or Connect
Styleforum › Forums › Men's Style › Classic Menswear › Cashmere - The Sceptical Shopper
New Posts  All Forums:Forum Nav:

Cashmere - The Sceptical Shopper

post #1 of 53
Thread Starter 
My copy of Intelligent Life has arrived, and it appears that The Economist have trumped themselves with an even more SF-appropriate article than the last (LVMH in the recession; The substance of style). Some might even say prescient, given the recent variety of cashmere/China related threads (e.g. My First Pure Cashmere Sweater)...

Note: I've not included the product-specific reviews (e.g. a Brunello Cucinelli jumper), or the gratuitous cashmere jumper/cardigan shots (see Cucinelli items on MC B&S for similar). For these additional items you'll need to buy the magazine, or wait until the article appears online (usually, I believe, when the subsequent edition is published - it's quarterly).

Onto the Article, OCR'd for your pleasure:

The Sceptical Shopper

Cashmere

Can a cardie made of goat-coat really be worth £700? Our undercover expert unravels the truth.

How can pure cashmere sweaters cost £500 on Bond Street but less than £50 at Marks & Spencer? The short answer is China. The long answer is that a label saying "100% cashmere" tells only 50% of the story.

Cashmere is the downy undercoat grown by goats in extreme cold. The great majority of the world's cashmere comes from Inner Mongolia (an autonomous region of China) and Mongolia (aka Outer Mongolia), where 40m goats contend with temperatures below -30°C. In the spring, as they start to moult, the goats are combed to remove their fine underhair while leaving the outercoat (guard hair) intact. The combings are then washed and "dehaired" of any stray guard hair, so that what is left is pure cashmere.

Pure is not an absolute term. The finest cashmere consists only of the whitest, longest, thinnest hair from the underfleece, whereas lower-quality cashmere may be either the shorter, coarser hair from the undercoat - typically from the rear end of the animal rather than its belly - or, more dubiously, shorter hair that has either not been properly dehaired or, worse still, blended with yak or rabbit hair. When the best white (dehaired) cashmere costs $75 per kilo and one sweater requires at least 200g of fibre, the motive for mass¬producers to use cheaper stuff becomes clear.

Cheap cashmere is a 21st-century phenomenon. As recently as the 1990s, China and Mongolia were exporting more raw material than finished garments. The cream of the crop went to Scotland and Italy to be spun, dyed and knitted. The costs and expertise involved made it a luxury product, though styles were mostly plain and came in colours - navy blue, bottle green - as staid as the plaid they were meant to be worn with.

Two things shook cashmere out of its heritage niche. In the mid-I990s young designers such as Clements Ribeiro put creative cashmere on the catwalk, while stalwarts like Pringle and Ballantyne broadened their ranges beyond the Argyle pattern that had made them famous in the era of Edward and Mrs Simpson. More significantly, China began to manufacture cashmere in vast volumes; when European Union import quotas were relaxed in zooS, cashmere poured onto British high streets at unheard-of prices.

Today Asda sells men's "pure cashmere" v-necks for £17.50. M&S'S basics now cost £49.50. How do they do it? By mass production - M&S cashmere is made by the Chinese cashmere giant King Deer, which can process 400,000 units at a time - and by cutting corners. The fibre has a hair length of 28-30mm (premium is 36mm-plus) and it is knitted lightly. So the customer gets inferior material, and less of it.

Yet even cheap cashmere can feel lovely. It's hard to know, as you queue at the till, whether your bargain will pill or sag within days. (Pilling afflicts expensive cashmere too, though it should stop after the first wash.) But there are subtle signs of quality, and once you've got your eye in, much of the cheaper cashmere on the market starts to seem a false economy.

Look for tension in the knitting: stretch a section and it should ping back into shape. Hold it up to the light and you shouldn't see much sky: paradoxically, the best cashmere, though made from the finest hair, has a density to it. Examine its surface: fluffiness suggests the yarn was spun from shorter, weaker fibres and will pill. Be sceptical about softness, too. Over-milling can make a garment too soft and silky, and therefore prone to bobbling and losing its shape. More expensive cashmere may be harder to handle in the shop, but will ease up with wear and hand-washing. The best cashmere actually improves with age - so long as the moths don't get to it.

Another pointer to authenticity is candour. Pure Collection reveals the specification of its cashmere on its website: "Inner Mongolian White for White, 36-38mm, maximum 15.5 micron". That's just about the whitest, longest, thinnest goat hair available. Brora says it uses only the "longer fibres". At the luxury end, Brunello Cucinelli makes the startling claim that "only the fur in a very limited area of the animal's throat is used", while Loro Piana's "baby cashmere" is made of kid-hair with a diameter of just 13-13.5 micron. M&S failed to respond to my questions about the provenance of its cashmere.

Brora and Pure Collection (whose founders own N Peal) score on sustainability, too. Cashmere is a renewable - it grows every winter - but the goats are not exactly eco-warriors. The trouble is they don't nibble grass, but yank it up by the root. With no vegetation to pin it down, the topsoil blows away, grasslands turn to desert and duststorms choke Beijing. For cashmere to be sustainable, the goats must be farmed in enclosures and given extra feed so they don't nuke the grass.

The recession has driven down prices in Europe, but it is hard to see them staying so low. Meanwhile, mid-priced cashmere looks good value. Pure Collection has basics from £89. Brora costs more (from £169 for a v-neck) because it is made in Scotland, and Scottish cashmere has long been considered the best - but Chinese knitting machines can now deliver on sophistication as well as price. Consequently, Pure Collection and N Peal run a vertical operation in Inner Mongolia where quality can be controlled "from goat to garment".

If money were no object, and greed no sin, I'd stack my shelves with Brunello Cucinelli, not so much for the throat of the goat but the perfection of the knitting. And if money were tight, I'd settle for Uniqlo, where a well-cut crewneck costs £59.99 and seems promisingly unfluffy to touch.

What I'd find hard to contemplate is wearing anything else. Cashmere is so soft, light and warm that it makes even merino, the king of lambswool, feel a bit like a school jumper.
post #2 of 53
Very nice article!
post #3 of 53
The article implies China is now able to produce cashmere yarn that's equal in quality to Scotland's. This is not true. Traditional processing methods for cashmere fiber in Scotland, which have remained virtually unchanged for the last 100+ years and which are now almost extinct, produce yarns that are far superior to what China is capable of. Over 40 individual steps are required, but the results are finished garments that can easily last a lifetime when they're properly cared for. You will not see this same durability in any garment knitted from Chinese yarn.

Many Scottish processing secrets are dying along with its processing industry, and the truth is, quite a few of these secrets (e.g. the soft local waters of Scotland used to process fiber) are not and never will be duplicated in China.
post #4 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by AThingForCashmere View Post
Many Scottish processing secrets are dying along with its processing industry, and the truth is, quite a few of these secrets (e.g. the soft local waters of Scotland used to process fiber) are not and never will be duplicated in China.

I'm sure there's a lot better cashmere produced in Scotland, but to say that China's cashmere will "never" be as good is a bit extreme. I mean come on.... the softness of the water?

So you're telling me that throughout China, there isn't a single source of soft water?
post #5 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by AThingForCashmere View Post
The article implies China is now able to produce cashmere yarn that's equal in quality to Scotland's. This is not true. Traditional processing methods for cashmere fiber in Scotland, which have remained virtually unchanged for the last 100+ years and which are now almost extinct, produce yarns that are far superior to what China is capable of. Over 40 individual steps are required, but the results are finished garments that can easily last a lifetime when they're properly cared for. You will not see this same durability in any garment knitted from Chinese yarn.

Many Scottish processing secrets are dying along with its processing industry, and the truth is, quite a few of these secrets (e.g. the soft local waters of Scotland used to process fiber) are not and never will be duplicated in China.
The Economist's clothing knowledge/expertise is not very deep. It's one of my favorite magazines, but then again there isn't a magazine around that ever got by the marketing palaver that's put out about clothes.
post #6 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by furo View Post
I'm sure there's a lot better cashmere produced in Scotland, but to say that China's cashmere will "never" be as good is a bit extreme. I mean come on.... the softness of the water?

So you're telling me that throughout China, there isn't a single source of soft water?

There' no point in arguing about it, the proof is in the product. Aren't you the guy with the brand new Purple Label sweater that's shedding all over the place?

You wouldn't have this problem if the yarn for your sweater had been made in Scotland.
post #7 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by AThingForCashmere View Post
There' no point in arguing about it, the proof is in the product.

That has nothing to do with your claim.

You stated that China will "never" have cashmere that is on par with Scotland. It must be nice to be able to predict the future.

Quote:
Aren't you the guy with the brand new Purple Label sweater that's shedding all over the place?

You wouldn't have this problem if the yarn for your sweater had been made in Scotland.

Maybe so. But time will tell. If the sweater continues to shed I'll take it back. Simple as that.
post #8 of 53
Random Scottish cashmere report: my Ballantyne sweaters are holding up very well, but a Johnstons of Elgin one is pilling horribly after little more than a year. I also recently found a cashmere scarf which belonged to my father: it's probably some 40 years old, but it's in very good condition.
post #9 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by AThingForCashmere View Post
The article implies China is now able to produce cashmere yarn that's equal in quality to Scotland's. This is not true. Traditional processing methods for cashmere fiber in Scotland, which have remained virtually unchanged for the last 100+ years and which are now almost extinct, produce yarns that are far superior to what China is capable of. Over 40 individual steps are required, but the results are finished garments that can easily last a lifetime when they're properly cared for. You will not see this same durability in any garment knitted from Chinese yarn. Many Scottish processing secrets are dying along with its processing industry, and the truth is, quite a few of these secrets (e.g. the soft local waters of Scotland used to process fiber) are not and never will be duplicated in China.
so who still does it in this way? i'd be interested in acquiring a piece just to see for myself what you are talking about. the only "made in scotland" cashmere items i have are a Thom Browne cardigan and a v-neck. i recognize that these might not have made in Scotland through every step of the production chain, but nonetheless i am very happy with the quality and they have a feel distinguishable from that of my Italy-made items.
post #10 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by furo View Post
I'm sure there's a lot better cashmere produced in Scotland, but to say that China's cashmere will "never" be as good is a bit extreme. I mean come on.... the softness of the water?

So you're telling me that throughout China, there isn't a single source of soft water?

This could be a geographical factor, akin to how Britain's forests were more suitable than France's to create cast iron for cannons, giving Great Britain a ridiculous advantage over the French at sea. Random fact from a History of Technology course I took. Good stuff!
post #11 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by furo View Post
That has nothing to do with your claim.

You stated that China will "never" have cashmere that is on par with Scotland. It must be nice to be able to predict the future.

It may be an overstatement, but chances are it's not. It's absurd to believe China would (or even could) devote the resources necessary to duplicate the Scottish processing methods, and for every consumer who understands and appreciates that quality = value, 1000 more are lining up to buy that $70 Kirkland special from Costco.
post #12 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by AThingForCashmere View Post
There' no point in arguing about it, the proof is in the product. Aren't you the guy with the brand new Purple Label sweater that's shedding all over the place?

You wouldn't have this problem if the yarn for your sweater had been made in Scotland.

All products in China are made with precisely the same quality.
post #13 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by HRoi View Post
so who still does it in this way? i'd be interested in acquiring a piece just to see for myself what you are talking about.

That's a question I wish someone could credibly answer. We're down to a handful of Scottish companies who're still in business, and nearly all of them have moved to Chinese yarns. The current story is that Johnston's of Elgin is the last fully vertical mill in Scotland, meaning they process from raw fiber all the way to finished garments, but the last several Johnstons sweaters I've seen have been clearly thinner and inferior to their former product.

Brooks Bros. is now sourcing their cashmere from a company they recently aquired a share in. It's the remnants of what was Ballantyne, but again, product quality isn't anything like what Ballantyne used to produce.

So the answer is, no one seems to have a definitive answer. You can immediately tell a cashmere sweater made in the traditional Scottish method: it has a very distinct heft and density, it does not shed or pill, it can be washed in warm water without shrinking etc.
post #14 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by Mountains View Post
Quote:
Originally Posted by AThingForCashmere
You wouldn't have this problem if the yarn for your sweater had been made in Scotland.

All products in China are made with precisely the same quality.

And don't forget, if your yarn comes from Scotland, anywhere in Scotland, your sweater will be superior to ANY sweater made with Chinese yarn.
post #15 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by furo View Post
And don't forget, if your yarn comes from Scotland, anywhere in Scotland, your sweater will be superior to ANY sweater made with Chinese yarn.

The moran quotient of this forum seems to have shot up recently. Sunspots, maybe.
New Posts  All Forums:Forum Nav:
  Return Home
  Back to Forum: Classic Menswear
Styleforum › Forums › Men's Style › Classic Menswear › Cashmere - The Sceptical Shopper