Know Your Fiber: Cashmere & Pashmina
Posted on March 01 2023
Just hearing the words cashmere or pashmina conjure up a sense of luxury. Like sheep, there are a number of fiber goat breeds such as Angora, Pygora, and Nigora. However, the fiber from cashmere and pashmina goats is among the finest and softest fibers in the world.
It is hard to know exactly when humans first began using the fiber from cashmere goats. We do know that goats, in general, began to be domesticated in Asia around 8000-10,000 years ago. However, since human around the world began to use wild fibers long before livestock species were domesticated, it is maybe not too out there to guess that fibers from the wild ancestors of cashmere goats were also used even before being domesticated. Most goats shed their winter coat in the spring, so it is likely that the people of central Asia would gather those fibers from all the trees and bushes that the goats would rub against, and then incorporating these goat fibers into their woven fabrics.
The first possible physical evidence we have of cashmere from domesticated goats comes from Bronze Age Harappa, an area that was part of Indus Valley civilization and is today located in Pakistan. Fibers that thought to be cashmere have been found on copper artifacts excavated from that area and are thought to be from around 3000 BCE. However, Cashmere as a large industry is thought to have started in Kashmir in either the 1300s or 1400s, depending on who is telling the tale. According to some sources, cashmere production was first brought to Kashmir in the 1300s by the Sufi saint Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani who is reputed to have brought 7000 craftspeople from Persia to Kashmir in the name of spreading Islam and Islamic culture. While continuing east to bring Islam to neighboring Ladakh, he came across cashmere for the first time. Combing some of the goats himself, Hamadani used the fiber he collected to make a pair of socks that he gifted to Sultan Qutubdin of Kashmir. He then suggested that cashmere scarf weaving would be just the thing for the Kashmir. Impressed with the softness and durability of the fiber, the Sultan agreed, and the Kashmiri cashmere scarf industry was born. While that story is by far the most popular one, other sources have it that Zain-ul-Abidin, a ruler of Kashmir in the 1400s, started the cashmere industry by bringing in Turkestani weavers to weave scarves.
Trade in cashmere scarves and fabric was big money throughout a sizeable part of the world. This luxury fabric would travel with other valuable trade goods along the Silk Road to the east and China, and to west to the Middle East and Northern Africa. Interestingly Europeans seem to have largely been left in the dark about cashmere for some time. Marco Polo briefly mentioned seeing drawing on cave walls of people combing out fiber from goats, but he somehow missed entirely that cashmere was a luxury good that could have been traded to Europe as well. As a result, it wasn’t until the late 1700s that cashmere really took off as a luxury fiber in Europe. It was General Napoleon Bonaparte that started the European cashmere craze by sending a cashmere shawl from his Egyptian campaign to his wife, Josephine. Women of status took note, and soon there was quite a demand among the upper classes for cashmere. The demand was so high, that plans were put into place by 1799 to begin manufacturing imitation Kashmiri cashmere shawls from imported cashmere at a factory in Reims, France. Attempts were also made to establish large herds of cashmere goats in France, a plan that was doomed to fail as most shepherds were not rich enough to afford pricey, imported cashmere goats, and the members of the upper class who could afford the goats mainly engaged in it as a hobby.
By the 1820s, the United States had its first cashmere weaving mill in Uxbridge, MA. And by the 1830s, Scotland began to import cashmere fiber for their textile mills, creating an industry that produced Scottish Cashmere - a popular and very high quality fabric. Other European countries began to follow suit, and a few small mills in Scotland and other countries still exist to this day. It is worth noting, though, that although North American and Europeans tried a few times to develop their own cashmere goat flocks, nobody had any great success in doing so. Nearly of the cashmere fiber was remained imported from Kashmir and other parts of central Asia. Those regions had, and still have, the ideal climate and landscape for cashmere goats.
Due to its expense and the technical difficulty of weaving such a fine fabric, cashmere remained the province of the wealthy upper classes for nearly a century after first being introduced to Europe and the Americas. However, that would start to change as the middle class began to come into more wealth post-WWI, and as modern fashion allowed for more casual women’s’ knitwear. It was in the 1930s that cashmere’s popularity really took off, though, with the invention of the twinset by Otto Weisz. Fast forward to today, and cashmere is in everything from socks to sweaters, and is easily available to anyone who is willing to spend a bit more.
Just like sheep, there are several different cashmere goat breeds that exist today. Each of these have been bred over time for particular climates and environments. Some of these breeds are ancient while others are more modern. China and Mongolia produce over 75% of the world’s cashmere, and so have what is possibly the widest variety of cashmere breeds. Because of all the differing climates and environments in China and Inner Mongolia, cashmere goats such as the Hexi, Liaoning, Licheng Daqing, Wuzhumuqin, Zalaa Jinst, and Zhongwei have been bred to help farmers from different areas to achieve the highest production possible.
However, there is some justifiable criticism of cashmere that is sourced from China and Mongolia – the popularity and high prices of the fiber is causing the destruction of some of the delicate grasslands in Mongolia and northeastern China. The problem is that cashmere goats are not native to these areas, and so the landscape is not the same resilient landscape of the goats’ origin. The grasslands of inner Mongolia and China have always been used for livestock, but it has been yak, not goats, that were raised in these areas. Yaks are perfectly suited to these regions - their footpads help to pack down down soil and seeds, and they graze only on the tops of plants, leaving the roots alone to grow back more greenery. Goats, however, will pull out grass and other greenery by the roots, and their sharp hooves that are so useful on rocky hills and cliffs dig at the soil, loosening it up and killing even more native species. This, in turn, can cause desertification of these area, making it unsuitable for any kind of farming, including cashmere goats.
It is because of this that we advise fiber artists to know where their cashmere is coming from. Cashmere goats’ native habitat is in the Himalayan mountains that cross through a number of central Asian countries and territories including Tibet, Ladakh, and in the hills of Kashmir. As a matter of fact, the finest cashmere fiber of all, Pashmina, is gathered from the Changthangi, or Kashmir Pashmina goat, that is native to Ladakh and the upper elevations of Kashmir. While the word pashmina is sometimes used synonymously with shawls that can be anywhere from synthetic, to blended fibers, to genuine Pashmina, it is important for fiber folk to know that true pashmina fiber only comes from this specific breed of cashmere goat. In other words, all pashmina fiber is cashmere, but not all cashmere is pashmina.
Cashmere fibers range from 12-15 microns, and the staple length is around 1.75-2 inches long. Pashmina fiber width is between 12-14 microns. While it can be spun alone on a fast spindle or wheel, many spinners also like to blend it with silk with extra sheen and strength, or with wool for extra durability. While most commercially available cashmere is white, it can also come in colors ranging from black-brown, to brown, to gray. Cashmere and pashmina are up to 8 times warmer than wool, so a little goes a long way towards keeping you warm! There are few things cozier and warmer than a cashmere hat or sweater in snowy weather.
It is important to us that the cashmere and pashmina that we offer come from a region that has already been adapted to cashmere goats for millennia, and that does not cause damage to delicate grasslands. So, all of the cashmere that you will find at Northwest Yarns & Mercantile comes directly to us from goats that live in the Kashmir and Ladakh territories of India. From time to time, we also offer recycled cashmere yarns for folks that do not want to spin their own. Like many of our rarer fibers, our cashmere and pashmina are usually seasonally available. If we are ever out stay tuned – we will always get more in after the spring combing!