a brief introduction to cashmere
Although it's May, temperatures here in the North East still have not stabilised. The days and evenings are as yet still chilly, but surely in a few weeks that is likely to change. Generally, when one thinks of cashmere, one associates it with cold weather. Yet, cashmere, which is technically a hair, can be worn year round depending on the weight.
A couple of months ago I was wandering around online, looking for a cashmere that could take me through Springtime and possibly part of Autumn. At this time of year, there are many deals to be had on cashmere so I was thinking ahead in a way. During my wandering I landed on the website of N. Peal, a British company that has been in the cashmere business since 1936. Intrigued by their offerings, I stalled for a couple of days before I made my purchase, a cropped cardigan in superfine cashmere.
Before I go into the details about the sweaters, I'd like to frame this with where cashmere comes from. Cashmere can be harvested from goats in Mongolia, Turkey, China, Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. Mongolia, which is landlocked by China and Russia, produces about a third of the world's cashmere. With brutally hot summers and frigid winters (-30º), a sparse population and massive amounts of land, cashmere goats (Capra Hircus) have plenty of terrain to wander around in. Harvesting of the hairs happen around the Springtime. The goats shed hairs naturally as the weather warms up, so local people harvest hairs that have fallen as the goats continue to move. The use of cashmere for warmth appears to date back to the thirteenth century. For most of the twentieth century up to about the 1990's, exports of cashmere primarily went to Europe. Once disposable income in China began to increase, cashmere demand increased there as well.
When I landed on N. Peal's website I felt as though I had stepped into a secret society. Within the past couple of years I've developed a keener interest in Cashmere that was not limited to where it was sold but more so about its origin. The more I read, the more uninspired I was by what I was seeing in the department stores, and so finding N. Peal was definitely a watershed moment.
The N. Peal Superfine Cropped Cashmere Cardigan in Oyster arrived in a stunning box adorned with their stamped ribbon. Very well protected inside of the beautiful box, it was a joy to unfurl this sweater, to hold it to my nose, to run my fingers over it and to look at the inside and of course, to feel it against my skin. I chose the colour Oyster, a pale blushy pink that can work with numerous other colours in a standard wardrobe.
With three-quarter length sleeves and a cropped style, this is a welcome change from the typical boxy styles that tend to litter the general market. This superfine sweater would be perfect over a sleeveless dress or top. I've even tried it over a sheer silk blouse and could not be more pleased. In terms of fit, the cut is true to size. If you have slightly bigger arms or if you plan to wear it over long sleeve silky blouses, I'd suggest purchasing a size up, as this is not a roomy sweater. The seams of the sweater are secure and well crafted, reducing worry about holes forming if you tend to be rough on your clothes. After a couple of wears I did see a bit of pilling directly under the arms but I was able to remove those easily. Cashmere will always pill a little bit, especially when the garment is new. This sweater is light enough that you can use it during a summer evening if the wind has picked up or if you're attending a summer wedding and need a light topper that won't take away from the rest of your outfit.
After each wear I simply fold it onto a hanger and let it air out for a day, away from sunlight, then fold it and put it away. Please note that cashmere sweaters or tops should never be placed onto a hanger from the shoulders as this may stretch the item. N.Peal has a beautifully designed website that is easy to navigate, and has several currency options for purchases including US Dollars. Their style and colour options span the spectrum from classic neutrals such as oatmeal, navy and black to punchier colours such as cornblue and tea rose.
Moving now to Brunello Cucinelli, a namesake brand founded by a powerhouse visionary whose childhood was nothing close to luxury. The brand is centered in the hamlet of Solomeo, a small town in Umbria, Italy. Brunello Cucinelli began by producing a handful of cashmere sweaters that he dyed in bright colours, as his intention was to go counter to the convetional cashmere colour scheme at that time. That first batch led to his first order, ushering in a new way to have and experience cashmere.
It can be said that Brunello Cucinelli has a corner of the cashmere market that is enviable. There are other Italian brands such as Loro Piana or Scottish brands such as Johnstons of Elgin that boast impeccable reputations and products, with the expected high price tag. But Brunello Cucinelli, although quite pricey as well, is not just a man or a luxury brand. It is a 'movement', a belief system even, because of all that it's founder has done to restore the town in which his brand is headquartered. Cucinelli is moved by great thinkers such as Kant and Marcus Aurelius, he believes in paying his workers well and treating them well. He has breathed life into the presentation of the arts in his town and allocates a percentage of annual sales to causes earmarked at improving the lives of others.
The Brunello Cucinelli sweater I have is a Christmas gift from my husband. I was bowled over to receive it and I continue to be enchanted by it. As expected, the cashmere is soft yet weighty and it is the type of sweater that if carefully looked after, can easily be worn many years from now. In a neutral oatmeal with a neckline that is finished with the signature Monili bead trim, I wear this sweater for day or evening.
It is understated and so impeccably made, wearing it makes me feel polished and enigmatic. Although it is a short sleeve sweater, each time I've worn it I've been comfortable enough to not need another layer on top or below it. Yet, it is roomy enough that I could layer it over a blouse if inclined. The dolman sleeves come to right above my elbows, making it a versatile piece with endless styling possibilities.
To me, the seams of a cashmere sweater matter almost as much as the quality of the cashmere used. When I look at the seams of this sweater and compare it to the seams in my other random cashmere pieces, the difference is striking. Brunello Cucinelli's seams are evenly done, neat and also have a flatter, cleaner finish. Examining this sweater on the inside is indeed a testament to the detailed attention given to the construction, shape and finish of the garment. With unparalleled quality, superb design and and an enigmatic leader at it's helm, anything from the brand Brunello Cucinelli is an investment and a pleasure to wear and enjoy for years to come.
The future of the cashmere industry is hinged on several factors. Goat herd sizes, availability of grasses for feeding, value for cashmere farmers, a changing physical landscape for grazing, market changes, consumer demands, quotas and changes in climate are slated to impact the cashmere industry. Added to that, technical advances in machine produced fibers may also have an impact in addition to genetic modification of goats to make them produce hairs that hit the mark more frequently for use in the industry.
Although the use of cashmere dates back several centuries, the industry appears to be in a state of flux as it is continually seeking to find its footing as the market evolves in this new world. The arena has been impacted by highs and lows, regulatory changes and even animal rights and environmental advocacy.
Despite this, the allure of cashmere is likely to remain in place for the forseeable future. The ability to find a cashmere sweater at bargain prices in some markets is a symptom of the democratisation of the general market place. Just know that a bargain cashmere buy, while tempting, will not deliver on longevity or craftsmanship, thus, you'll get what you pay for.