A shopping primer for the baller on a budget.
Cashmere was, for a long time, code for luxury. The softest, warmest, and lightest-weight sweater that money could buy, it was only recently (relatively) democratized; You can spend $2,000 at Brunello Cucinelli, or you can spend $80 at Uniqlo.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably got one or two prized, 100 percent cashmere pieces in your closet. They were splurges or gifts that you take extra-special care of. You’ve also probably got a few lower-grade cashmere items — cashmere blends or discount buys — that are silly but still soft (and cashmere) so you keep them hanging around.
But what determines the price of a cashmere sweater? And the quality? Why can I get a 100 percent cashmere sweater for $80, $800, or $2,000? And why is my $200 J.Crew sweater pilling after a few wears — doesn’t more expensive automatically mean better cashmere?
Well, sort of. But also no. After comparing the quality and price from a bunch of brands, speaking to people working in the industry, and reading as much as humanly possible on the subject, I’m confident that the sweet spot for cashmere made and procured in an ethical way, and made with high-quality yarn that will wear well and last for a long time, is between $100 and $300.
Paying more means you’re shelling out extra for design, brand name, or a heritage factory — all things that might be important to you, and thus worth the money. Paying less is perfectly alright too, and you can find quality sweaters that aren’t made in sweat shops for as little as $40 – $80. They’re just not going to be made from 100 percent, premium Grade A cashmere.
To help figure out where your priorities lie on that spectrum, let’s take a look at all the things affecting the price tag of a finished piece, before diving into the essential buying tips to make sure you’re getting what you pay for.
It Comes From a Goat (or Six)
Cashmere is the winter undercoat of the cashmere goat. While its name comes from Kashmir, India, the fiber can come from a goat anywhere. Today, most of the world’s premium cashmere comes from Mongolia, where the cold climate and hearty lifestyle of the animals produces the longest, thinnest, softest hair. Cashmere also gets points for color; naturally white hair is more desirable because it doesn’t require as much processing to dye different colors.
Procuring cashmere is an incredibly labor-intensive process. The traditional method is to hand-comb the hair (rather than to shear it off, which is harder on the goats and adds more short, low-quality hairs to the mix) during molting season in the spring, and separate the long fibers from the short fibers into different grades by hand.
On top of all that trouble, these goats have a pretty low wool yield, making the raw material quite rare. Each goat’s yearly production caps around 4 ounces, meaning it takes two goats to make one two-ply cashmere sweater, and up to six goats for higher quality garments made from thicker yarn.
The Grade Matters
Raw cashmere hair is sorted into grades based on the length and thickness of the hair, measured in density units called microns. Grade A cashmere is usually considered 14 to 15.5 microns and 30 to 34 cm long, while Grade B is 16 to 19 microns; to put this in perspective, human hair is about 75 – 100 microns.
Shilpa Shah, co-founder of Cuyana, says the quality between grades makes a huge difference. “Grade A cashmere is soft to the touch without heavy washing of the yarn, so it gives us the most longevity from a wear perspective. It's not going to get holes as easily because the yarn is stronger and because the fibers are very long.”
According to Shah, Grade B requires heavy washing to produce a soft feel, which can produce adverse affects like more pilling and faster wear and tear. But most American consumers (myself included) purchase cashmere based on how soft it feels in the store: The softer the sweater, the higher the quality — or so we think.
“In reality with cashmere, the better cashmere is not super soft to touch,” Shah explains. “It softens over time. What happens with some brands is that they over-wash the yarn in order to up the softness, so that American consumers can actually feel like it's a quality sweater, because it's so soft.”
The Global Cashmere Market
In addition to grade, the price of the raw material is also dependent on the markup from raw material and yarn dealers, as well as the brand selling your sweater.
Matt Scanlan — co-founder of Naadam, a direct-to-consumer knitwear brand that was founded after Scanlan spent a few weeks living with goat herders in Mongolia by strange twist of fate — says that most luxury cashmere is handled by dealers who pay the herders relatively little, and then charge an arm and a leg when selling the yarn to designers via brokers. “There's brokers and traders in most commodities, but in this commodity/marketplace, they exist to marginalize the herders,” explains Scanlan. “They'll tell them that their materials are worth $20, and then they buy it and re-sell it for $50.”
But by dealing directly with the herders, Naadam can cut huge margins off the price that’s passed on to the consumer and pay herders a fairer wage. “We buy it from the herders at $31, so we get it at $31, not $50. That's the secret sauce.”
While brokers still stand to make a huge profit, the price of cashmere on the global market has been steadily dropping over the past few years, in part due to a dip in demand for luxury goods like cashmere.
Where & How It’s Made
While the price of raw materials does indeed affect the price of the finished garment, it’s still not the full story. There’s the quantity and timing of the order, the cost of sampling, freight and import duties, not to mention where it’s actually made.
Everlane knits its $100 sweaters at a factory in Dongguan China, which (like all the brand’s factories) has been closely vetted and monitored for quality control and ethical labor practices, and where the cost of labor is far cheaper than at any European factory, maximizing the savings passed on to the consumer.
Mills and factories in Italy and Scotland have been manufacturing cashmere products for hundreds of years, compared with about 35 years in China — so they pretty much own the luxury market. Brands that use them, like Pringle of Scotland, Loro Piana, and Brunnello Cucinelli as well as smaller names like Cuyana and Naadam, are getting the best in the game — and paying for it.
What to Look For at the Store
Just because the price falls in the sweet spot doesn’t mean the price is right for the sweater. Here’s what to look for to make sure you’re getting the quality you’re paying for.
If you’re buying cashmere, you want Grade A and high ply yarn, spun at a reputable mill (yarn from Italy and Scotland is generally higher quality). This usually means a thicker, more tightly woven knit, which in turn means a longer lasting garment. If the ply and grade aren’t listed on the tag (but really, they should be), pull a bit on the sweater to see how easily it loses shape. Don’t buy anything thin or loosely knit (or just know it might not last).
While cashmere should be soft, beware of anything extra fuzzy or crazy super soft at the time of purchase. This could be a sign of over-washing. Unfortunately, pilling doesn’t generally show up until you’re wearing the garment (and high-quality cashmere won’t pill as much after it’s been worn and washed) but go ahead and give it a little rub. If you notice any hints of pilling already, don’t buy it.
Blends are not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you are looking to spend less. Grade A cashmere blended with high-quality wool equals a soft garment that keeps its shape for a much lower price point than 100 percent cashmere. Silk-cashmere blends produce a strong but thin sweater that’s not quite as soft but has a subtle sheen. Cotton-cashmere blends produce a cooler temperature sweater with some of the same softness qualities as traditional cashmere.
Everlane Cashmere Crew, $100
Where to Buy It
This list isn’t the start and end of good quality cashmere — use your newfound knowledge to make educated purchases at your favorite stores. But here are a few places to start:
For an heirloom quality sweater, you may want to spend a little more. At the high end of the spectrum, Loro Piana is often touted as the top of the line in cashmere; its crew necks start at $895. If you’re looking for something beyond the basics, consider boutique brand The Elder Statesmen. 100 percent cashmere sweaters start around $1,000 and blends around $500, but all are super premium quality and come in cool patterns and vibrant colors.
Cuyana and Naadam are two great shops in the mid-range — because the brands are direct-to-consumer, you’ll pay a small fraction of what you would elsewhere for similar quality and design detail. (According to Shah, the brand’s $450 premium cashmere turtleneck is basically a $1,000 sweater, because of the precautions taken and its Italian manufacturing.) Both brands also make high-quality blends for under $200.
Banana Republic’s cashmere sweaters start around $168 and use Scottish yarn from Tod & Duncan. J.Crew uses yarn milled in Italy, and after what seems like a few years of complaints judging by the online reviews, now makes them in a more dense, 12-gauge knit. Long-sleeved sweaters start at $188. (Though it should be noted, neither brand discloses the cashmere grade.)
If you care more about how long your sweater will last than you do about where the yarn comes from, try Everlane, which offers some of the cheapest Grade A cashmere sweaters, or White + Warren, which receives good online reviews.
And if you don’t care about premium grade or 100 percent cashmere, Uniqlo is a great place to stock up on decent, affordable cashmere sweaters; it also offers the least expensive blends, starting at $40. (While the brand is forthcoming about farms and factories, Uniqlo declined to disclose its cashmere grade, which led an industry insider to guess it’s probably a blend of Grade A and Grade B.)