have made a bargain with a cheap cashmere this is short-lived.
The quality of your cashmere article depends on various factors: first the quality of the raw material. Here, there are big differences. The longer and finer the fibre, the thinner and more valuable the thread spun from it. The usual Kashmir - fibre length measuring 15 to 75 mm and tearing strength around 2.5 grams.
With the best raw materials supplied from China and Mongolia, the fibre length is 35-50 mm. This is the correct length of fibre for the production of high-quality cashmere yarn.
An additional, essential criterion is the cross-section dimensions of cashmere fibre, the fine undercoat of cashmere goats. Measurements are made in micrometres. The fibres originating from Iran have a cross-section of 17.5-19 um. Fibres originating from Afghanistan have a cross-section ranging from 16.5 to 18 um. In case of fibres from Australia and New Zealand, countries that have been trying for several years to gain importance as suppliers by breeding their own goat breeds, it is around 16 to 19 um.
To produce the highest quality level «cashmere two ply 28000» only fibres with a cross-section of 14 but a maximum of 16.5 are used. Material of such fineness comes only from within China and Mongolia.
Perfect technique, fewer awns, the proportion of so-called awn hairs in the purified material is another quality-defining criteria. Awn hair, also referred to as brindling, are thick hair of the fleece of cashmere goat belonging to the undercoat and protrude over the fine lanugo («duvet»).
These awn hairs are not to be completely removed. Their presence in the raw material can vary from 0.1 to 2%, depending on the use. For the valuable yarn «cashmere two ply 28000» a maximum of 0.5% is acceptable - here the highest quality is seen. The de-awning, i.e. the mechanical process of separation of the fine fibres of the awn hair, is a well guarded secret of the cashmere yarn manufacturers.
Although equipment is used for singling out of the fibres since the beginning of the last century, no industrial plant is known to date, which would have been able to provide the manufacturers of cashmere yarn an acceptable plant for the de-awning.
This is one of the reasons that the difficult work of singling out of awn hairs from the cashmere products is perfectly commanded only by a few specialists in the world. The best yarn producers have therefore devised appropriate equipment for their own use, which are "top secret", however.
But it's not only that: Also the natural colours of cashmere goats and thus the hair fluff affect quality and price. The natural white and bright «duvet» is much more expensive than the dark, brown or mixed-coloured.
Only the light cashmere fibres can be processed into natural -coloured and white or clear, intense colours such as yellow or red shimmery cashmere yarns.
You have learned about the three essential qualities of «duvet». The largest possible fibre length, the smallest possible fibre cross-section and the maximum purity with lowest proportions of awn hairs.
Also, cashmere products are of high quality only if they have not been chemically bleached.
These are all the criteria which determine the quality of the raw material. Knowing and recognising them is an expert's task. The specialization of manufacturers and processors of cashmere yarn can be seen in their ability to make a yarn with high fineness from this carefully selected raw material such that the final product, the fabric is characterized by the unique characteristics, which can only be obtained through a fine thread of pure cashmere
No other material is so soft, so fine, so warm and so easily to maintain as cashmere.