How to buy and care for a cashmere sweater
Do some research to avoid the dreaded pilly sleeve syndrome
Cashmere sweaters, once high-end items that were out of reach for the average person, are now thrilling the fingertips of many. But prices for this super-soft knit can vary dramatically, and so can quality.
Lower quality cashmere quickly becomes pilly, and sweaters can become stretched and deformed by everyday wear. High-quality cashmere sweaters get softer over time, and look beautiful for a long time.
So how to tell the difference between an investment sweater and a cheap imposter? Before shopping, it helps to learn a little about cashmere’s origin story.
What is cashmere?
Cashmere is a fibre made from fine hair that grows around the neck and belly of cashmere goats. Known as an underlayer, its purpose is to keep the animal warm in climates where the temperature varies greatly between day and night.
This hair is combed out during springtime, when goats are naturally shedding their underlayer. Goats aren’t harmed by the process.
Cashmere goat hair can be dyed, then spun into yarn. The result is finer, stronger, lighter, softer and approximately three times more insulating than sheep’s wool. That translates to warmth in winter!
Where does cashmere come from?
Cashmere is an anglicization of the word Kashmir, a region in Northern India that once produced a considerable amount of the fibre. It’s now commonly imported from Nepal, Mongolia, China, and Afghanistan.
Mongolia is widely considered the source for the highest quality of cashmere. The country’s climate is perfect for the production of the fine underlayer.
Is cashmere sustainable?
Increased demand for cashmere has been damaging to the environment in some places. For example, overgrazing of cashmere goats led to the degradation of Mongolian grasslands, which are essential to the ecology and economy of the country.
But as an export, cashmere is extremely valuable to Mongolia as well. It’s the third most valuable export, after copper and gold. And it employs many women.
Since 2018, a Mongolian government program has been implemented to train and reward farmers who use sustainable methods of cashmere production. And at a cashmere conference last year, several major brands publicly declared a commitment to paying a premium for sustainably produced Mongolian cashmere.
That’s a step in the right direction. But it’s still up to manufacturers, retailers and consumers to choose sustainable processes and products as much as possible. To help encourage a sustainable supply chain, you can ask a lot of questions and reward companies who take transparency seriously.
At Eileen Fisher, where sustainability is a core value, cashmere sweaters are made with a recycled twist. The brand collects cutting room trimmings from other manufacturers, respins it into new yarn, and makes sweaters from materials that would otherwise end up in landfill. We think that’s pretty awesome!
What makes good cashmere?
According to the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute, one of the key factors in the quality of cashmere is the length of the fibres used to make yarn. Knits made from longer fibres (28 to 42 mm) will pill less and hold their shape longer. One of the brands we carry, Brodie, promises to use only the longest fibres available, 42 mm.
Colour is important, too. Raw cashmere hairs vary in colour from white to beige and brown. When the cashmere hairs start out white, the yarn can be dyed any colour with less processing, and it takes on more vibrant appearance. And that’s important to us. We love how both Brodie and Lisa Todd create sweaters in bright colour combinations. The result is truly contemporary.
Read the label -- Industry rules require manufacturers to state the fabrics used in their products. Low-priced “cashmere” sweaters may contain only a small percentage of cashmere with other types of wool. For the super-soft feel, look for 100 percent cashmere.
Do the touch test -- Cashmere should feel soft and fuzzy to the touch. It shouldn’t be coarse, and it also shouldn’t be overly smooth, which could be a sign it’s been treated with chemicals.
Do the pill test -- Rubbing your hand over the fabric a few times in the store should not create balls of fabric. While all woolly wares will eventually wear in some areas, it shouldn’t happen right away.
- Read the care tag. Some modern cashmere -- like the sweaters made by Brodie, for example -- are safe for machine washing. Otherwise, wash by hand. Some people dry clean their cashmere, but purists don’t recommend it because it will wear down the fibres over time.
- How to wash by hand -- We recommend hand washing cashmere inside-out, and laying flat to dry. To prevent shrinking, use cold water. Wash as infrequently as possible, as cashmere contains natural oils, which are removed by repeated washing. Use a gentle, no-rinse fabric wash such as Eucalan which naturally restores lanolin to wool, helping to maintain its softness.
- Remove pills after wearing -- We recommend using a cashmere comb frequently to remove pills that may form along the sleeves and sides of the body. You can purchase one at Resonance.
- Store loosely folded -- Don’t squish your sweater into a drawer, and don’t hang it, or it will soon lose its shape.
- Avoid shoulder bags -- To avoid a cluster of pills on one shoulder, avoid using a purse or handbag that will rub constantly against your sweater.
- Be careful with seat belts -- Nylon can damage cashmere fibres, so if you spend a lot of time in the car, be sure to wear a jacket over your favourite sweater.
Check out all our amazing cashmere brands!