Cashmere

himalayan breed of goat...

The animal

Cashmere does not refer to a specific breed of the domestic goat but rather to the downy undercoat that all goats except the Angoras, which only have one coat, have to various degrees. The main purpose of the undercoat, as in all animals that are equipped with one, is insulation and that makes it such a great fibre for warmth in your knits. As it is so effective at keeping them warm in the extreme cold of their native lands, the goat will naturally shed this layer in the warmer months and regrow it in the cooler months. Breeders have been selecting for this trait and so there are breeds of goat that produce more cashmere than others, and those living in colder climates will naturally benefit from a healthy thick layer of downy undercoat.
Most commercial cashmere nowadays is produced in Northern China, other large producers include Mongolia, Afghanistan, and Tibet. The name cashmere comes from Kashmir which is now a disputed area on the borders of Pakistan, India and China but historically referred to as the high valley between two mountain ranges of the Himalayas.
It has been produced in Kashmir, Mongolia, and Nepal for thousands of years, with references to woollen shawls appearing in texts as far back as the 3rd century BC. There is a popular belief that it was during the 15th century that the then ruler of Kashmir, Zain-ul-Abidin, founded the wool industry in his country by bringing in weavers from then Turkestan, a historical region of central Asia. Other stories talk of another king of Kashmir, Sultan Qutubdin, won over by the fineness and durability of a gifted pair of cashmere socks which saw him establish the wool industry. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Kashmir had a thriving business of producing cashmere shawls, which the region is still renowned for, although politics and border disputes have hindered the industry.

The fibre

This is the most widely available luxury fibre. Cashmere down has an average range of 14-19 microns, whilst the guard hairs can range between 50-100 microns.
Ultra-fine cashmere is called Pashmina which has an average thickness of 12-13 microns and is produced from a particular breed of goat, the Changthangi goats, which live on the high-altitude plateau of Ladakh, over 300m, in northern India. The word Pashmina has become synonymous with the shawls that are made from this, rather than the fibre itself. As the fibre is so fine it is not amenable to machine weaving and therefore a genuine Pashmina shawl is made by hand which are often embellished with intricate fine embroidery.
Coarser cashmere fibres are called strong cashmere, cashgora or caprine fine fibre, which has an average diameter of 19-22 microns. Cashgora fibre is named after a crossbreed of cashmere and Angora goats, created in France by Mr M. Polonceau who wanted to make the fibre easier to spin and weave.

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Ethical and environmental considerations...

The demand for this fibre has led to degradation of lands due to unsustainable numbers of goats, with numbers increasing from 2.4 million in 1949 to an estimated 25.8 million in 2004. Goats are very destructive feeders eating the roots as well as the parts of the plants above ground and their sharp small hoofs break up the surface and damage the plants that hold the soil together transforming the grasslands of inner Asia into deserts. Of the two main producers, China and Mongolia, Mongolia has often referred to as ‘herded cashmere’ with the herder living a more traditional semi-nomadic life, moving around for the best pasture for their flocks on communal lands. Most herders in China are no longer nomadic and graze their stock on fenced and privately owned pastures, thus it is more of a cashmere farm. Given the limitations on the movement of such herds, the pasture won’t last the full year and they are often brought inside for the winter and fed hay. The differences are also evident in the harvesting techniques with goats being mostly shorn in China and hand combed in Mongolia.

Knitting with it

Renowned for its softness and warmth, this delicate fibre lends itself well to lightweight articles. It is often quoted that cashmere yarn is eight times warmer than sheep’s wool, but due to its lightweight it can be knitted into garments that are suitable in the warmer months too. It is slightly more hardwearing than angora but does not have the strength of alpaca or sheep. The beauty is in the fibre, so simply designs work well as it won’t enhance detailed work, with the soft fibre covering the stitch detail.

The fibre

Ethical and environmental considerations...

Knitting with it

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