Cashmere comes from the soft undercoat of goats bred to produce the wool. It takes more than two goats to make a single two-ply sweater. The fibers of the warming undercoat must be separated from a coarser protective top coat during the spring molting season, a labor-intensive process that typically involves combing and sorting the hair by hand. These factors contribute to the relatively low global production rate of cashmere—approximately 6,500 metric tons of pure cashmere annually, as opposed to 2 million metric tons of sheep’s wool.
The name cashmere comes from an old spelling of Kashmir, the region where its production and trade originated, possibly as early as the Mongolian empire in the 13th century. According to historian Michelle Maskiell, author of “Consuming Kashmir: Shawls and Empires, 1500-2000,” from the 1500s to as late as the early 1900s, Iranian and Indian emperors used Kashmiri shawls in political and religious settings; in the Mughal Indian courts, for example, the acceptance of a shawl from a political figure established a hierarchy between the giver and the receiver. In the late 18th century, Scottish textile manufacturer Joseph Dawson discovered shawls made from cashmere in India and began to import the material to his factory in Scotland. Dawson sold shawls to upper-class British women who prized the fabric for its softness and warmth. (High-quality cashmere can be up to eight times warmer than sheep’s wool despite its light weight.)
Wool fibres are breathable and react to the body’s changing temperature. You only need to think for a moment about the climate in which Merino sheep live to understand that Australian Merino wool naturally adapts to both the heat and the cold. When a Merino wool garment has reached the end of this wear, it can be added to organic compost, as wool fibres are completely biodegradable. Wool rapidly decomposes in soil and even acts like a natural fertiliser in the process by releasing nitrogen-rich nutrients back into the earth.
Wool has been used in clothing for millennia: from primitive man first clothing himself in the woolly skins of wild sheep - through the civilisation of Babylonia where people first distinguished wool sheep from food sheep - through Roman times when there were definite signs of selective breeding for a superior fleece - and through to the ascendancy of wool during the Middle Ages in Europe. By the late eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution began a movement which took the textile industry from the home into the workshop and factory.