Cashmere is synonymous with luxury knitwear, and has been for generations in Europe – and longer in Asia. When a top designer wants to show they are serious about their knitwear collection, they’ll make sure it’s made of this fabric, as it’s a guarantee that it won’t only look spectacular, but also that it will feel amazing against the skin, something that most everyday wools can’t achieve.
But as everyone knows, with great luxury also comes a premium price. And for most of us, that means that our cashmere knitwear is something to treasure, to handle with care and possibly even to pass down through the generations. What’s difficult is squaring this circle – how can you handle your cashmere sweater with kid gloves while simultaneously enjoying the style and the feel? After all, when you buy premium fashion it’s because you want to show it off, isn’t it?
Well, we understand the fabric intimately, from its history and its origins to its modern farming, production, styling and care. So we thought we’d take a deep dive into this wonder fabric and look at where it comes from and how to make sure your prized garment lasts you for years. Read on to find out all you need to know about caring for cashmere.
Let’s start with a little bit about cashmere itself, and how it’s different from other fabrics. We’ve all seen sheep being sheared on TV – the sheep enters with a body full of wool, and comes out with a number 1 trim. It’s quite easy to see where the wool comes from, and where it ends up.
With cashmere, however, it’s slightly different. Cashmere goats do indeed have a shaggy coat, not unlike that of a sheep. They evolved to live in the mountainous areas in the borders of modern-day India, Pakistan and China, the area now known as Kashmir.
But that shaggy coat is not the one that becomes a scarf or a jumper – in fact, the outer hair is often used in paintbrushes and such like, as it’s relatively coarse.
The wool we know as cashmere actually comes from an underlayer, rather like the down of a young bird, which grows short and forms a layer between the skin and the outer coat. It is the exact opposite of the coarse visible layer – it’s soft and highly insulating, thanks to its microscopic structure. In nature, cashmere goats moult this layer as soon as the winter ends, because even in the mountains, it would be just too warm. A new layer grows in its place the following autumn.
In the distant past, this wool would have been collected off the ground, but nowadays, the goats are bred and sheared in an annual cycle mimicking nature. This soft hair is what is known as cashmere. It is spun into woollen yarn and processed, dyed and blended for its intended use.
As you can see, cashmere is quite different to the other wools you may be familiar with. Sheep wool can be quite scratchy, but many people don’t mind that because it is cheaper, and any coarseness can be eliminated by wearing a soft underlayer in cotton, silk or man-made fabric.
Some wools approach cashmere in terms of softness, however. Merino comes from a few breeds of sheep that have developed very soft wool (and have been selectively bred to accentuate it). And there’s also Angora wool, which actually comes from a breed of rabbit, and mohair, which comes from the confusingly named Angora goat.
As far as care is concerned, however, cashmere should more or less be treated exactly the same as any other wool. Much of the advice below applies to cashmere, but it could equally apply to other wools – cashmere isn’t exceptionally difficult to look after. In fact, its softness belies a real toughness that was a necessary aspect of its evolution. Just like silk, which is soft but strong enough to make parachutes and even protective clothing, cashmere is a pretty hardy fabric, while remaining luxurious.
Pure cashmere is an incredibly valuable and luxurious fabric, and it is also relatively rare and labour-intensive to farm. The figure of three to four goats per jumper per year is about right, and that explains why it is a premium product – it’s a lot of husbandry for a relatively small yield.
However, just like gold alloys, there are ways of making cashmere go further without detracting from the qualities that make it so attractive. One way is to blend it at the spinning stage with other yarns; a second is to knit cashmere and other fabrics together; and a third is to use pure cashmere knits in certain parts (typically where it touches the skin) and other wools elsewhere.
Cashmere yarn does actually blend very well, and as long as the ratio of cashmere to other fabrics doesn’t go too low, a blended knit can retain the softness and insulation of pure cashmere while being much less expensive. When the blend is right, there will be little noticeable drop in quality too.
Cashmere can also be improved in certain ways, for example by adding recycled polyamide, an elasticated fabric that helps clothing to keep its shape after it has been stretched.
Now you know about where cashmere comes from and how it differs from other wools, you can see the importance of making sure you do everything in your power to keep it as close to its natural state as possible, while still enjoying its sumptuous softness.
Below, we’ll talk about just that – looking after cashmere, whether it’s a jumper, a scarf or a blanket. That means storing it properly, wearing it without damaging it, and how to wash and iron it. It might be slightly different to the way you’re accustomed to dealing with other wools or completely different fabrics, but that’s why it’s so important to know.
You can go a long way towards looking after your cashmere clothing simply by making sure you look after it when you’re wearing it. Although it does have a degree of springiness in both the yarn and the knit, it’s still possible to overstretch it so it won’t return to its pristine state.
Bear that in mind when you’re pulling on your jumper – elbows and shoulders are often the first places to get out of shape if you’re pulling it on and off wrongly. If you have big hair that you don’t like to disturb, perhaps consider a cashmere cardigan rather than a normal jumper, or at least a pullover with a large scoop neck.
If you’re wearing your sweater under a jacket or coat, do watch out for rough surfaces on the lining – zip pockets on the inside are particularly notorious for pulling knitwear, as are things sticking out of inside pockets such as pens and combs. Even a rough seam or label can catch on woollen clothing and pull it, so run your fingers over the inside of your jacket to check for anything that looks like it could snag.
Also, watch out for sweat, your natural body oils and cosmetic products such as deodorant, foundation and creams – they can all stain your cashmere if they become excessive. It’s often a good idea to wear a light vest underneath and use a non-staining antiperspirant. Let body lotions absorb into your skin before dressing.
One of cashmere’s mortal enemies is the moth. They lay eggs in the fabric, and the larvae hatch and start eating it, which leads to rather large holes in the knit. (It’s not just cashmere – they will do it to all sorts of fabrics.)
If you’re storing your cashmere knitwear away for the summer, you should invest in some zip-up storage bags, and keep it in one. Mothballs do work, but they’re not exactly the best smelling things to open your drawers to. However, moths are repelled by some scents such as lavender, rosemary and cloves, and you can also buy synthetic sprays that moths avoid.
Now you need to make sure you’re not damaging the look of your cashmere by storing it wrongly. It’s surprisingly easy to crease a cashmere knit if it is left under pressure for a few weeks.
If possible, lay it flat on a drawer, with any anti-moth measures in place. We realise that this is not practical for most homes, where drawer and cupboard space are at a premium, so gently fold the arms across the chest, and if you’re folding it in half, try to put something inside the fold, such as a folded towel or an old T-shirt, anything that will create a curve at the fold rather than a sharp angle.
We wouldn’t recommend hanging cashmere jumpers or cardigans from a hanger, especially for prolonged lengths of time. Gravity will cause it to stretch, especially at the top, most notably where it is in contact with the hanger. Hangers with clips are absolutely out of the question too, as they can permanently overpress the knit.
It’s possible – likely, in fact – that at some point you’ll get a stain on your cashmere jumper when you’re at home or out and about. It could be a splash of coffee, wine or sauce, or perhaps a grass stain. It’s not always necessary to wash the whole garment – you can sometimes spot clean it.
The important thing to remember straight away is never to use hot water. Cashmere does not like it as it can strip away the natural oils that make it supple and soft. So your first attempt at a clean should be to simply run cold, or possibly lukewarm, water over the affected area. If nothing else it will stop the stain from drying into the fabric, but with some stains like soil, it can completely clean them away. If you have sparkling water to hand, this can actually be slightly more effective. Just gently dab at the area affected with a fast-dyed (or preferably white) cloth, napkin or handkerchief.
Now you’ve got the area damp, you’ve bought yourself some time, and assuming the stain hasn’t gone, move up to a very light detergent – shampoo is perfect, preferably baby shampoo. Dab a small amount onto the stain (never rub), leave it to soak in for a minute, then rinse it in cold water. In most cases, this will remove the stain, or at least make it practically invisible on all but the whitest of wools. If this fails, then you should at least have minimised the damage, and you might just need to move on to a full wash.
Cashmere should never be thrown into the washing machine with the rest of your clothes, or indeed on its own on a normal wash setting. You do have to take extra care with this sensitive fabric. By far the best way to wash any cashmere clothing is to hand wash it, at a low temperature (around 30 °C). That’s much cooler than a bath, even a baby’s bath, and isn’t much higher than room temperature.
The detergent you use is also critical. Normal washing powder or capsules are designed for tough stains on hardy fabrics, and can play havoc with choosy cashmere. Always use a detergent designed for wool if you can find it, but as with spot cleaning, a small amount of baby shampoo is the preferred substance for many experts.
Simply fill your bowl with water and a little detergent, and gently massage the garment for a few minutes, before moving on to a rinse – that is, a bowl with just water in it – and then drying (see below). You might need to rinse twice, especially if you are still seeing bubbles after the first rinse. But again, no squeezing or wringing – just gentle motions, please. If your washing machine has a handwashing setting, it will probably be OK, but make sure you use the right temperature.
As with all garments, your first port of call should be the label – that should tell you exactly how (and how not) to wash, dry and flatten your clothing.
Whether or not cashmere should be dry cleaned separates the industry, it’s fair to say! While some insist that it’s perfectly safe, others will say it’s OK in an emergency, but should only be done once or twice in a garment’s lifetime. Others again will say it should never be done. We probably fall into the second category – if there’s no alternative, and wet cleaning has failed, consider taking it to the dry cleaners. A professional cleaner might actually be able to use other techniques anyway, so it’s always worth having a word with your local cleaner. We’ve written more about dry cleaning cashmere here.
Once you’ve washed your cashmere clothing, drying is the next part where strict rules need to be observed. First up, drying in a tumble dryer is out of the question, for the same reason as described above – it will dry out the individual fibres, which will make cashmere lose a lot of its inherent softness. Similarly, you shouldn’t hang it on a radiator or in front of a fire.
After overheating, the next concern is stretching your garment out of shape through drying. As with all knitwear, this is very easy to do, partly because saturated wool fibres are easier to overstretch, but also because the extra weight of a soaking wet garment can tug at the knit if it’s simply hung up.
For all these reasons, the best way to dry cashmere is to place it flat, ideally on a drying frame placed over a bath, and just let it dry naturally. A small amount of heat will speed this up, but we’re talking ambient room temperature here, nothing direct. Wool does have a natural ability to shrug off water, so it will probably take less time than you might think. Drying outside in the garden or on a balcony should be fine too if it’s not too cold, but watch out for excessive direct sunlight, as it can bleach the pigments and also raise the temperature (especially on darker colours).
If you don’t have a drying frame, let the majority of the water run out by holding the garment over a sink for 30–60 seconds (using nothing more than gentle squeezing and patience), then place a towel on a table and lay the garment flat on it. Now, roll the towel and the garment like a Swiss roll, and very gently squeeze on it along the width of the towel. That will soak up a lot of the remaining water. You can repeat with another dry towel if it still feels damp, or just lay it out for a few hours to air-dry.
Should you iron cashmere? Most of the time, it’s a moot point, as most creases and folds will naturally work their way out once a garment has been allowed to gently flex for an hour or two. However, if a cashmere jumper has been stored under pressure or accidentally screwed up in a suitcase, for example, it’s possible that some folds will be left that it simply won’t shrug out, and that’s where you might need to reach for the iron – but as a last resort.
At first, try to gently steam the affected area, either using a steam iron held away from the surface, or a dedicated clothes steamer. While this might run counter to the “don’t overheat” message above, steaming is relatively gentle, partly because it’s wet, and partly because it’s a swift, fleeting effect that wafts away after a few seconds. But even so, start light, far away and at low temperature, gently ramping up if it’s ineffective.
If all this fails, only then should you iron cashmere. As you’d expect, caution and a light touch are important. If you’re ironing directly, use the lowest possible temperature setting (your iron might have a specific wool setting), and to be extra safe, place a damp, colour-fast cloth between the garment and the iron. This again will help limit the intensity and duration of the heat, thus protecting your wool.
Also, as we say in our article on ironing cashmere, time is also a great healer. If you’re not planning to wear your garment for a few weeks, lay it as flat as possible and let it breathe. A sheet of knitted fabric is really just a series of intertwined threads, and each one naturally wants to be straight, so over time, the net result can be a garment that’s almost back to its pristine state, meaning a swift steam or light iron finishes the job.
Pilling is where you see little rice-sized bobbles on wool on the surface of woollens. It is caused by the fibres twisting and tangling on themselves, and if left untreated, it will only get worse as more fibres become entrapped in the tangle.
An effective way to stop pilling is to not wear your jumper day after day. If two fibres twist together (and that’s how every bobble starts), they will often unbind themselves if simply left to relax for a day or two, something that is unlikely to happen if you’re wearing the garment. Another preventative measure is to avoid wearing things over your cashmere, as rubbing from other fabrics can cause twists.
However, when pilling does happen, it’s important that you try and remove the bobbles as soon as possible to stop them from accumulating more fibres. For this, you should use a pilling comb, which takes off the offending fibres without tugging away at perfectly good wool that’s still part of your garment. Find out more about pilling and how to deal with it here.
After reading this, you might think cashmere is high maintenance and not worth the trouble. But really, it’s as durable and dependable as the goats on which it grows. All that’s different is that the things that it wasn’t evolved to deal with in nature (excessive heat, detergents and folding) are part of your daily life. Just learn what its limitations are and you can enjoy your cashmere clothing for life. Find out more care and styling tips by bookmarking our cashmere blog.