Cashmere is a kind of wool that comes from downy undercoats of cashmere goats, which refers to several breeds of goats (see Below). The undercoat helps keep the goats warm in temperatures that can drop as low as -40 degrees F in the winter. Cashmere was first used to make Indian shawls and now is used mostly to make cashmere sweaters that are valued for their “understated luxury” and “unshowy self-indulgence”and sell for as much $1,000. [Source: Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker, February 1, 1999 ]

Cashmere was prized in ancient Rome as a luxury item and has periodically been a fashion item ever since. Beau Brummel made white cashmere waist coats all the rage for men in the 19th century. Napoleon popularized cashmere shawls after he gave 17 of them to his second wife.

Marina Romanov wrote in Mongolia Briefing: “As one of the softest, warmest and longest-lasting materials on the market today, cashmere is said to be eight times warmer than sheep’s wool and about that many times softer. It is also one of the most expensive natural materials on the market today. [Source: Marina Romanov, Mongolia Briefing, February 24, 2012]

According to Intelligent Life Magazine: “ Cashmere is the downy undercoat grown by goats in extreme cold. The great majority of the world’s cashmere comes from Inner Mongolia (an autonomous region of China) and Mongolia (aka Outer Mongolia), where 40 million goats contend with temperatures below -30 degrees C. In the spring, as they start to moult, the goats are combed to remove their fine underhair while leaving the outercoat (guard hair) intact. The combings are then washed and “dehaired” of any stray guard hair, so that what is left is pure cashmere. [Source: Sceptical Shopper: Cashmere, Intelligent Life Magazine, Winter 2009 +++]

Source: Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute.

World’s Top Fine Hair (Cashmere) Exporting and Importing Countries

World’s Top Exporters of Fine Hair (2020): 1) Mongolia: 7177 tonnes; 2) Lesotho: 1127 tonnes; 3) Pakistan: 237 tonnes; 4) Belgium: 226 tonnes; 5) South Africa: 194 tonnes; 6) Australia: 114 tonnes; 7) Germany: 77 tonnes; 8) Italy: 68 tonnes; 9) United Kingdom: 68 tonnes; 10) United States: 56 tonnes; 11) Portugal: 46 tonnes; 12) New Zealand: 22 tonnes; 13) China: 21 tonnes; 14) Czechia: 19 tonnes; 15) Turkey: 7 tonnes; 16) Canada: 7 tonnes; 17) Spain: 6 tonnes; 18) Iran: 2 tonnes; 19) Turkmenistan: 1 tonne; Namibia: 1 tonne; Netherlands: 1 tonne; Denmark: 1 tonne [Source: FAOSTAT, Food and Agriculture Organization (U.N.),]

World’s Top Exporters (in value terms) of Fine Hair (2020): 1) Mongolia: US$191660,000; 2) Lesotho: US$4953,000; 3) Portugal: US$4107,000; 4) South Africa: US$2654,000; 5) Belgium: US$1836,000; 6) Australia: US$1571,000; 7) Germany: US$1310,000; 8) Czechia: US$1175,000; 9) United Kingdom: US$815,000; 10) China: US$718,000; 11) New Zealand: US$633,000; 12) Italy: US$408,000; 13) Spain: US$406,000; 14) Pakistan: US$312,000; 15) United States: US$185,000; 16) Sweden: US$131,000; 17) Iran: US$88,000; 18) Switzerland: US$66,000; 19) Turkey: US$43,000; 20) Denmark: US$33,000

World’s Top Importers of Fine Hair (2020): 1) China: 7480 tonnes; 2) South Africa: 1208 tonnes; 3) Germany: 369 tonnes; 4) United Kingdom: 357 tonnes; 5) Italy: 295 tonnes; 6) Belgium: 164 tonnes; 7) South Korea: 143 tonnes; 8) Bolivia: 66 tonnes; 9) India: 62 tonnes; 10) United States: 61 tonnes; 11) Turkey: 49 tonnes; 12) Japan: 45 tonnes; 13) Canada: 25 tonnes; 14) Austria: 21 tonnes; 15) Indonesia: 13 tonnes; 16) France: 11 tonnes; 17) Slovenia: 11 tonnes; 18) Tunisia: 9 tonnes; 19) Bulgaria: 8 tonnes; 20) Spain: 8 tonnes [Source: FAOSTAT, Food and Agriculture Organization (U.N.),]

World’s Top Importers (in value terms) of Fine Hair (2020): 1) China: US$213977,000; 2) Italy: US$11728,000; 3) South Africa: US$8374,000; 4) South Korea: US$6597,000; 5) Germany: US$4406,000; 6) United States: US$4091,000; 7) India: US$2937,000; 8) United Kingdom: US$2234,000; 9) Bolivia: US$1398,000; 10) Turkey: US$1350,000; 11) Philippines: US$552,000; 12) Mauritius: US$459,000; 13) Belgium: US$435,000; 14) Indonesia: US$389,000; 15) Japan: US$344,000; 16) Portugal: US$277,000; 17) Austria: US$243,000; 18) France: US$228,000; 19) Tunisia: US$186,000; 20) Ukraine: US$172,000

The number of cashmere goats in Mongolia doubled between 1992, around the time it became an independent democracy, to 1999 from 5½ million to 11 million.

What Exactly is Cashmere

The word cashmere is an old spelling of the Kashmir region in northern India and Pakistan. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Although the word cashmere is sometimes incorrectly applied to extremely soft wools, only the product of the Kashmir goat is true cashmere. The fibre, known as pashm or pashmina in some parts of Asia, became known for its use in beautiful shawls and other handmade items produced in Kashmir, India. In the early 19th century. Cashmere shawls reached their greatest popularity, and the shawls of England, France, and the town of Paisley, Scot., were made to imitate those from Kashmir. [Source: Encyclopedia Britannica]

According to to Wikipedia: Common usage defines the fiber as wool but is finer and softer, giving its characteristics as compared to sheep's wool. Some say it is hair, but as seen below, cashmere requires the removal of hair from the wool. Cashmere is fine in texture, strong, light, and soft. Garments made from it provide excellent insulation, approximately three times that of sheep wool. Cashmere is also softer than regular wool. [Source: Wikipedia]

Alisha Harris wrote in Slate, “The name cashmere comes from an old spelling of Kashmir, the region where its production and trade originated, possibly as early as the Mongolian empire in the 13th century. According to historian Michelle Maskiell, author of “Consuming Kashmir: Shawls and Empires, 1500-2000,” from the 1500s to as late as the early 1900s, Iranian and Indian emperors used Kashmiri shawls in political and religious settings; in the Mughal Indian courts, for example, the acceptance of a shawl from a political figure established a hierarchy between the giver and the receiver. In the late 18th century, Scottish textile manufacturer Joseph Dawson discovered shawls made from cashmere in India and began to import the material to his factory in Scotland. Dawson sold shawls to upper-class British women who prized the fabric for its softness and warmth. [Source: Alisha Harris, Slate, December, 27, 2012]

In the United States, under the U.S. Wool Products Labeling Act of 1939, as amended, (15 U. S. Code Section 68b(a)(6)), states that a wool or textile product may be labelled as containing cashmere only if: 1) such wool product is the fine (dehaired) undercoat fibers produced by a cashmere goat (Capra hircus laniger); 2) the average diameter of the fiber of such wool product does not exceed 19 microns; 3) and such wool product does not contain more than 3 percent (by weight) of cashmere fibers with average diameters that exceed 30 microns. 4) The average fiber diameter may be subject to a coefficient of variation around the mean that shall not exceed 24 percent.

Cashmere Fibers

According to U.S.-based Cashmere Goat Association: “Cashmere is the goat’s soft, downy undercoat, grown to its maximum length by mid-winter and shed in early Spring. The quality of the cashmere fleece is determined by three factors: its length, its diameter, and the degree of crimping. The American cashmere industry promotes high standards in regards to raising good healthy animals bearing exceptionally good cashmere fiber. High-quality cashmere can be up to eight times warmer than sheep’s wool despite its light weight. [Source: Cashmere Goat Association ^^]

The guard hair may be long or short depending on individual situations and preferences, but the guard hair should be coarse enough that a mechanical dehairer can easily distinguish it from cashmere. Cashmere fiber is crimped (rather than wavy), soft, and lacking luster. By industry standards it must be at least 1-1/4' long with an average diameter less than 19 microns. A micron is one-millionth of a meter (a meter is about a yard), so each fiber is very, very fine. For comparison, a human hair can range from 17 to 181microns in diameter. The crimpiness of the fiber gives it “loft” and enables garments made of cashmere to provide warmth without weight. ^^ ▪ “Notice how every soft fiber is compared to cashmere, as in “this is as soft as cashmere.” Purists think nothing is as soft as cashmere! “Pashmina” is a marketing term, not a specific fiber. Pashmina shawls are made of a fiber blend of cashmere and silk. Another confusing term is “cashgora” Since angora (mohair) goats also produce fiber, and a lot of it, attempts were made to breed them to cashmere goats to increase yield. What resulted was a long, wavy, lustrous, coarser fiber that can’t be called cashmere. Hence cash+gora from the combination of the goat names. Most cashmere breeders find a tendency to produce cashgora undesirable in their goats.” ^^

Why Is Cashmere So Expensive?

Alisha Harris wrote in Slate, “Why is cashmere so much more expensive than other kinds of wool? Its costly production process and scarcity. Cashmere comes from the soft undercoat of goats bred to produce the wool. It takes more than two goats to make a single two-ply sweater. The fibers of the warming undercoat must be separated from a coarser protective top coat during the spring molting season, a labor-intensive process that typically involves combing and sorting the hair by hand. These factors contribute to the relatively low global production rate of cashmere—approximately 6,500 metric tons of pure cashmere annually, as opposed to 2 million metric tons of sheep’s wool. [Source: Alisha Harris, Slate, December, 27, 2012 -]

“But not all cashmere is equally luxe: The texture, color, and length of the fibers all affect manufacturing and pricing. Naturally, whiter cashmere fibers require less dye, diminishing the damage that coloring causes to its natural softness. Quality also depends on the region in which the wool is collected. In Inner Mongolia, for instance, the winters are harsh and the goats have a more meager diet, which produces the finer hair seen in the highest quality garments. (High-quality cashmere can be up to eight times warmer than sheep’s wool despite its light weight.)

Still, even the best raw material can be compromised by a sub-par finishing process. The fineness of a cashmere item comes down to that process, as the spinning and weaving of the fabric affects the look, feel, and touch of the final product. China is the largest supplier of the raw material needed to make cashmere wool, but Europe has mastered cashmere manufacturing methods, and has cornered the market on premium quality (and costlier) products. -

Cashmere Quality

The best cashmere is comprised of fine, long fibers. The fineness of the fibers is what makes cashmere so warm and soft. The finest quality cashmere has luster, heft and loft. Poor quality “feels dead, dry and boardy." Young and female goats give finer fibers than and old and male goats. Quality can be spotty. In the Soviet era, cashmere goats were crossbred with coarser Angora goats in an effort to boost production. Male goats used to be slaughtered at a young age to feed Soviet soldiers. Now they grow to an old age, and yield large amounts of coarser fibers. [Source: Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker, February 1, 1999 ]

Sometimes traders mix in poor quality cashmere with good quality stuff or add water or dirt to make it weigh more and try to pass it off as quality cashmere. Other times yak hair is passed off as cashmere. People in the fashion industry worry that poor quality cashmere will spoil cashmere's reputation.

According to Intelligent Life Magazine: “How can pure cashmere sweaters cost £500 on Bond Street but less than £50 at Marks & Spencer? The short answer is China. The long answer is that a label saying “100 percent cashmere” tells only 50 percent of the story. Pure is not an absolute term. The finest cashmere consists only of the whitest, longest, thinnest hair from the underfleece, whereas lower-quality cashmere may be either the shorter, coarser hair from the undercoat–typically from the rear end of the animal rather than its belly–or, more dubiously, shorter hair that has either not been properly dehaired or, worse still, blended with yak or rabbit hair. When the best white (dehaired) cashmere costs $75 per kilo and one sweater requires at least 200g of fibre, the motive for mass-producers to use cheaper stuff becomes clear. [Source: Sceptical Shopper: Cashmere, Intelligent Life Magazine, Winter 2009 +++]

“Cheap cashmere is a 21st-century phenomenon. As recently as the 1990s, China and Mongolia were exporting more raw material than finished garments. The cream of the crop went to Scotland and Italy to be spun, dyed and knitted. The costs and expertise involved made it a luxury product, though styles were mostly plain and came in colours–navy blue, bottle green–as staid as the plaid they were meant to be worn with.” +++

How to Check Cashmere Quality

According to Intelligent Life Magazine: “ Yet even cheap cashmere can feel lovely. It’s hard to know, as you queue at the till, whether your bargain will pill or sag within days. (Pilling afflicts expensive cashmere too, though it should stop after the first wash.) But there are subtle signs of quality, and once you’ve got your eye in, much of the cheaper cashmere on the market starts to seem a false economy. [Source: Sceptical Shopper: Cashmere, Intelligent Life Magazine, Winter 2009 +++]

“Look for tension in the knitting: stretch a section and it should ping back into shape. Hold it up to the light and you shouldn’t see much sky: paradoxically, the best cashmere, though made from the finest hair, has a density to it. Examine its surface: fluffiness suggests the yarn was spun from shorter, weaker fibres and will pill. Be sceptical about softness, too. Over-milling can make a garment too soft and silky, and therefore prone to bobbling and losing its shape. More expensive cashmere may be harder to handle in the shop, but will ease up with wear and hand-washing. The best cashmere actually improves with age–so long as the moths don’t get to it. +++

“Another pointer to authenticity is candour. Pure Collection reveals the specification of its cashmere on its website: “Inner Mongolian White for White, 36-38mm, maximum 15.5 micron”. That’s just about the whitest, longest, thinnest goat hair available. Brora says it uses only the “longer fibres”. At the luxury end, Brunello Cucinelli makes the startling claim that “only the fur in a very limited area of the animal’s throat is used”, while Loro Piana’s “baby cashmere” is made of kid-hair with a diameter of just 13-13.5micron. M&S failed to respond to my questions about the provenance of its cashmere.

Tibetan shepherd girl with cashmere goats

Cashmere Goats

A cashmere goat is any breed of goat that produces cashmere wool. A Kashmir goat can refer to a cashmere goat or a Changthangi (Kashmir Pashmina), or Pashmina goat, a breed of goat native to Ladakh and Baltistan in the Kashmir region of India and Pakistan.

According to U.S.-based Cashmere Goat Association: Any goat can grow cashmere, but those we call “cashmere goats” have been selectively bred to produce it in significant amounts. There is no such thing as a “purebred” cashmere goat. Feral goats from Australia, and Spanish meat goats from the American Southwest, selected for fiber traits, form the basis of the American cashmere goat industry. The goats’ down and the guard hair which surrounds it may be any color, but the shearable parts of the body (excluding face, stockings and belly) should be of a single color. Traditionally, cashmere goats are not de-horned. Both male and female goats have horns, which serve to dissipate heat during the summer, and make excellent handles when working with the animals. [Source: Cashmere Goat Association]

Cashmere goats are slightly smaller than ordinary goats. They have long curling horns and grow long shaggy coats of hair. In the winter they grow a fine, dense, downy undercoat to protect them from the harsh cold. During the spring hair from this undercoat is combed by herders before the animals have a chance to shed it. Contrary to what many people believe the undercoat grows all over their body, not just their underbelly. It takes about four years for a goat to produce enough cashmere for one sweater. [Source: Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker, February 1, 1999]

The relatively dry climates and geography of Mongolia, northern and western China and Central Asia are suited for herding cashmere goats, which thrive in harsh, cold, dry and mountainous areas and produce the highest quality of wool in such places. In moderate climates, goats lose the ability to grow the downy coats that produce the quality cashmere necessary for making luxury garments. [Source: Marina Romanov, Mongolia Briefing, February 24, 2012 ^|^]

Cashmere goats are hardy animals. They can endure harsh winters, hot summers and long periods of drought. They can get by on little water and eat the coarsest grasses. They can also be very destructive. They can eat grasses right down to the roots, resulting in land degradation, soil erosion and desertification. The best cashmere comes from Mongolia, Inner Mongolia and Tibet because these are so cold in the winter. The cashmere from Iran and Afghanistan and most other places is deemed lower quality because the temperatures there are not low enough to produce quality cashmere.

Cashmere-Producing Breeds of Goat

Changthangi (Kashmir Pashmina) cashmere goat: The Changthangi or Pashmina goat is found in Ladakh and Baltistan (Kashmir region). They are raised for cashmere production and used as pack animals. The breed is most often white, but black, gray and brown animals also occur. They have large, twisting horns. This bloodline produces the finest Cashmere with an average diameter between 12-13 micrometers and average fibre length between 55-60mm. It is very rare and constitutes less than 0.1 percent of global cashmere production. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Inner Mongolia cashmere goat: The Inner Mongolia cashmere goat is a local dual-purpose breed with a long history. It adapts well to desert and semidesert pastures. The goats can be divided into five strains, Alasan (Alashanzuoqi), Arbus, Erlangshan, Hanshan and Wuzhumuqin. The first three strains produce quality cashmere; the last two have been developed for high production. The average down yield is about 240 grams, with an average down diameter between 14.3 and 15.8 micrometers The cashmere length is between 41 and 47 mm. In 1994, the total Inner Mongolian goat population was approximately 2.3 million goats. +

Alashanzuoqi white cashmere goat: The Alashanzuoqi white cashmere goat is found on the Alashan Terrace, which is located to the west of the Inner Mongolian plateau. Selective breeding for down production has occurred since 1970. The Alashanzuoqi goat produces a long, white cashmere with a pleasing lustre. The average doe down production is 251 grams at a diameter of 14.5 micrometers. +

Hexi: The Hexi Cashmere has a long history in desert and semidesert regions of Gansu Province, China. About 60 percent of the goats are white. The Hexi cashmere can be found in the Gansu, Qinghai and Ningxia provinces. A typical adult doe produces 184 grams of down at 15.7 micrometers in diameter. +

Liaoning cashmere goat: Breeding animals were selected in the 1960s from six counties in the eastern mountain area of Liaoning Province. The herd has been continually developed since then, and used to improve the cashmere herd throughout China. The Liaoning goat is mainly found in the Buyun mountains in the Liaodong Peninsula. The breed was formally named the Liaoning cashmere goat by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture in 1984. By 1994, selected Liaoning does were producing 326 grams of down at 15 micrometers in diameter. The selection work emphasizes size, length of body, quantity and quality of cashmere, the ability to climb, sturdiness, conformation and growth. +

Tibetan Plateau goat: In 1994, there were more than 7 million Tibetan Plateau and Valley goats in China. Five million were in Tibet, 1 million in Sichuan, half a million in Qinghai and about 100,000 in Gansu. There are also a small number of Tibetan goats in India, Pakistan and Nepal. The Tibetan plateau goats are kept for down production. In 1994, an adult doe's average down production was 197 grams, while the average adult buck's down production was 261 grams. +

Wuzhumuqin: This Inner Mongolian strain is a new breed, recognized in 1994, and is distributed mainly in Xilingele Meng. The development of the breed started in 1980. By 1994, the breed had 372 nucleus herds and 681 selection herds. The bucks have thick, long horns and 85 percent of the does are horned. Ninety eight percent of the herd is white. The developers of the breed claim the lustre of the fleece is better than the Liaoning goat. The average production of a Wuzhumuqin adult does in 1994 was 285 grams at 15.6 micrometers in diameter; the average down length was 46 mm. +

Licheng Daqing goat: The Licheng Daqing goat is a dual-purpose breed from the Shanxi Province, China. The down is usually brown, but the color can vary. The average doe down yield is 115 grams at 14 micrometers in diameter. Luliang black goat: This a dual-purpose goat is found in the Lüliang area; it produces a small quantity of dark down. Zhongwei cashmere goats: The Zhongwei goat originated in the semidesert and desert area around Zhongwei in Ningxia and Gansu Provinces in China, and are famous for their kid fur and cashmere production. The average fibre production for does is 216 grams at 15 micrometers in diameter. +

Australian cashmere goat: The foundation stock for the Australian Cashmere Goat was taken from northern and western Australia (Pattie&Restall, 1996) from the local bush goat population in the late 1970s. The production varies from herd to herd, with the most productive herds averaging 250 grams at a diameter of 15 micrometers. There is a breed and fleece standard, and active development of the breed continues with the University of Western Australia running a sire referencing scheme. +

Cashmere Harvesting and Processing

Cashmere goats are tended in flocks and corralled in the spring to for “combing.” Describing the “combing process," Rebecca Mead wrote in The New Yorker, “the goats are wrestled down, and the cashmere is tugged off them with a large wide-toothed metal combs that look like something from the Iron Age." The process is like “combing the tangled hair of a screaming five-year old, who has just discovered chewing gum." [Source: Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker, February 1, 1999 ]

Combing yields “greasy cashmere," a mixture of long hairs, fine downs, dirt and pieces of vegetation. The down is what is valuable. One goat yields about three or four ounces of it, or enough to make a third of a sweater. “Carding” removes the course hairs and impurities, leaving 40 percent of the original quantity of raw wool. Cashmere bought in the spring does not find its way to stores until months later as it undergoes a lengthy spinning and dyeing process before being made into garments.

Cashmere is stored in chilly warehouses in 300-kilogram bales. The bales are made so big in part to keep people from walking off with them. The bales are dumped in large bins and women sort through the “greasy cashmere” by hand, pulling out handfuls of dirty-looking grayish fluff and hair and then separating it by color: brown (the most common), red , light gray and white (the rarest and most valued). White cashmere costs about six times more than the finest wool.

In a steamy dehairing room, the fluff balls are placed in machines that remove the course hair and dirt and deposits the cotton-candy-like cashmere in tubs. In some factories the cashmere is spun and dyed. In others it is compressed into bales and sent to other factories to be spun into thread or yard, dyed, and woven into bolts of fabric from which sweaters and other garments are made. Workers in cashmere factories were paid about $50 a month in the early 2000s.

Cashmere Goat Herders

In the Soviet era, Mongolian herders were paid a wage and gave their cashmere to a local agent. In the post-Soviet era, herders own their own flocks and earn money from the goats or raw cashmere they sell. [Source: Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker, February 1, 1999]

Mongolian herders spend money on building barns, digging wells and purchasing grains, grasses and hay. They often have little money left over for food. Water is a big problem for many herders. Water tables have dropped to low levels in places where cashmere goats are raised. The government provides loans to buy pumps and build water infrastructure.

A typical Mongolia herder owns about 100 goats. A man with 400 goats is considered relatively wealthy. The cashmere trade became particularly lucrative when the price of a kilogram of raw cashmere rose from $9 a pound to $40 a pound in the mid 1990s. In 1997, a television with a windmill electrical generator could be bought with 80 kilograms of cashmere (a year's output from 200 goats). Wealthy herders have bought pick up trucks, motorcycles, Buddhist paintings and satellite dishes for their gers.

Cashmere prices are big news in Mongolia. Many herders use their radios to tune into information on the latest prices. If the prices are good they sell right away. If the prices are bad, they store their cashmere in open air refrigerators and wait until, they hope, prices improve. Some herders can't tell the difference between cashmere and wool.

There are many cashmere goat herders in Inner Mongolia and elsewhere in China. In 1994, the Chinese Communist government dismantled collective farms, carved up the grasslands and returned them to herders. To prevent overgrazing there are limits on the numbers of animals livestock herders can raise. In Inner Mongolian, most herders live in permanent settlements and live as Mongolians in Mongolia did under the Soviets. Children of Inner Mongolian herders go to school in nearby towns. Instruction is in Chinese and Mongolian. About 90 percent of Mongolia herders had televisions in the early 2000s.

Cashmere Industry

China and Mongolia process three quarters of the world’s cashmere. Traditionally cashmere was produced in China and Mongolia and nearly all of it was shipped to the United States and Europe, where it was processed and spun in pricey garments.

The price of cashmere goes up and down. Decreases are largely due to increased production of cashmere and the lowering of the costs of raw cashmere and processing costs. Prices dropped 65 percent in the late 1990s due to overproduction. [Source: Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker, February 1, 1999]

Marina Romanov wrote in Mongolia Briefing: “The cashmere manufacturing industry originally developed in Scotland, which was noted for its specialized weave knit techniques in producing underwear. However, in the second half of the 20th Century, cashmere processing and manufacturing increasingly moved to the countries of fiber origin, especially Mongolia and China, although Scotland still produces very high quality cashmere clothing. [Source: Marina Romanov, Mongolia Briefing, February 24, 2012 ^|^]

Cashmere Producers

The world's major cashmere producing countries are China, Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Turkey. China is the world's largest producer of cashmere production, accounting for more than 70 percent world output; Mongolian cashmere production accounts for about 20%. So-called Scottish and Italian cashmeres are woven not produced in those countries.

Most cashmere goats in China are raised in Inner Mongolia or Xinjiang. China is home to more than 60 million cashmere-producing goats. They produce 20,000 tons of cashmere annually. The result of all these goats has been an oversupply of cashmere often of dubious quality.

In 1991 China threw the cashmere market into a tizzy when it withheld its entire supply from the world market. In recent years China has begun banning cashmere goats from Inner Mongolia for environmental reasons, reducing the supply by 30 percent to 7,000 tons.

According to USAID:With production of over three thousand tons of raw cashmere per year, Mongolia is the second largest producer of raw cashmere in the world, behind China with production of about twelve thousand tons per year. Russia, Iran and Afghanistan are lesser producers and their cashmere is of inferior quality to that produced in Mongolia. Very small amounts of cashmere are produced in the US, Australia, and South Africa. China dominates world production of knitted garments with a capacity to produce over 20 million cashmere sweaters per year. Despite higher wages, Italy continues to dominate the high end of the cashmere market from spinning to knitting and weaving. [Source: USAID, May 2005 ^]

The global cashmere industry has experienced the same trends as has the overall garment industry: falling costs and prices; a high end segment that has declined relative to overall demand; vertical disintegration; dominance of brand name holders in the market. As one example of the severity of these trends, less than ten years ago, Dawson was the largest integrated producer of cashmere products in the world with a dominant share of world production and sales. At present, Dawson has been broken up both vertically and horizontally and the owners of its parts are struggling to survive in the new global competitive environment for cashmere. ^

Cashmere and the Garment Industry

According to USAID: the “cashmere industry operates within the context of the world cashmere industry which in turn operates within the context of the world garment industry. Over the past decades there has been rapid transformation of the world garment industry: costs and prices have been driven down while the fashion cycle has accelerated. As a consequence, the relative size of market for luxury clothing has declined over time. At the same time, there has been vertical disintegration in the industry as bargaining power in the value chain has shifted to brand name holders from producers and retailers. At the same time, however, brand name holders have withdrawn from production operations and have relied more heavily on contract producers. [Source: USAID, May 2005 ^]

Over the past several decades, competitive pressures from garment (and more recently spinning and textile) producers in low wage countries have forced producers in high wage countries to use ever faster, more efficient, and more capital intensive equipment to produce ever higher quality output. The results of these trends have been higher quality garments at lower prices with an ever higher percentage of both garments and textiles produced in low wage countries. The expiration of the MFA will accelerate these trends. ^

In response, in order to counteract falling unit prices, garment companies have tried to increase unit sales by accelerating the fashion cycle and by increasing the number of style changes per year from four (the four seasons) to eight to monthly changes for some brand names and retailers. The garment industry has moved from a strategy of high retail margins, with high stock levels (many styles, many colors, and many sizes) with low turnover and high redundancy toward a strategy of lower margins, limited styles, colors, and sizes, with high turnover and low redundancy. At the same time, power has shifted from producers and retailers to the brand owners who take the risks in color, fashion, and size and overall demand. Due to these trends, the industry has vertically disintegrated with separate ownership along the value added chain as firms have found it too difficult to manage vertically integrated operations. ^

Cashmere Labels and Mass Production

According to Intelligent Life Magazine: “ Two things shook cashmere out of its heritage niche. In the mid-1990s young designers such as Clements Ribeiro put creative cashmere on the catwalk, while stalwarts like Pringle and Ballantyne broadened their ranges beyond the Argyle pattern that had made them famous in the era of Edward and Mrs Simpson. More significantly, China began to manufacture cashmere in vast volumes; when European Union import quotas were relaxed in 2005, cashmere poured onto British high streets at unheard-of prices. [Source: Sceptical Shopper: Cashmere, Intelligent Life Magazine, Winter 2009 +++]

“Today Asda sells men’s “pure cashmere” V-necks for £17.50. M&S’s basics now cost £49.50. How do they do it? By mass production–M&S cashmere is made by the Chinese cashmere giant King Deer, which can process 400,000 units at a time–and by cutting corners. The fibre has a hair length of 28-30mm (premium is 36mm-plus) and it is knitted lightly. So the customer gets inferior material, and less of it. +++

“Mid-priced cashmere looks like a good value. Pure Collection has basics from £89. Brora costs more (from £169 for a V-neck) because it is made in Scotland, and Scottish cashmere has long been considered the best—but Chinese knitting machines can now deliver on sophistication as well as price. Consequently, Pure Collection and N Peal run a vertical operation in Inner Mongolia where quality can be controlled “from goat to garment”. If money were no object, and greed no sin, I’d stack my shelves with Brunello Cucinelli, not so much for the throat of the goat but the perfection of the knitting. And if money were tight, I’d settle for Uniqlo, where a well-cut crewneck costs £59.99 and seems promisingly unfluffy to touch. What I’d find hard to contemplate is wearing anything else. Cashmere is so soft, light and warm that it makes even merino, the king of lambswool, feel a bit like a school jumper. +++

Some popular high-end brand name cashmere sweaters in the late 2000s: 1) N Peal Cable Cardigan: This chunky but intricate cardigan (top, right) is from N Peal’s contemporary line, designed by Sara and Amiee Berman. It’s hand-knitted on manual machines from 12-ply cashmere, so is duvet-warm as well as stylish. The buttons are horn. £695. 2) Brunello Cucinelli Roundneck Jumper: A classic, perfectly executed and given a gentle twist with two details: a thin line of contrast grey at the nape of the neck, and elbow patches in suede so buttery you may well sigh when you touch them (bottom). The cashmere feels impeccable, as you’d hope at the eye-watering price. £495. +++

Some popular mid-range brand name cashmere sweaters in the late 2000s: 1) Brora “Contemporary” Cardigan: Brora excels at colour. As many as six or seven different shades are spun into its yarn, resulting in colours that are deep, subtle and kind to skintones. The berry colour of this cardigan (top, left) sets off its mirrored buttons. £189. 2) Pure Collection Roundneck Cardigan: High quality, classic styles and keen prices have made Pure Collection Britain’s leading online cashmere specialist, offering efficient mail order with a human voice. Their cardigan’s tubular hem means it sits flat on the hip; and the Heather Rhubarb marl is good enough to be a Brora colour. £109. 3) Marks & Spencer Autograph Hoodie: Although M&S’s cashmere perennials are a bit mumsy in both cut and colour, its one-offs can hit the spot. Their light-camel hoody (middle) is snug, not skimpy, with a deep welt that keeps it sitting firmly on the bum, and nice detailing around the zip. It’s just a pity the square pockets aren’t a more ergonomic pouch for cold hands. £125.

A popular inexpensive brand name cashmere sweaters in the late 2000s: 1) Uniqlo Crewneck: Its mid-grey marl has class way beyond its price, with a flattering, lower-than-standard neckline, and a substantial knit. Uniqlo’s range by Jil Sander mixes cashmere with 8 percent polyamide, but this is the one for purists. From £49.99.

Cashmere Market

Cashmere had traditionally been As affluence spread worldwide in the 1990s, the middle classes began to wear cashmere, The number of cashmere sweaters imported into the United States increased from 2½ million in 1997 to 4½ million in 1998.

According to USAID: Despite the trend in falling prices and expanded demand in the mid-to-low quality end of the cashmere market, there continues to be a high end market for “spun gold” cashmere. This market is controlled by high-end brand name “producers”, such as Gucci, Dunhill, Ralph Lauren, and retailers such as Brooks Brothers and, more recently J. Crew. These firms do “not” have their own production facilities, i.e., they are not vertically integrated. Rather they control their brand names: styling, quality, and retail distribution either through their own stores or in retail outlets in which merchandizing is under their control. As analyzed in a subsequent section, the average quality of Mongolia’s raw cashmere has declined largely due to an increase in production of lower quality cashmere, not to a reduction in the amount of high quality cashmere it produces. Hence Mongolia is still well capable of serving this top market segment. [Source: USAID, May 2005 ^]

The fastest growth in demand in the cashmere market, however, will be in the middle and lower quality range and in blends with wool, silk, cotton and perhaps synthetics. These products will be increasingly produced in the country of origin of the raw cashmere to save on transportation costs and to access low-wage labor. The output from these producers will increasingly be sold through middle-market retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Carrefour with low margins and high turnover of both inventory and styles. To show the contrasts that currently exist, in 2005, a pure cashmere sweater sold at Wal-Mart for $39.99 while a Ralph Lauren sweater sold for over $900 in Saks Fifth Avenue, just down the street. Retail trends indicate that the future, however, is in the $39.99 Wal-Mart sweater, although designer sweaters will still be produced. ^

Cashmere Market During the Global Financial Crisis in 2008-2009

The cashmere market was hit hard by the global financial crisis in 2008-2009. Keith Bradsher wrote in the New York Times: “ This summer, as always, the cashmere on offer in department stores and malls is mostly in ultrathin “summer weight” tops. Come fall, these usually are replaced by thick, luxuriant sweaters. But this year is shaping up to be different. [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, June 19, 2009 \=/]

“Merchants in China say that American and European orders for the holiday season, for which sweaters are just starting to be knit, have fallen by as much as 30 percent. And the garments chosen by buyers from Western stores are noticeably skimpy, using less of the costly material. “They are too small — half the breast is outside the sweater,” complained Wang Jie, the sales manager of the Inner Mongolia Dongda Cashmere Products Company Ltd. \=/

“Western consumers are buying fewer luxury goods, and demand for cashmere has plunged. The painful effects of this are being felt all the way to these nearly empty plateaus of Inner Mongolia, by goatherds and factory workers and owners — showing how ripples from markets in the United States, Europe and Japan can reverberate to some of the most remote corners of the world.” \=/

Environmental Problems Caused by Kashmir Goats

According to Intelligent Life Magazine: “Cashmere is a renewable–it grows every winter—but the goats are not exactly eco-warriors. The trouble is they don’t nibble grass, but yank it up by the root. With no vegetation to pin it down, the topsoil blows away, grasslands turn to desert and duststorms choke Beijing. For cashmere to be sustainable, the goats must be farmed in enclosures and given extra feed so they don’t nuke the grass.” [Source: Sceptical Shopper: Cashmere, Intelligent Life Magazine, Winter 2009]

Jane Macartney wrote in The Times of London, “In China, where the problem of desertification and loss of pastureland is...advanced, the authorities have decimated goat flocks and ordered more rotational farming. That means cashmere buyers have turned to Mongolia for supplies, pushing up the price in recent years. +++

The financial crisis of 2008-2009 took its toll on the short term living standards of herders. Wholesale prices dropped by half in a year. But that was good news for the environment, according to the analyst Dalkhaijav Damiran, from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. “The drop in cashmere prices might make it a good time to reduce the number of goats in a herd,” he said.” +++

See Mongolia

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2022

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