In the 15th century Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, the great Sufi poet and saint, brought hundreds of craftspeople to Kashmir. They settled in the valley and their trade flourished. Ali Hamadani’s contribution to shaping the strong and colourful culture of the Kashmir region cannot be understated. All kinds of arts and crafts grew up around the area as a result of his followers, and his gregarious approach to the world.
While in Kashmir Ali Hamadani took the wool from the local goats and discovered how impossibly soft it was. Realising the potential, he made a pair of socks and gifted it to the local king. The king loved them and from there an industry began and blossomed and for many centuries the production of cashmere fell into a rhythm that weathered empire and revolution. The raw material travelled the Silk Road into Europe where it was converted into clothing.
Ali Hamadani wasn’t the first to discover cashmere wool, though he was the seed of its becoming an industry. In reality people all along the Eastern steppe, in Mongolia and Nepal and Kazakhstan, have been clothing themselves in cashmere for millennia.
Cashmere is a cruelly poetic fabric. The harsher the climate the warmer and more luxurious the wool. It would take one cashmere goat about four years to produce enough wool for one sweater.
The sweater it produces, though, is of spectacular quality. A good cashmere sweater, about eight times warmer than ordinary wool, will last for many years, keep its shape, get softer with age and won’t pill. A cashmere sweater is best hand-washed, so not only stays out of the dry cleaners, but spares the environment the ugly effects of their chemicals.
Though it goes against your instincts, if you look for softness when buying cashmere you’ll probably wind up with the cheap, less durable variety that is mass produced in China. The best cashmere is made from the finest hair, which has a strength to it. This means that it will be a bit rougher to handle at first, but it will become incredibly soft over time. Good cashmere gets better with age.
In the last twenty or so years, cashmere has become more plentiful and less expensive. Globalisation played a big part, as did the privatisation of the industry in countries like Mongolia. In a very real sense, cashmere has been democratised. It’s expensive, luxury cache has slipped a little, and less prosperous people can own a beautiful cashmere sweater or shawl.
The cost of that democratisation, though, has been large, and mostly hidden. For cashmere to become more attainable, there needs to be more of it. Between 1992 and 1999 the amount of cashmere goats in Mongolia doubled from 5.5 million to 11 million. By 2009 it had hit 20 million. Such a dramatic increase has dramatic consequences. The grasslands of the Mongolian Steppe, home to horsemen and herds forever, have been decimated by the voracious goats. Dust storms have started blowing and have had far reaching environmental consequences. The goats are hard to feed, have much shorter life expectancy than their parents and, significantly, they produce lower quality cashmere.
In China, the greatest exporter of cashmere by a long margin, the effects have been similar. Grasslands have been reduced to moonscapes. Dust storms are whipped up, goats go hungry. The impact is not small. Some of the air pollution in China has become so extreme that it’s 50 times worse than the World Health Organisation deems safe for humans.
A lot of cashmere now is low quality and cheap. The once near-perfect fabric of history and luxury could become a thing of the past.
Cashmere was a luxury, expensive product because the world could only produce so much cof it. It has now become part of an industry that expanded with such velocity and savagery that we are only now contending with the consequences. Our appetite for the fabric must be tempered, or the means of producing it will become completely unsustainable.
As well as this, our rapacious desire to have more of it at a cheaper cost is getting rid of what made it so special: its rarity. Once, you could buy one cashmere sweater and keep it for years, for life even. At the current rate of production there are enough cashmere garments produced a year to give every single person on earth several each.
The identity of cashmere was forged in the fertile mind of the great Sufi poet, in the ancient lands of Kashmir and in the harsh winters of the Eastern Steppe. It is beautiful, soft and warm. It is luxurious. We should re-elevate cashmere to being a high-end product. We as a culture should buy less cashmere, and only good cashmere. Let the grass return to the slopes of Mongolia, and let the ancient business go back to its natural rhythms. Only then can we maintain and enjoy this most wonderful of fabrics.
Either that, or buy alpaca wool.