I HAVE A CASHMERE sweater that I bought 25 years ago, and it still looks great. (Okay, maybe not great on ME, but still….) Every cashmere item I’ve bought recently, though, pills in a nanosecond–whether it’s ridiculously expensive or from the T.J. Maxx sale rack. Sure, I can always razor away the scruff, but it’s no fun being a slave to your sweater. Why has quality taken such a nosedive?
Pure cashmere is a rare, luxury fabric, according to Karl Spilhaus, president of the Boston-based Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute. It takes roughly three Mongolian goats (who can only be combed for the stuff once a year) to make one sweater. And once the hair is harvested, it must be sorted and washed by hand. Trouble is, very few people want to pay today’s going rate for primo quality, which can be $600 and up per sweater. “Western retailers have tried to push down the price in order to increase sales. This has created an incentive for suppliers and manufacturers to cut corners on quality and authenticity,” explains Spilhaus.
A product labeled 100-percent cashmere may actually contain lambswool, yak and/or acrylic. Fraudulent labeling is illegal, but it’s tough to police the industry. “A store should send a sample from every batch of sweaters to check for purity,” says Spilhaus. Needless to say, most don’t. Even when a garment does contain cashmere, it may not be of the highest quality. Cashmere is judged by the thickness and length of the fibers. The finest cashmere is only 16 or 17 microns in diameter. (A human hair is 75 microns.) Thicker strands feel rough and scratchy. Short fibers (less than 32 cm) are also suboptimal, since they tend to come loose and pill.
While it’s impossible to tell if a garment is legit just by eyeballing it, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Look for products made in Italy, Scotland or Japan. Easier said than done, since China (which got in on production in the early 90s) now controls well over half of the world’s raw material. This is not to say that China doesn’t ever turn out authentic, high-quality cashmere, just that Europe and Japan have been at it a lot longer and have a better track record. “Rarely have I seen a fraud that says “Made in Scotland,” says Spilhaus.
2. Rub the sweater/scarf/pashmina over your chin (an especially sensitive area). Fine cashmere is never scratchy.
3. Move your hand vigorously over the garment. Steer clear if you notice fibers start to bead up or fray.
4. Tug on opposite sides of the sweater or scrunch it up in your hands. It should bounce back promptly in to shape.
5. Go for flat, tightly woven sweaters rather than loose, downy knits. In order to get the coveted fluffy look , the fibers must be washed repeatedly. This brings shorter ones to the surface and results in a more fragile garment. You really have to pay up for loose-knit cashmere that lasts, says Spilhaus.
6. Two- (or three- or four-) ply sweaters should be sturdier. (The number of ply indicates how many strands have been twisted together to make the yarn.) Many labels don’t mention ply, though, and if the fibers are fake or cut-rate, it’s a moot point anyway.
7. Buy from a reputable store with a liberal return policy. I purchased a pricey sweater from Nordstrom, which pilled after two outings. They refunded my money–no questions asked.
8. Make it an investment. The finest cashmere will last indefinitely. Some stores that carry the best of the best include Relish (made-in-Scotland cashmere from Hania, Italian cashmere from Marni and Massimo Alba), Neiman Marcus, which sells Italian brand Loro Piana; Brooks Brothers, which carries cashmere made in Scotland, and Massimo Dutti (Italian cashmere).
9. If expensive cashmere is out of reach, mid- or bargain-priced products will do. Just remember that you get what you pay for–at best.
Mary Ganske is a freelance writer based in Cleveland, Ohio.