In this article we will discuss some of the intricacies involved in the production of cashmere; how it gets turned from the fur of a goat in the Gobi Desert into the fabulous cashmere scarf wrapped around you.
Cashmere is graded in ‘microns’ depending on how fine it is, and how fine it is depends on where the cashmere comes from. Cashmere is generally finer the lighter it is in colour. The colour (and thus inherently the fineness) of cashmere depends upon where in the world it’s come from. The whitest and therefore finest furs come from Mongolia and Northern China, as you venture into China, the fur becomes more brown in colour but still relatively fine, whereas the least desirable type of cashmere is a thick brown that comes from North East Afghanistan.
Once the fur has been gathered from the goat, the fibres then go through various stages of processing as outlined below.
This refers to removing the greasy and coarse outer hair, typically called ‘guard hair’ from the fibres. If the dehairing process is poorly executed, guard hair and black hairs will be left in the fibre which will then need to be picked out after it has been knitted into fabric.
The dyeing process is a delicate one as dyeing cashmere can harden the fibre if it is not done properly. Whilst making sure not to harden the fibre, it has to be dyed a full, deep, and level colour. The colour has to be ‘fast’, so that it doesn’t fade in sunlight, run or ‘bleed’ in the rain, and isn’t affected by the perspiration of our bodies.
When the dyed hair is originally carded, getting all the fibres lying in the same direction in a web, the web is cut into strips called slubs before being put on a spinning mule where the slub is drawn out and twisted into yarn. At a count or weight of 36 grams per kilometre, fine cashmere is spun before the two ends are normally twisted together to give the yarn a weight of 72 grams per kilometre. Whilst a fascinating process, this is an exact science which unfortunately many people do get wrong.
The majority of knitters will buy dyed & spun cashmere yarn from reputable spinners in order to ensure purity and quality. Fibres are twisted tightly together or spun to give the yarn tensile strength allowing it to be pulled through needle beds without bursting at the knitting stage. There is oil present which is necessary at the spinning stage and also helps with the knitting process. There may also be quite an amount of loose dye, so cashmere yarn and unwashed cashmere panels don’t really feel soft; they actually feel quite hard and greasy.
Knitting is where the yarn is knitted into pieces or panels on industrial knitting machines. They can range from traditional flat bed machines or what’s known as a ‘V-bed’ machine. These machines, when controlled by computers lend themselves to being more versatile, as patterns and stitch structures such as ribs and cables, for example can be more easily achieved. A machine’s gauge is the main factor in determining the stitch density of the fabric, and the weight of yarn used and weight of the resultant knitted fabric as well.
Linking and tacking are involved in the finishing process. Linking is where the end of a quality scarf is secured or where the panels of a sweater are joined together. This is a stitch-for-point operation where a skilled operator picks each sequential stitch of knitted fabric onto the points on the dial of a linking machine and then the machine makes a linking chain, using cashmere yarn, along the line of the stitches. The ends of the linking chain are then hand tacked to stop it from unravelling and the pieces are now ready for washing.
Washing is a crucial stage and is performed with great care in formulated soap in soft water at temperatures that are carefully controlled. The soap has a scouring agent in it which acts as a detergent; chemically removing oil that is in the yarn. On first rinsing, the oil is removed along with the loose dye and any loose fibre in the wash. Secondly, fresh warm water and soap are used to start milling the cashmere pieces to get them rubbing together; by doing this, tightly twisted fibres in the yarn begin to open up and expand, which once carefully dried, allows the cashmere piece to have the gorgeous feel, or ‘handle’ that is craved.
However, it is very easy to overmill cashmere, which will in turn make it appear matted and felted. Once this has occurred there is no recovery process for this, and the pieces will need to be scrapped.
Note that well-made cashmere products should feel soft, and this should get better and softer as the piece is worn and washed. Make sure it is not too soft in the shops, as it will simply pill and deteriorate rapidly. A good test is to hold a cashmere product up and look along the surface horizontally at eye-level. If you can see about 1mm of fuzz on the surface then the product will last long; any more and it will pill with very little wear.
After washing, there are still processes remaining. Scarves will need to be pressed and undergo a final inspection before tabbing, folding, and bagging. Capes are slightly more complicated, in that they need to be marked, cut, and then undergo an hours worth of linking (stick-for-point again) which attaches the trimmings around the outside. Ends of the linking chain then need to be hand tacked and the ends of each of the trimmings need to be hand sewed together.
Sweaters have their neck hole marked and cut out, the neck trimming linked on, the ends tacked, joined, etc. Very highly skilled operators do all operations where quality of workmanship is paramount rather than the number completed. Truly quality over quantity.
I hope this article has provided you with a good overview of the production process of cashmere products.