This is by no means the industry almanac on cashmere but will give the reader an insight into why there are such different retail price points on cashmere items. Cashmere scarves range from $10 to $500 and sweaters from $30 to $1000.
First of all, good, well-made Cashmere products are fantastic! There is no other word for them. Once you have worn cashmere everything else becomes less desirable and one strives to attain more and more cashmere pieces. With care, a well-made cashmere piece is an investment which will give good service for decades.
So why the cost differences and what drives cost?
Cashmere is a fine hair which comes from Capra Hircus goats. These goats live in huge, wild, nomadic herds in China, Mongolia, Afghanistan and Iran. They produce different types of fibre ranging from the finest and most expensive “white for white” Chinese, through coarser, darker Mongolian and then Afghan and Iranian which is suitable mainly for weaving. Cashmere fibre is a rare natural harvest and a traded commodity so all fibre prices are subject to market fluctuations.
The finest cashmere hair is from China, the fineness a result of poor dietary grazing, continual herd movement and extremely harsh climate. Fibre price is determined by several factors:
Average Fibre Thickness.
Grade A cashmere is 14 microns (14 millionths of a metre) thick but fibre can go up to 24 micron for Iranian weaving cashmere.
The finer it is the more expensive it is but the softer it feels.
Average Fibre Length.
Grade A cashmere is 34mm-36mm, the longer fibres giving higher tensile strength when knitting and better product durability.
Very light “White for white” Chinese cashmere is the rarest, finest and most expensive cashmere fibre. It is used mainly for white yarn and for pastel colours. Not surprisingly, these light colours in yarn are more expensive to buy from a spinner. Note that the more common brown cashmere cannot be used for light colours, only medium and darks.
While Grade A cashmere is pure, some cashmere fibre can become unintentionally contaminated with other fibres through careless processing or can be intentionally adulterated with cheaper fibre to increase short-term margin or maintain low retail price points for High Street and Supermarket distribution.
Spinners in Scotland, England and reputable ones in Italy will only use what the industry terms as Grade A cashmere which exceeds various levels in the above criteria.
CASHMERE FIBRE PROCESSING.
Once harvested, the fibre has to be processed through several stages.
This removes the greasy, coarse, outer hair called “guard hair” from the fibre. Poor dehairing will leave guard hair and black hairs in the fibre which have to be picked out once knitted into fabric.
Has to be done in such a manner so as not to harden the fibre but has to be full, deep, level colour. It also has to be “fast” meaning it will not fade in sunlight or run or “bleed” in the rain or be affected by body perspiration. A few years ago a friend and I wore wine coloured sweaters which had been made as a trial with yarn from a low-cost spinner. We wore them over white shirts and got caught on the golf course in an April shower. The dye in the sweaters ran and turned our white shirts into a deep wine colour as well. Both the sweaters and the shirts went in the bin that evening!
This is where the dyed hair is first carded which gets all the fibres lying in the same direction in a web. The web is then cut into strips called slubs before being put on a spinning mule where the slub is drawn out and twisted into yarn. Fine cashmere is spun at a count or weight of 36 grams per kilometre (after which two ends are normally twisted together giving a yarn weight of 72 grams per kilometre) so this is an exact and fascinating process which, not surprisingly, many get wrong!
Knitters mainly buy dyed, spun yarn so rely on the spinner to get the dehaired fibre selection correct as well as their own internal processing, hence only the use of established and reputable spinners.
The main spinners used for Simply Cashmere branded products are Todd and Duncan in Scotland, Z.Hinchliffe in England and Biagioli and Loro Piana in Italy.
As above, most knitters buy dyed spun cashmere yarn from reputable spinners to ensure purity and quality. The fibres are tightly twisted together or spun, to give the yarn tensile strength allowing it to be pulled through needle beds at the knitting stage without bursting. It has oil in it which is necessary at the spinning stage and which also helps the knitting process. There is also quite an amount of loose dye as well. So, cashmere yarn and unwashed cashmere panels do not feel soft, in fact, they feel hard and feel greasy!
PRODUCT MANUFACTURING COSTS.
These can be split into knitting and finishing. Knitting converts the yarn into knitted pieces or panels and finishing joins them together, washes them, and adds any trims.
This is the process which converts the yarn into knitted pieces or panels on knitting machines. These can either be traditional flat bed machines or v-bed machines. V-bed machines, when controlled by computers, lend themselves to being more versatile as patterns and stitch structures such as ribs and cables, for example, can be more easily achieved. Almost all Simply Cashmere products are knitted on computer controlled, v-bed machines. The gauge of machine is the main factor in determining the stitch density of the fabric and, apart from a few exceptional circumstances, the weight of yarn used and weight of resultant knitted fabric as well. V-bed machines have their gauge expressed in the number of needles per inch (N). At Simply Cashmere, we have 12N machines for fine products, 10N for scarves and capes, 08N for heavier products, and 05N for very chunky pieces.
Traditional flat bed machines are slightly different. In the good old days, needles for these machines were not supplied individually but came set in a block of lead. So if a needle broke the mechanic would remove the old “lead” from the machine and fit a new one with new needles. The gauge is expressed in the number of needles per lead and a lead was 1.5 inches. So, a 21 gauge frame, expressed as 21gg, has 21 needles per lead which is 21 needles per 1.5 inches which is 14 needles per inch. This produces fabric similar to a 12N v-bed machine.
The other main gauge for traditional knitting frames is 15gg, which is 15 needles per lead, or 15 needles per 1.5 inches which is 10 needles per inch. This produces fabric similar to an 08N v-bed machine.
This includes linking and tacking. Linking is where the end of a quality scarf is secured or where the panels of a sweater are joined together. It is a stitch for point operation where a skilled operator picks each sequential stitch of knitted fabric onto the points on the dial of a linking machine and then the machine makes a linking chain, using cashmere yarn, along the line of the stitches. The ends of the linking chain are then hand tacked to stop it from unravelling and the pieces are now ready for washing.
Washing is critical and is done with carefully formulated soap in soft Scottish water at carefully controlled temperatures. If you live in a hard water area you will know how difficult it is to get soap to lather as there are just too many calcium and magnesium ions to let the soap do it’s job. This is where cashmere processors worldwide cannot compete as they do not have access to the soft Scottish water. (Many have installed elaborate and expensive water treatment plants to emulate soft Scottish water with mixed results!) The soap has a scouring agent in it which acts as a detergent and chemically removes the oil that is in the yarn. The first rinse removes the oil, loose dye and any loose fibre from the wash. On the second stage, with fresh warm water and fresh soap, the cashmere pieces start to mill and get rubbed together. This action allows the tightly twisted fibres in the yarn to begin to open up and expand. Once carefully dried, the cashmere piece will have the gorgeous feel or “handle” that is craved.
Note that it is easy to overmill cashmere which makes it appear matted and felted. There is no recovery process for this and the pieces have to be scrapped.
NOTE that a well-made cashmere product should feel soft and this should get better and softer as the piece is worn and washed. If it is too soft in the shop, it will pill and deteriorate rapidly. A good indication is to hold the cashmere piece up at eye level and look along the top surface. There should be a fuzziness above the fabric. If it is around 1mm then it should be fine - anymore and it will pill with minimal use.
There are still processes to be done when clean. Scarves need to be pressed and undergo final inspection before tabbing, folding and bagging. Capes are more complicated. They need marked, cut and then about an hour’s worth of linking, again stitch for point, which attaches the trimmings (normally ruffle trims) around the outside. The ends the linking chain then need to be hand tacked and the ends of each of the trimmings need to be hand sewed together.
Sweaters have their neck hole marked and cut out, the neck trimming linked on, the ends tacked, joined, etc. Very highly skilled operators do all operations where quality of workmanship is paramount rather than the number completed.
Obviously the labour content is large so the cost is significant. Some UK manufacturers use immigrant labour and engineer cost out by using different finishing processes which, in my opinion, cheapen the product. For cheap knitwear where the price point is all important then these will me made in the huge factories in low-labour cost countries like China (Hong Kong), Mauritius, Turkey, Tunisia and Latvia. Working conditions in many are unsavoury to say the least, working may be enforced, training is not done properly, health and safety issues are ignored as well as other human rights legislation like minimum age and maximum working hours. Most are sweat shops, some offer little more than enforced slavery. It is the consumer’s decision what to buy, but are not always given the facts to make an informed decision.
* * WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR * *
IS IT REALLY TWO-PLY CASHMERE?
This can be a misleading term exploited by the unscrupulous! Back in the good old days, there was single weight knitted fabric, made on a fine gauge machine from one-ply cashmere and there was double-weight knitted fabric, made on a coarser gauge machine from two-ply cashmere. One-ply cashmere fabric suffered from two problems, firstly, it is difficult to get a one-ply yarn level in terms of yarn thickness and secondly, anything knitted from it was twisted by spirality inherent in the twist of the one-ply yarn. (If, after washing your sweater, the bottom of it twists around bringing the side seams onto the front you’ll know what I mean!)
Around 1990 most yarn spinners addressed both problems by spinning yarn even thinner at half weight and then twisting two ends together. This made the overall levelness better and, because the twisting of the two ends together (S twist) negated the twist of the original yarn (Z twist) the knitted panels were straight and negated any spirality.
From a technical point of view this is a two-ply yarn as there are two ends twisted together BUT it is still a single-weight fabric. Some unscrupulous people market and sell lightweight products as two-ply which is very misleading for consumers as they believe they are buying a double-weight product. This is particularly rife in the mail order industry where weight comparison of products prior to buying is impossible.
OUT OF GAUGE KNITTING.
This is where products are knitted on a heavy gauge machine but with lightweight yarn. This may be for a fashionable product / feel / look OR it may be that it has been knitted with cheaper, coarser yarn. If it is knitted loosely it is easier to get a good feel or handle at point of sale but it will pill easily and offer little durability.
OVERTLY SOUNDING SCOTTISH NAMES.
Established Scottish brands are well known but there has been a worrying trend in recent years for companies to spring up which are little more than sourcing operations from the Far East. They normally trade on their “Scottishness” but sometimes overdo it by calling themselves overtly and sometimes ridiculous Scottish names. Always check where the goods are made!
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN / FIBRE CONTENT.
In the USA it’s relatively straightforward - all textile products have to show where they were made and what the claimed fibre content is on a stitched label - ALWAYS READ THE LABEL. In the EU, the “experts” who set European legislation have declared that textile goods do not have to state country of origin and in fact, by doing so, is against the EU’s ideas on competition. I could go on at some length on this one, believe me! I’m not sure that the success of some UK High Street shops would be the same if products had labels which read “Made In Vietnam By Prisoners Who Are Forced to Make These (Or Beaten) And Are Not Paid Anything For Doing So,” on them.
There is another known example of products being knitted in Scotland and then the higher labour content finishing operations done in a low-cost country. If the label reads “Knitted In Scotland” rather than “Made in Scotland,” then despite it coming from a Scottish manufacturer you are probably buying something which has been finished by child labour in a Chinese sweat shop!
ALWAYS, ALWAYS READ THE LABEL.
If it matters to you where something is made then always read the label. If it has no country of origin label, then despite the Scottish name, perhaps a name you trust, then it has not been made in Scotland. It's that simple.