Dear Dot: What’s Behind the (Low) Price of Cashmere?

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Dear Dot,

I wear a lot of cashmere in the winter. I know that might sound snooty, but I do it because wool makes my neck itch. I’ve noticed that in recent years, I can buy it much more cheaply. But I got to wondering why, when everything else seems more expensive, cashmere has become less.

I have some of my mom’s treasured cashmere and am looking for the best way to take care of it — like her, I seem to stain the cuffs and get pills all over, and don’t want to keep running to the (blech!) dry cleaner.

–Jane, Hermosa Beach, CA

Dear Jane,

There is nothing snooty about cashmere, particularly that worn by a beloved mom who stains her cuffs. 

But you are not the only one who has noticed that while the price of almost everything has gone through the roof, the cost of cashmere has become surprisingly affordable. On the one hand, yay! Even those of us without fat bank accounts can indulge our love of luxury. But, as is often the case with cheap fashion, is the price being borne by someone else? Or by the planet itself?

I took your cashmere query to Derek Guy, a fashion writer with Die, Workwear. Guy reminded me that everything we wear has an environmental cost. “You can take literally any garment in your closet and then just trace it back,” he says, “and you will find some crazy environmental story.”

I discovered Guy on Twitter where he laid out the crazy environmental story around cashmere. It is basically this: 

Cashmere has historically been expensive because it comes from cashmere goats, who are found in Mongolia, China, and parts of Afghanistan. These goats, incidentally, are adorable. 

But they each produce only about two hundred grams of cashmere wool annually. Compare that to a sheep, which can produce three kilograms of wool. What’s more, while sheep are sheared, goats are brushed to extract the soft downy undercoat that makes cashmere so lovely. This is done once a year in the springtime. Consequently, Guy explained, it can require the yield of five to ten goats to produce enough for one sweater and considerable human labor. All of which adds up to an expensive product.

Or did.

Thanks to Mongolia’s land reform programs and economic liberalization, Guy noted, the country roughly doubled its cashmere output in the early 90s. And the number of goats skyrocketed from an estimated 5.2 million goats in Mongolia in 1991 to 25.8 million in 2004. 

This had a devastating impact and led to a desertification of the region. Goats have to eat grass to grow hair and the increased number of goats basically razed the country, unleashing dust storms and impacting the region’s water, soil, and air. What’s more, the goats themselves were essentially starving. All of this reduced the quality of the cashmere itself and made it less valuable. 

But before you conclude that the whole cashmere industry is a scam or that cashmere is an environmental catastrophe, Guy wants to make clear that these cashmere-producing regions are feeding our appetite for more and cheaper. Countries have a right to develop economically in the way that they want, he points out. We can support that while still acknowledging that this shift has had a devastating environmental impact.

Guy intended his Twitter thread as education, not as an indictment of cashmere. His point, which he reiterated over the phone with me, was that our goal as cashmere consumers should be to buy the best quality we can afford so that it will last. “What I was trying to drive,” Guys said, “is that if you buy one cashmere sweater — it could be a $400 brand-new sweater or it could be a $40 vintage sweater, but if it’s a good cashmere sweater it should last 20 or 30 years.” Guy also pleaded that we factor what he calls “emotional durability” into our purchases, which brought to my mind your connection to your mother’s cashmere, Jane. “You have to have some kind of emotional connection to the object because even if the item is made well, even if the design is something that you can wear 20 years from now, if you don’t emotionally feel connected to the item, if you’re not emotionally invested, if the item doesn’t give you any joy, then you’re probably going to always look for the next thing,” he said. 

Emotional durability. I love that idea. Like you, Jane, I often wrap myself in my late mother’s sweaters. And I love that Guy is an evangelist for quality, longevity, and joy. 

So how can we find all three in a cashmere sweater if our mothers didn’t pass them along to us? For a start, if you’re buying new, expect to pay at least $400 because that reflects the labor and materials involved in a good quality sweater. And look for certain brand names that remain noted for their quality, including Guy’s particular fave, William Lockie. If $400 is too steep, consider non-cashmere options, such as Shetland wool. “Cheap cashmere is a false luxury,” Guy says. Or, he says, buy second-hand, a practice that Dot seconds because it’s absolutely my favorite way to shop. As Guy notes, “I think the best-dressed people are often wearing either full vintage or at least some vintage in their outfit.”

Because good cashmere lasts, Guy says you can often pick up high-quality sweaters for considerably less than new. Look for brand names such as Barrie, John Liang, Ballantyne, Peter Scott, Alan Paine, Hawico, Pringle, William Lockie, Johnstons of Elgin, Malo, Fedeli, Della Ciana, Cruciani, and Gran Sasso. (Many of these are men’s sweaters, reflecting Guy’s expertise, but some include women’s sweaters, scarves, and coats.)

Once you possess a beautiful sweater, care for it so that you can love it even longer. Guy washes his sweaters every seven to 10 wears, and before putting them away after winter. (Unwashed cashmere is like a flashing neon “Open” sign to moths.) You can wash with baby shampoo — soaking the item for at least 15 minutes in lukewarm water, rinsing well, and then rolling up in a towel to soak up excess water. Do not twist your cashmere to wring dry. Place on a drying rack or clean white towel. 

Wirecutter says you can remove those wrist stains on your mother’s sweaters by using a cotton swab to rub baby shampoo into the stain. Let it sit for a half-hour before rinsing the stain or washing the entire sweater. 

The less you can wash your cashmere, the better. In between washings, a cashmere brush or a sweater comb can keep the pills at bay.

Thanks for your question, Jane. I trust that Derek Guy’s advice will help you cherish your mother’s sweaters for many more years to come. 

Unsnootily,

Dot

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