Cashmere is a soft luxury fiber prized for warm, soft, and beautiful sweaters, scarves, and hats. In order to be considered authentic, the fiber must come from the hairs of the cashmere goat, an animal originally introduced to Westerners by the area of Asia known as Kashmir. When the British took control of Kashmir in the 1800s, they began exporting the fiber to Europe, creating intense demand which continues to this day. In addition to being beautiful, it is also infamous for being very expensive, due to the labor intense process used to create garments made from it.
The majority of the world's cashmere today comes from China and Mongolia, where the goats are raised in the Gobi Desert. These goats are bred specifically for their extremely soft, pale hair, which can be dyed to any color, and are therefore highly sought after. The harsh conditions in the Gobi Desert severely restrict the number of goats that can be raised, however, meaning that the hand harvested and often hand-spun fiber commands a high price when it reaches the market: and this is before the notoriously difficult yarn has been knitted or woven.
Other parts of Asia and the Middle East, including Pakistan, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iran, also raise cashmere goats, although they tend to produce gray or brown hair, which is not as highly prized. In addition, most hair produced in these areas is somewhat stiffer, and less soft. For this reason, it is used in lower grade garments and weavings, although because of the intensive process to harvest it, it can still be quite costly.
High quality cashmere is always hand combed from the goats. After combing, the hair is cleaned to remove impurities, which often reduces the yield by as much as two thirds of the original weight. The remaining pure fiber is silky soft, and ready for dying and carding prior to being spun. Cashmere is often woven into two-ply yarn, which is a superior form of yarn, but also twice as expensive because it involves two strands. When a single strand of yarn is used, the twist in the yarn created as it is spun can pull at a sweater, changing the shape over time: two ply yarn uses two strands going in opposite directions to eliminate a bias in the weave or knit.
Because cashmere is so expensive and labor intensive to produce, it must be taken care of appropriately. The material is highly durable and will last for years if cared for properly. It should always be washed by hand in warm water with mild soap, and blotted gently with a towel before laying it out flat to dry. Individuals who own cashmere garments should appreciate the effort that goes into making them; it would take a single goat four years to produce enough wool for a sweater, and producing one also involves countless hours of labor to raise, feed, and care for the unique animal.