Knitwear History: A Cashmere Love Affair

Probably the most coveted fabric ever, soft, luxurious cashmere has come a long wayacross the centuries making women all over the world fall in love with its luxurious,butter-soft feel.

Initially used asbasic insulation by ancient tribesmen, the precious goat’s wool boasts today the status of princely fabric.The history of cashmere fashion is truly fascinating and the huge popularity this natural fiber gained so fast speaks volumes about its unique properties.

It all started as early as the 14th century when the soft beard and underbelly fur of goats originally living in Nepal and Persia was worked into handmade shawls. Once this wool is introduced to the Indian region of Kashmir (which givesthe fabric’s name today) the weaving industry blooms in the area. 

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Cashmere becomes even more popular during the 1500s when advanced weaving techniques are developed to increase the production of shawls and pashminas.

The 18th century sees an evergrowing European demand for raw cashmere with the aristocracy getting a taste of this gorgeous natural fabric despite its exorbitant price. The sought after shawls with their intricate patterns become a status symbol by the end of the 18th century thanks to Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. After her husband offers hera beautifully embroidered pashmina from Kashmir she becomesthe biggestcashmere trendsetter of Neoclassicism.Surprisingly or not, the empress’s personalpashmina collection is said to have eventually counted400 pieces which were outrageously expensive at the time.

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Being unable to cope with the growing demand from the European market, the craftsmen in Kashmir came up with modern techniques for a much faster weaving production. However, with the rise of the industrial era in Europe, French and Scottish businessmen started creating shawls in Europe using inferior quality yarn in order to make them accessible to lower classes, as well.

The 20th century sees China as the primary source of raw cashmere. The United States are another important producer with multiple textile centres, while Scotland’s local cashmere production is still a significant one.

In terms of style, the androgynous silhouette emerges in the roaring 20s.Iconic designers like JeanPatou and Coco Chanel promote the sporty look and elevate the status of knitwear. For the first time luxury becomes practical.

One of the biggest innovators in fashion history, Elsa Schiaparelli, revolutionizes the 30s with a knitwear collection featuring surrealisttrompe l’oeil cashmere pullovers.

One of the first luxury knitwear manufacturers in the world,the iconic Scottish brand Pringle of Scotland which had been knitting cashmere since the 1870s, gives fashion the intarsia design, known today as the argyle pattern. The brand is also credited with creating the twinset in the 30s. Otto Weisz, head designer at Pringle, rethinks the sporty two-piece cardigan and sweater set from the golf course and transforms it into a fashion hit which will last all through the 50s.

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However, the cashmere sweater reaches its peak of popularity in 1937 after beautiful Lana Turner sports a short-sleeved piece in the movie They Won’t Forget introducing the term “sweater girl”. 

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The superstar of the 40s and 50s is the embellished evening cashmere sweater. Designers like Main Bocher and Claire Potter beautifully decorate dress cardigans and sweaters with embroidery, beads, sequins, rhinestones and oversized fur collars. Three quartersleeves are fashionable until they get longer covering the wrist at the end of the 60s. 

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