What Makes Cashmere, Cashmere?

Unravel cashmere's unique qualities and their role in the responsible production of cashmere.

The insurance of high-quality cashmere fibre is one of a number of important factors that feed into its responsible production – the core of the Sustainable Fibre Alliance’s (SFA) mission. Achieving gold standard sustainable fibre should exist in conjunction with the commercial interests of the sector. However, such an outcome depends on an approach that holistically focuses on a number of key environmental, welfare and production areas – it also takes time, which does not often work well in the context of fast fashion. In this article, we are going to explore how cashmere’s properties, origins and qualities play a significant role in steering the industry’s longevity and authenticity, alongside reducing its environmental and social impact.

Cashmere is combed or sheared from cashmere goats predominantly herded or farmed on arid plains in China, Mongolia and Afghanistan. High quality cashmere relies on the seasonal, subzero temperatures of these environments in order for goats to grow the insulating undercoats that the fibre is harvested from. Cashmere is world renowned for its softness, warmth, elasticity and, when knitted or woven, its ability to keep its shape. Once recognised for its exclusivity, cashmere is now a high street and supermarket staple and is available to suit more democratised price points. However, the casualty of quantity is quality, with lower grade fibres added to the mix to meet the growing demand for cheaper, faster fashion.

Cashmere’s unique qualities stem from a number of core, measurable properties including fineness (the fibre’s diametre), length, colour and crimp, which vary depending on a number of factors including the age, breed and welfare of cashmere goats, their environment and the way in which the fibre is harvested, stored and processed. The standards for the welfare of cashmere goats vary depending on their location, but all prioritise the natural behaviours of cashmere herds and their mental wellbeing, access to good quality food, clean water and shelter when required. In Mongolia, the welfare of cashmere goats is intrinsically linked to the quality of their natural environment, which has come under strain due to climate change and overgrazing. Ensuring the preservation of the goats’ natural habitat is dependent on effective herd management and regenerative herding practices to ensure grasslands are utilised and maintained in line with nature, not against it. Effective Management and Animal Welfare, along with preservation and improvement of good quality cashmere fibre are three of the five Global Principles outlined by the SFA’s Cashmere Standard for the responsible production of cashmere. The continued decline of cashmere fibre is a direct symptom of overconsumption and poses a significant threat to the livelihoods and prosperity of cashmere herders, as well as to the integrity and longevity of cashmere fabric. By committing to improving fibre quality, the SFA aims to secure livelihoods for cashmere herders, enabling them to maintain their traditional way of life with incomes that can sustain them. Furthermore, it sits at the heart of the SFA’s call-to-action for developing sustainable cashmere supply chains in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to eradicate poverty (Goal One) and to encourage and incentivise the sustainable production and consumption of cashmere fibre (Goal Twelve). However, improving cashmere fibre quality is not a simple fix and it takes time to see marked differences, especially as cashmere goats produce harvests just once a year. In line with the SFA’s Cashmere Standard, there are a number of key areas that herders need to focus on in order to maximise on fibre quality including responsibly breeding goats that produce good quality fibre, knowledge sharing between herder communities, and monitoring and adapting their methods depending on the outcome of their annual harvest. Knowledge sharing is especially important in the context of environmental responsibility, not only in cashmere, but across the entirety of the fashion sector and other global industries. Applying effective knowledge and methods to one group is good, but sharing such insight across an expanse of groups and communities is excellent. This is how long lasting sector-wide sustainable impact is made.

The key to unlocking high quality, high grade cashmere fibre – graded from A to C, depends on the aforementioned environmental and welfare conditions goats reside in, but it also depends on several other external factors. For instance, the way in which the fibre is sorted and stored. The age and colour of goats are important to the overarching quality of fibre and, in mixed herds, the SFA Cashmere Standard ensures that fibres are sorted and stored with this in mind to separate different grades of cashmere fibre. Fibres are also stored using materials that reduce the likelihood of contamination, be that via fragments from the storage itself – such as fragile polypropylene bags, or other foreign, biological materials.

To protect the integrity of cashmere fibre, fibres are tested in laboratory settings to ensure the quality and authenticity of cashmere goods. Industry leaders such as the CCMI and SGS respectively promote and use various technologies, like optical and scanning electron microscopes to check fibre scales, along with other properties such as fibre fineness in order to test these perimetres, identifying products that are falsely labelled via fibre blends or fibre qualities that are below industry standards.

When asked: ‘How does effective fibre testing and identification have an impact on the cashmere’s industry progression toward increased sustainability?’ CCMI’s President Fabio Garzena responded:

“Testing methods – microscopy before and more recently instrumental methods like proteomics and DNA had, have and will have a direct impact on the sustainability of the fibre. If the cashmere wasn’t recognised as such by testing or if its value and integrity wasn’t protected in the past and now, and hopefully in the future (mainly by the action of CCMI and its members), the cashmere industry would have not been sustainable and the value chain and its viability could have been compromised. Today we associate the concept of “sustainability” with animal welfare, grassland management and soil degradation, but these important aspects are the most recent of many challenges that the entire cashmere industry has faced, is still facing, and will face.

There is still a need for further innovations in testing technology. Today, we lack a reliable quantitative methodology to measure the blends of recycled and virgin cashmere. Even qualitative evaluations are not reliable or standardised. Recycled cashmere is cashmere, but of course has a lower quality compared to virgin cashmere, however most of the recycled cashmere is not sold as such to consumers, which are unaware of what they are buying. This is not transparent for consumers and is unfair competition for the supply chain that lives on virgin cashmere and is producing the cashmere that will be recycled in the future.

Everything is “sustainability”: some aspects or past challenges have been resolved only because they have become “business as usual”, but cannot be ignored, but managed daily. Current “sustainability” efforts are more challenging because they need more network integration and collaboration, which is complex and needs time and compromises to be accepted by everyone.”

When mentioning significant trends or changes in cashmere fibre testing, and whether fibre quality or purity has changed over recent years, Fabio said:

“During the last decade there have been various, very important innovations in the testing technologies related to animal fibers recognition and quantification, which of course includes cashmere. Proteomics methods have been developed and standardised and their use is and will get more widespread with the reduction of their cost (already similar to traditional microscopy). Such instrumental methodology has resolved, once and for all, the issue of distinguishing cashmere from yak or very fine wool with a fully objective method (an improved DNA based method will add further tools in this direction). Microscopy of course is objective but relies on technicians’ skill, so is very difficult to master. Instrumental analysis requires training and investments in expensive equipment, but can scale up easier if needed.

About quality and purity, these are concepts that depend on where and when we consider such features: quality of cashmere might be slightly reduced compared to the past, but this has nothing to do with purity. Purity is a concept related to manufacturing in all the different stages of the supply chain, of course without considering “intentional blends” made with fraudulent intent. For those cases of course testing technology have been an extremely important tool.”

The fineness of cashmere fibre is defined by the fibre’s diameter, measured in microns – a micron is one millionth of a metre (µm). The micron count of cashmere fibre can measure anywhere from 15 microns to 19 microns, with some super fine cashmere measuring as low as 14 microns from adult goats. For context, The International Wool Textile Organisation states wool fibres can range from 17 microns for super fine merino wool to 40 microns for much coarser wool used in carpets and hard wearing textiles. The fineness of cashmere fibre is what makes it soft and gentle on skin, with finer fibres achieving higher premiums. Fibres with higher micron counts such as wool are known for their irritation when worn next to skin. In contrast, cashmere’s fineness reduces irritation and increases practical versatility with a range of applications in garment and accessory design and production.

A much sought after, super fine cashmere, reserved only for the upper echelons of the luxury market – is baby cashmere – cashmere harvested from kids less than one year old. As goats mature their fibre thickens, but young kids produce cashmere with an average micron count of just 13.5 microns, which takes an entire season to produce just 30 grams. For context, an adult cashmere goat produces on average over 110 grams per growing season, so baby cashmere is an extremely rare and expensive fibre.

Another defining feature of cashmere quality is the length of the fibre – known as the ‘staple length’ – with lengths ranging from approximately 28mm to 42mm. The longer the staple lengths the higher the quality, because longer fibres are easier to spin and produce stronger yarns, fabrics and clothing that are more resistant to pilling (the bulbs that form in areas of high friction). Longer fibres also allow cashmere garments and fabrics to retain their shape better, with shorter fibres producing more fragile garments that have a more common tendency to stretch after wear and washing – feeding into the unsustainability of fast, throwaway fashion.

Multiple studies have identified how harvesting methods can impact fibre length, with industry leaders preferring the traditional combing method over shearing. Combing is when the fine cashmere undercoat is gently removed from the goat’s coarser guard coat during shedding season and naturally maintains the entirety of the fibre’s length, while reducing the removal of coarser guard hairs. Cashmere purity refers to the ratio of fine cashmere fibre to coarser guard hair exceeding the 30 micron limit. As identified by the CCMI, classified cashmere garments and fabrics should not contain more than 3% (by weight) of cashmere fibres above this limit. By shearing, coarser guard hairs are more prominent in harvests.

Cashmere is lauded for its ability to take dyes and retain its colour fastness – the capacity of materials to keep their colour. Lighter cashmere fibres are more versatile with respect to this and are therefore seen to be more valuable. White fibres, the industry’s gold standard, remove or reduce the need for bleaching at the dye phase and provide a wider variety of colour options. For darker fibres, bleaching is a necessity but can be harsh on fibres and can therefore impact the strength of the fibres in the long run. However, white cashmere fibre is not a natural norm and is most easily attained in a controlled farm setting, such as those seen in China. Cashmere goats herded in Mongolia and Afghanistan as a part of traditional pastoral lifestyles vary greatly in colour, with fewer white goats set against herds ranging from greys, browns and sometimes black. Mongolia’s national herd is known for its grey and brown goats, while Afghanistan’s herd is darker again, with goats producing grey, dark brown and sometimes black fibres. Selective breeding is one way the SFA is working with herders towards increased fibre quality, which involves the breeding of goats with fibres in a range of colours that are longer, finer and with higher levels of crimp.

Crimp refers to the natural waves of cashmere fibres, with higher crimp more prominent in finer fibres. Cashmere fibres are naturally wavy, providing essential insulation for goats raised in cold climates. Fibres with increased levels of crimp are of a higher standard and are linked to cashmere’s elasticity and the aforementioned insulation properties. Higher crimp not only increases insulation through the capture of heat bubbles in the wave, but it also enables fibres to lock together more effectively during the yarn spinning phase of production. Crimp is also known to give cashmere its loftiness and famously luxurious drape.

While setting the precedent for the continuation and increased flow of high quality cashmere fibre should be set by the cashmere industry itself, the consumer still has a significant role to play. Due to the nature of cashmere, it should not play a role in any decisions to impulse buy. Investing in pieces that last and are well made from high quality, responsibly sourced materials is paramount to the move to more environmentally and ethically sustainable fashion and textiles. While consumers might not have access to in-depth technical information, understanding the journey of cashmere and the importance of fibre quality for the sustainability of the cashmere industry is integral to making responsible purchasing decisions.

Lotti Blades-Barrett

22 January 2024