Part Five: Cashmere

Cashmere is one of the most renowned luxury fibres, with wonderful qualities of lightness, warmth and drape. It is the very fine under down of a goat, and can potentially be produced by any breed except the Angora (which produces mohair). Cashmere is a type of fibre, rather than a particular breed and refers to any goat down which meets the exacting grade of being less than 18.5 microns in diameter.

The finest Cashmere producing goats were traditionally found in Mongolia and other parts of central Asia, however, with careful breeding they are now becoming more common in many parts of the world. China, Mongolia and Iran are still the leading producers but there is a firm industry in Australia and New Zealand and production in the US and the UK is also increasing.

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(Cashmere goats at Westcott Farm in Devon, photos by Lesley Prior)

Harvesting

Goats are shorn or combed once a year in the spring, a time when they will naturally shed the down grown for the cold winter months. In some areas, the shed fibre is collected from the rocks and bushes where the goats have been grazing. Each adult goat produces only a small amount of down, up to 8 ounces per year.

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After washing, the fine down must be separated from the hairy outer coat and this is generally now done by machines. I de-haired a tiny amount of the fibre which Lesley kindly sent me and it took me about half an hour! Definitely a painstaking job. This labour-intensive process is one contributor to the high price of Cashmere fibre.

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Structure and Characteristics

The finest Cashmere can have a diameter of as low as 14 microns, thus there can be still quite a range in quality between different sources of fibre. Poorly processed Cashmere may also still contain some guard hairs which will make spinning unpleasing, so be sure to obtain fibre from a reputable dealer.

Once it has been de-haired, the Cashmere down is processed in the same way as wool. It can be carded and sold as a ‘cloud’, or processed into top. Cashmere should be at least 1.25 inches long, and best quality Cashmere has a strongly defined crimp structure, making it springy and able to hold its shape. This crimp also contributes to the fibre’s warmth as it creates many air pockets in the yarn.

Cashmere has an indistinct, smooth scale structure and will not easily felt. With fulling, yarn or fabric made from cashmere will expand and ‘bloom’ creating a wonderful surface halo and soft handle.

Cashmere for Handspinners

Down fibres are generally best spun with a long-draw method and are popular with users of support spindles. A very light drop spindle (shown below, Bosworth featherweight - 14g), or a wheel set with minimal take-up will also be suitable and will not pull the yarn apart as you create it. The shortness and fineness of the fibres calls for a fair amount of twist, and low diameter. If you wish to create a thicker yarn, it will be more stable if you spin several singles and ply them together.

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Cashmere blended with other fibres will add a lovely warmth and halo to your yarn and can make a small amount of expensive fibre go a lot further. Even the smallest proportion, 10% or less, is very noticeable in the handle of the finished yarn.

With special thanks to Lesley from Devon Fine Fibres who sent me the raw cashmere fibre and the gorgeous goaty pics!

Sources/further reading

MacKenzie McCuin, Judith ‘The Intentional Spinner’, Interweave press, 2009.
Albright, Barbara “The Natural Knitter?, Potter Craft 2007
Russo, Robin. Class notes, SOAR 2008.
Devon Fine Fibres http://www.devonfinefibres.co.uk/

2 Responses to “International Year of Natural Fibres 2009”
  1. yoshimi says:

    you pusher, enabler, you just want us all to be as addicted as you are…now I’m going to go spin some cashmere :P

  2. Jewel says:

    They are so cute and it just looks so soft.

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