How To Find, Choose, Buy, And Understand Cashmere Sweaters. Goats Are Involved.
"Good knitwear is like wearing a hug."
So says the Queen of Cashmere. Caron Slimak is the owner and head of a custom cashmere sweater business, Queen of Cashmere. Counts Saks among her retailers. And she has agreed to let us all in on the secrets of good cashmere. Because cashmere is complicated. Why does one sweater cost $79 and the other $550? Both are blue. Both have a label that says 100% cashmere. How can we tell if we are getting our money's worth, at $79 or $550? And once we've got the sweater, or coat, or pair of yoga pants (I know, decadent much?) how do we take care of them?
Et voila, Privilege interviews the Queen of Cashmere. Who turns out to be a working woman, like many of us. Queen, Princess, Duchess, we're all royalty in one way or another. Right?
Question: Who is the Cashmere Queen?
Answer: I'm a working woman. I've been married 26 years, and have a 16 year old son. My husband works with me. He was a commodities trader in the pits at the Chicago Board of Trade, then founded a startup. When I realized I could have this wonderful, even-keeled, responsible, smart person by my side, I conscripted him.
I have been making my living from cashmere sweaters for almost 12 years now. I started through direct sales of custom cashmere sweaters from another designer who recently went into bankruptcy. When I went out on my own, the idea of a monogrammed sweater haunted me. It needed to be done in a modern way so that it wouldn’t come across as a costume from Laverne and Shirley. Monograms are so personal and meaningful and if handled well, I knew that the sweaters would be popular. Queen of Cashmere has a very loyal customer base and one customer even ordered 25 identical black sweaters each with a different color monogram!
Question: What is cashmere, exactly, and how does it get here?
Answer: All cashmere raw wool comes from some place cold in China. People have tried to raise cashmere goats in other areas of the world but the climate is nowhere near harsh enough nor the terrain rugged enough. They tried in South America and one woman tried in Chianti, Italy. The Italian now makes cashmere goat milk soap. It's almost like cashmere terroir. Different areas produce different grades of cashmere wool. The hands down best and the only one worth knitting with comes from China.
Once the wool is harvested, it is bid on by cashmere brokers and goes onto the world market. Understandably, China is starting to hold the best for themselves to feed their growing knitwear industry. Less is available on the open market. The best is fine micron, short (for the loft and softness but more about that later) fiber, white cashmere. You must realize that all Cashmere goats are not natural blondes. All cashmere has to be taken back to white and that chemical process diminishes the softness.
Then spinners buy the raw wool. The best spinners for cashmere in the world are the Scots. Then the Italians, like Loro Piana. I buy from a Scottish mill. It's the water in Scotland. Terroir again. Just like Coors is made with mountain spring water. The softness and purity of the water in Scotland vs. China means that yarn spinners imbue their cashmere with softness, and the dyeing process produces more vibrant colors.
Question: When you are in the store, surveying the hordes of sweaters, what should you look for?
Answer: You are looking for some pretty subtle things. You will often hear about gauge, ply, loft, pilling, softness, and slickness. Some of these reflect quality and some don't. Gauge simply means, how many needles on the machine and thus stitches per inch. Run the hand behind the sweater and see if it has a loose open stitch. If you have lesser quality cashmere sweater, sometimes the knitter will loosen up on your gauge to get it to appear softer. The traditional Scottish product will be knit flat and tight. It’s made to do distance and will soften with years of wear. The Italians on the other hand like to knit a fluffy, sexy product. It will have an amazing handle (feel) on the selling floor and it’s a more delicate product. It’s the knitwear showdown of Sex Kitten vs. Sturdy Gal. On the other hand, some sweaters are knit out of gauge on purpose, to be a modern, cobwebby, boho-chic soft of sweater. It’s a look. In any event, there are markets for all of the products.
Ply really has nothing to do with quality. It has to do with cashmere content and the thickness of the sweater, which will affect the price. My sweaters are technically a one-ply sweater, but a double thickness yarn. Most consumers recognize them as a two ply weight. Then when you go to two "ends" of 2/28 it becomes a 4 ply and then 3 “ends” of yarn becomes 6 ply and so forth. Through this process the knitter changes machines and gauge so there are few needles per inch to accommodate the added bulk of the higher ply cashmere yarn. Ply is a matter of styling and type of sweater, NOT an indicator of quality. There are a lot of poorly constructed and milled sweaters using inferior yarn that have a high ply and cashmere content.
Loft means how plush it feels, how thick and bouncy. It’s all in the milling which is the final wash that each knitter puts the sweaters through after they are completed. Many knitters jealously guard their milling secrets. Again, the soft waters of Scotland have a lot to do with the feel of the end product. Lower quality producers will often cheat at milling by using a lot of fabric softener in the final rinse. If you want to tell the difference, rub the sweater between your fingers and then rub your fingers together. If your fingers feel slick you are feeling a lot of residual fabric softener. There is a big difference between slick and soft. Soft is clean, lofty and luxurious. Also, this is where the shorter fibers of the raw wool make a difference. The multiple ends of the shorter fibers “bloom” or lift from the yarn in the milling and create softness. It’s the opposite of what you look for in cotton fiber.
All cashmere will pill. It is a very delicate fiber so friction will make it pill. How much it pills and how those pills come off depends on the quality. With a better cashmere, the pills aren't going to be hung on their knots and, with minimal care the pills should come off easily and the remaining jersey should look good, never ratty, underneath.
Question: Some people recommend that you rub the sweater in the store between your fingers until it pills?
Answer: I’m still aghast someone actually said this! This isn't a good test. How long are you going to stand there in the store rubbing that sweater?
A final good test of yarn and knit quality is the evenness of the fabric of the sweater. Hold the sweater up to the light and look though it for uneven or thin patches. A good quality sweater should be consistently knit from a high quality consistent yarn. Thin patches are a sign you might want to leave the sweater where you found it for the next unsuspecting consumer.
Question: What do we get for $89? For $150? For $225? For $550? For $1200?
Answer: For $89 the sweater is usually shapeless, lacking design elements, for example, you will get not fully fashioned shoulder but a straight shoulder seam that doesn’t really lay flat instead. The yarn and how it's knit, not going to be anything special. The raw materials for top quality cashmere almost cost more than the retail price for this kind of sweater.
In the world of $225, you will get a nice sweater for the season. Maybe two. The $225 day-to-day sweater? I pick them up where I can. I have a sweater that I adore, it must be 20 years old, and it was my husband's and it has a really deep v-neck. It’s a Neiman Marcus private label -- when they still sourced from Scotland. Now, if you get two seasons out of a $225 you are doing really well. It won't be a workhorse like your TSE sweater. These $225 sweaters may not wash well, so you will have to dry clean. And dry cleaning fluid really should never touch cashmere, dries it out and makes it crispy over time.
For $450 - $675, you are going to get the top quality yarn, from top spinners, with top construction and nice design details. With sweaters over that you are paying for the designer's brand name.
Question: What about J. Crew?
Answer: J. Crew makes a great product. The knitter in China that makes for J. Crew has a great reputation and uses Loro Piana yarn. They do great things with design details and novelty sweaters. The Scottish products are still better, but it's hard to find Scottish sweaters with styling details like that. I like J. Crew's quality for the price but the fit is for a little young thing, with really high armholes.
Question: What are some good sources for top quality cashmere?
Answer: Who is left? So many people have exited the top end business. For top quality, the Italian company Fedeli. They can be bought in the US. Trillion, in Palm Beach sells them. They're an Italian mill and everything is still all done by hand. For exquisite design and pure unadulterated luxury there is not much that can compare to Bruno Cuccinelli. The owner of the company took over and renovated a medieval town in Italy. Everyone who lives there works for the company. These are people whose entire lives are focused on the cashmere. Customers will pay $1200 -$2000 for some of the sweaters. Also Queen and Belle, a design team coming out of Scotland producing exceptionally high quality sweaters with modern, well designed styles.
Question: Once we buy cashmere, how do we take care of it?
Answer: All goes back to the raw product. A good piece of cashmere should never be dry-cleaned. But if you have a less than good piece, you need to do it anyway. If you own Woolite, throw it OUT! It leeches color right out of everything. Woolite is not "lite" and I believe in humane laundry. Woolite wages war on your clothes. Use baby detergent, Ivory Snow, Dreft even Kirkland Signature Environmentally Whatever Detergent.
So you can afford the better cashmere sweaters. Handwash but minimize the hazards by following these rules: Never ever agitate. (Also a good rule for life in general). Put the garment in the dryer for no more than 5 minutes to get the stitches distributed and aligned, finish drying it flat and touch up with a steam iron using a silicon pressing cloth, or layer of a sheet over. Block the sweater(press with steam lifting the iron in an up and down motion). Never use a back and forth ironing motion or it will ‘grow’ your cashmere and make it larger. Never use the iron directly on the neck or seams because it will glaze the cashmere. If you have a good sweater, follow these instructions and it should look new.
The proof is in the pudding and if you find a cashmere label that you like, stick with it. China is getting better and better at what they produce so I wouldn’t rule out Chinese made products entirely. If you find you have bought a sweater that doesn’t wear well, don't go there again. If you see a "made in Scotland" label, chances are it will serve you well for years.
*Note that no goods or remuneration have exchanged hands. But Caron is looking into ways for my TSE sweater to have new life.