About cashmere

What is cashmere? 

Cashmere is the downy under layer of hair on a goat. This downy undercoat grows over the whole body, with the exception of the face and legs, and helps protect goats through harsh winters that can drop as low as -40°C.

Where does cashmere come from?

Almost all cashmere comes from the Central and East Asian steppe, which provide the ideal cold and dry conditions for producing high-quality fibre. Mongolia and China are the biggest producers, contributing approximately 85% of the world’s supply. Other cashmere-producing nations include Iran, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, India and Turkey.

How is cashmere processed?

Raw (or ‘greasy’) cashmere fibre is combed or shorn by herders after the spring moult. Herders sell bags of cashmere to traders, who then sell them onto processing factories. The fibre is sorted by quality and colour, scoured (washed) to remove dirt and impurities, and then ‘de-haired’ to remove the course outer hair from the fine downy underlayer. The clean cashmere is then spun into yarn and woven or knitted into finished garments around the world.

Why is current cashmere production not sustainable?

Rising goat numbers, changing land use practices and poor rangeland governance are leading to overgrazed and degraded pastures. This is having negative impacts on rangeland resources, including native wildlife, as well as increasing the vulnerability of herder livelihoods.

What do we mean by ‘Sustainable Cashmere’?

As a concept, we believe that sustainable cashmere should incorporate aspects of environmental, social and economic sustainability. We also see animal welfare as an integral component of sustainability. In this view, sustainable cashmere production would a) not impede the protection of natural resources, including wildlife, b) provide a secure livelihood for local herders and c) ensure the long-term viability of the global cashmere industry.

How can standards help?

Credible certification standards provide a promising and practical solution for many of the sustainability challenges we face today. They provide a mechanism for encouraging the adoption of sustainable practices and contributing to the transformation of commodity sectors. Credible standards how to achieve more sustainable production practices and set requirements that demonstrate compliance with these practices. As well as contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals, standards can bring real benefits for the private sector by demonstrating a business’s commitment to sustainability and by helping consumers purchase products that have been responsibly produced.

Do goats moult? 

Goats moult their undercoat once a year, in spring. Moulting is triggered by the spring grass and combing helps remove hair that would otherwise fall out naturally.

How do herders know how to harvest the cashmere? 

Combing cannot begin until the time is right. Herders must wait for the natural moulting process to begin before they start combing. By looking at their hair, herders can tell whether a goat is ready for its hair to be harvested. If the fibre hasn’t loosened it will not come away easily on the comb and the combing process will be uncomfortable for the goat and difficult and inefficient for the herder.

Is Inner Mongolia part of Mongolia?

Confusingly, no. Inner Mongolia is a region of China in the Gobi that borders with Mongolia (the country). The nation of Mongolia is often referred to as Outer Mongolia. The reason for this naming confusion is because Inner Mongolia used to belong to Mongolia. When China gained control of this southern Mongolian region, it became known as Inner Mongolia and the rest of the country as Outer Mongolia (although the official name of the country is Mongolia). While Mongolia and Inner Mongolia share a cultural history, the last few decades have seen vast differences develop in livestock production practices. 

What’s the difference between cashmere from Mongolia and China?

Cashmere production practices vary considerably between the two major cashmere producing nations. Mongolian cashmere is generally what we call ‘herded cashmere’. Mongolian herders are semi-nomadic, shifting between seasonal campsites and grazing their herds on open, unfenced and communally owned rangelands. In contrast, cashmere production across the border is generally more intensive. Herders in China are no longer nomadic and now graze their goats on privately owned, fenced pastures, which are better described as ‘cashmere farms’. On these farms, the grazing pasture is not always sufficient to last the full year and goats are often brought indoors and fed hay over the winter months. While Mongolian cashmere is typically harvested by hand using combs, in China the use of electrical shears is more common.

How is cashmere harvested?

Fibre harvesting is when the goats’ hair is combed or shorn. In Mongolia, goats are combed by hand to remove the fine ‘winter undercoat’ and leave the outer ‘guard hair’ to help protect them from the elements. Goats with particularly long outer coats are sometimes trimmed with scissors prior to combing to reduce snagging and allow for easier removal of the fibre.

In the Inner Mongolian region of China, farmers typically use electronic shears which remove both the cashmere and the outer guard hair. This method is appropriate in this context as goats are provided with shelter to keep warm. 

When is the cashmere season?

The cashmere season starts in spring after goats begin to moult due to the warmer weather. In Mongolia the cashmere season starts in the East and moves to the West. Being the first to the market, herders in the East are often able to fetch a higher price for their fibre. In China, goats are typically shorn in the spring once the weather is warmer.

Does combing or shearing injure the goats?

Done responsibly, combing or shearing do not injure goats.  If the right level of care is taken and the right techniques are used, neither method need be a painful or distressing experience for goats.  We are confident that by following the practices outlined in the SFA Animal Husbandry and Fibre Harvesting Code of Practice, herders can ensure high welfare standards for their cashmere goats.