Over the past couple of centuries, cashmere has earned a reputation as one of the top luxury fibers for knitwear. It’s not unwarranted. Cashmere — the fine undercoat fibers of the cashmere goat — is incredibly soft, very warm and not as abundant as other animal fibers like sheep’s wool. While many cashmere sweaters cost in excess of $500, (and it’s not surprising to see examples eclipsing $1,000), there has, in recent years, been an influx of affordable cashmere sweaters on the market. Most of these sweaters are produced by relatively young brands and top out at $100.
As the nature of cashmere has been tied so closely to exclusivity and luxury, these affordable garments upend conventional thoughts surrounding the fiber. So to get a better grasp on what the actual value of the fiber, we talked with Jeffrey Silberman, the chairperson of the Textile Development and Marketing Department at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
Why Does Cashmere Cost So Much?
According to Silberman, there are a number of aspects that affect the quality of the fiber — and in turn, the price. There are many different grades of cashmere and four primary types: black, brown, red and white. “The darker the cashmere is when it starts out, the less rare it is,” he said. “But it’s considered lower cashmere in the cashmere markets because it does have to be bleached and that’s where you get the fiber damage.”
Along with the grade, the fineness of the fiber has a significant effect on the price. According to the U.S. Wool Products Labeling Act of 1939, the average diameter of cashmere fibers in a knit product should not exceed 19 microns, and it should not contain more than three percent of fibers that exceed 30 microns. Generally, the finer the fiber, the higher the price. But, the best cashmere fibers also display a superior quality overall. “[The fibers] are going to be smoother, they’re going to be more lustrous and they’re going to be stronger in the more expensive cashmere,” Silberman said.
Companies offering affordable cashmere sweaters often utilize fibers that aren’t the highest grade and don’t disclose the details of the material they use. “Where you’ll see the difference is if you have beautiful long-fiber cashmere,” said Silberman. “It’s going to feel better, it’s going to look better and it’s going to clean better because it’s not going to lint out fibers. The shorter, coarser cashmere is going to lend itself to the cheaper products.” For apparel companies, shorter cashmere is cheaper to buy, cheaper to process and still allows for the “100% Cashmere” label. Few companies offering affordable cashmere, save Everlane, actually reveal the staple length of fibers used in the yarns of the sweaters.
Where Does Cashmere Come From?
Another factor that influences price is the country of origin. While Mongolia and China both produce excellent cashmere, companies can source more affordable cashmere from Turkey, Iran and India. In addition, market forces can create cycles where affordable cashmere sweaters come in and go out. “If [fiber dealers] are oversupplied and they need to get rid of their excess inventory, that may have something to do with it,” Silberman said.
“The people in Ulaanbaatar don’t have a lot of money, and yet every single one of them will wear cashmere. If you told them that they should wear sheep’s wool, they basically think that that’s something to insulate a pipe with.”
So though companies may not use the highest grade cashmere in inexpensive cashmere sweaters, they’re still using real cashmere — and it’s still a great fiber. For Silberman, a telling moment in his view of the fiber came when he was working on a project on cashmere identity for the Mongolian Cashmere FibreMark Society in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. “The people in Ulaanbaatar don’t have a lot of money — they live on the steppes — and yet every single one of them will wear cashmere. If you told them that they should wear sheep’s wool, they basically think that that’s something to insulate a pipe with,” he said. “And I found out from there that you can wash cashmere with dishwashing liquid or shampoo with conditioner, and that they look at cashmere as ‘It’s really cold here and we need something that’s really warm. It’s a functional, utilitarian thing and we’re happy that people want to buy it and sell it for $500 sweaters.'”
With that in mind, a high price and respected provenance should not necessarily be requisites for your own cashmere purchase. “Really what comes down to is that you like the sweater and you like the way it feels,” Silberman said. “If you’re going to take your sweaters and hang them on the wall, that’s one thing. But if you’re getting them to wear, and you like it, I’m not sure that you care if it’s going to cost as much.”
Everlane Cashmere Crew
Along with offering the most colors available — 15 — Everlane is the most transparent about its Cashmere Crew sweater. The company will happily tell you that it’s knit in Dongguan, China and even show you the factory on its website. Everlane is more than willing to share that they use Grade-A cashmere from Inner Mongolia, and that the fibers it uses are the longest (35 millimeters) and finest (15 micron) fibers, so that the sweaters are durable, pill less, and get softer with wear. And if you’re in the market for something with a bit more weight, the brand also offers a heavyweight version of this sweater for $40 more.
Uniqlo Cashmere Crewneck Long-Sleeve Sweater
Uniqlo has consistently produced affordable cashmere sweaters, and its Crewneck Long-Sleeve style became something of a benchmark for the category. Available in 10 colors, the sweater is knitted in China and has the distinctive, plush handfeel you’d expect from a cashmere sweater. The brand recommends resting the sweater for a few days after a full day of wear to prevent pilling.
J.Crew Everyday Cashmere Crewneck Sweater
J.Crew’s Everyday Cashmere Crewneck sweater comes in 14 colors and costs just under $100. Knitted in China. It has a more substantial-feeling knit than some of the other more affordable brands offer. Available in sizes X-Small to XX-Large, it features a standard fit that will complement a range of personal styles. The brand has democratized cashmere as it has already successfully done with the American wardrobe.
Buttoned Down Premium Cashmere Crewneck Sweater
Amazon’s recent foray into the men’s fashion world has produced a range of house brands making tasteful basics. The Buttoned Down Premium Cashmere Crewneck is a prime example: it has a very soft handfeel, comes in nine colors and features raglan-sleeve construction, which is flattering to a wide variety of body types. As with other brands, this sweater is knitted in China and the cashmere is of undisclosed origin.
Naadam The Essential $75 Cashmere Sweater
Naadam produces some of the more affordable cashmere sweaters available and still manages to give a wide variety of choices. The crewneck version of the Essential $75 Cashmere Sweater comes in nine colors and the v-neck comes in six colors. Unlike other brands, Naadam discloses that it sources all of its cashmere from Mongolia and knits its sweaters in China. The light-midweight 12-gauge knit is breathable and has one of the softest handfeels out of the box.
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