Cashmere is complicated - treat it respect for the cosiest of relationships
Once a luxury item only available to the affluent few, cashmere is now a high-street stalwart. But don't let it take you to the cleaners.
BY Luke Leitch | 28 December 2011
Now the development of intensive Chinese production facilities has transformed cashmere into a delicacy so democratised that you can get a lovely, soft, 100 per cent goat-fleece jumper for under £50 (even before Christmas, Uniqlo was offering a very fine £29:95 V-neck). In 2009, the Scottish Cashmere Club reported its strongest-ever sales and, despite the economic downturn, anecdotal evidence from retailers suggests our appetite for cashmere continues to be almost as keen. Jo Hooper, head of buying womenswear at John Lewis, said: "Cashmere has become a staple yarn in people's wardrobes - an everyday luxury. Sales of men's and women's cashmere have done well this season."
At Marks & Spencer, men's V-neck cashmere jumpers (£69, currently down to £39 on sale) were the biggest-selling garment online in the week before Christmas. Over in womenswear, M&S reported nearly-as-strong sales, with all styles in grey, and red button through crew-neck cardigans proving particularly popular.
A notch or two up the cashmere quality index (veering towards organic Smoked Salmon territory), Victoria Stapleton, the founder of Brora, says that she has "seen the popularity of what we do increase annually, despite some tricky recent years. December is a big month for us, and the majority of what we sell this month is heading straight for the Christmas tree."
If these retailers are correct, the upshot is that there are, at present, many thousands of people across the nation relishing the first few wears of their 100 per cent cashmere Christmas gifts. This is the giddy, carefree stage of the relationship. Quickly, however, cashmere becomes complicated: for, although reinvented as a low-cost, fast-fashion fabric, this ultra-soft fibre demands careful handling. And the nub of the problem is in the washing. Treated with disrespect, your cashmere jumper will suddenly develop chimpanzee-suitable stretched arms, expand alarmingly at the waist, or - worst of all - shrink. The most challenging cashmere scenario is to discover the three costly words "Dry Clean Only" printed on the laundry label.
The Closet Thinker: The joy of cashmere
With a little bit of knowledge, however, it is possible to have a long-term, low-maintenance relationship with cashmere.
Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd are two New Yorkers who left their jobs in fashion to educate the new cashmere-wearing constituency about how best to treat their jumpers. The business partners, who run a cleaning products company called The Laundress, first met at Cornell University as students of fibre science, but ended up working at Chanel (Whiting, as a sales executive) and Ralph Lauren (Boyd, as a homewares designer).
These jobs, says Whiting, meant that "there was lots of cashmere in our lives. And a great deal of it said 'Dry Clean Only'. We knew from our textile background that wasn't right. Cashmere isn't meant to be dry-cleaned, it's meant to be washed. It's an animal hair; and washing it is like washing your own hair. Dry cleaning is the equivalent of giving cashmere a perm: not so good."
More and more cashmere manufacturers now mark their products "Dry Clean Only" as a form of protection, says Whiting: "It means that if there is any damage or other issues you have to bring it up with the cleaners, and not the manufacturer." And should you wash a DCO-marked garment that then develops the dreaded chimp-arms (most likely because it's been hung, not laid flat, to dry), you won't have a leg to stand on if you complain.
It was this confusing cashmere advice that inspired Whiting and Boyd to quit their jobs, found The Laundress, and concoct their first product: a cedar-extract, sulphite-free Wool & Cashmere Shampoo (available at store.thelaundress.eu). They urge all new cashmere owners to avoid dry cleaning, and invest a little time instead, "just get to know the fabric a little and care for it properly."
Alongside the cashmere reviews on this page are a few key hand-washing points, plus a run-down of a highly-effective drying technique that reduces the chance of chimp-arm to nil. Other Laundress tips include to not wash your cashmere often - "People tend to overwash" - and avoid shaving off any bobbles: "It's invasive, aggressive, and takes off much more cashmere than you need to". A cashmere comb will do the trick much better.
Their most revelatory advice of all is that you can put all cashmere in the washing machine . "As long as you can adjust your water temperature to cold, and your cycle to low, then, sure, you can machine wash it," says Whiting. "But the less agitation the better. So we advise you turn your items inside out and put them in a mesh bag. And stay away from what you guys call non-bio: you can't have any enzymes."
Cashmere: it's complicated.
Wash & Go? Our eight cashmere picks
Classic crew-neck pull over, £170, Eric Bompard; eric-bompard.com. 100 per cent cashmere.
Feels luxuriously smooth - the George Clooney of knits (below). The care instructions were detailed, and gave the option of a machine wash - jackpot for this lazy tester. Came out looking very fluffy. Two firm rolls with a towel and a session on the radiator later, and it was almost as good as new.
Roll-neck jumper, £25 (was £50), F&F at Tesco; clothingattesco.com. 100 per cent cashmere.
Not only did this deep camel-coloured polo (below) have something alluringly MaxMara-ish about it, it sat fetchingly close on the hip and comfortably loose at the neck. The label said machine washable, so in it went, on a cold delicates cycle. Astonishingly, it kept its shape well. A great buy.
Crew-neck sweater, £49.90 (was, £79.90), Uniqlo; uniqlo.com. 100 per cent cashmere.
A slinky slim silhouette, but this jumper (below) is prone to pilling and has the dreaded dry-cleaning recommendation on the label. I hand washed it in tepid water as thoroughly and as quickly as I could (less time in water the better), popped it on a short spin cycle and dried it flat. Success.
Aran cardigan, £339, Brora; brora.co.uk. 100 per cent cashmere.
On thickness and softness alone this gorgeous four-ply cardigan (below) is an all-round 10. A handwash with the £5 Brora shampoo (yes, more money, but if you're willing to throw £339 on a cardi, this shouldn't be a problem) and the shape was as good a new.
Regular cashmere cardigan, £95 (was £125), Lands' End; landsend.co.uk. 100 per cent cashmere.
This cosy style isn't of the cropped Nigella Lawson variety, but a wardrobe staple that's perfect to throw over a T-shirt or a dress for instant warmth. Plus, it emerged from a handwash looking almost like new.
Contrast V-neck jumper, £275, Pringle; pringlescotland.com. 100 per cent cashmere.
What a jumper (below). Wore it on a scratchy-seated 10-hour economy flight, handwashed in hotel, then wore it all the way back and washed it again. Held its shape and absolutely no bobbling.
Slipover jumper, £59, Marks & Spencer; marksandspencer.com. 70 per cent cashmere, 30 per cent wool.
The bargain price and authentically lustrous cashmere softness were only achieved by making a jumper so thin it's transparent when held up to the light. Chilly. Nonetheless, held up extremely well after a careful hand-wash, and showed very little sign of pilling. Mark this down as summer cashmere.
Cable crew-neck jumper, £170 (was £270), Hackett; hackett.com. 100 per cent cashmere.
Easy on the eye, but tricky in the sink. Despite a tender hand wash and flat dry, we experienced discernable shape change - and the beginnings of "gorilla arms" - after just one dousing (below).