- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 21, 2006

Cashmere. The name is synonymous with luxury and style. That’s why soft cashmere scarves and sweaters cost top dollar at stores such as Saks 5th Avenue, Nordstrom and J. Crew.

It is possible, however, to pick up a cashmere throw at Wal-Mart for $59.99. A women’s cashmere V-neck sweater is on sale at Target for $49.99.

Yes, cashmere has gone mass market. Buyers should be aware, though, that there can be a big difference between a $300 cashmere sweater and a $50 one, says Karl Spilhaus, president of the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute, a Boston-based trade group.

“There is a real cache with cashmere,” Mr. Spilhaus says. “It’s been associated with products your grandmother had for a lifetime that looked like a million bucks. The problem is, people are now exploiting the name. Cashmere is 10 times as expensive [as] wool as a raw material, so there is great incentive to exploit it. There is a lot of cheating.”

Though the Federal Trade Commission has regulations regarding the labeling of cashmere, many companies mislabel their products, Mr. Spilhaus says.

FTC rules state that if a product is made of cashmere only, it can be labeled “100 percent cashmere.” If it is a blend — say 80 percent wool and 20 percent cashmere — that must be disclosed on the label. Some companies sell inexpensive “cashmere” mixes in sheep’s wool, camel cashmere or even chemical fibers.

Even if a product is 100 percent cashmere, there are varying grades, says Victor Fang, president of Eden Cashmere, a New Jersey company that manufactures cashmere goods.

Raw cashmere is graded on its weight, length, thickness and color. An inferior batch will include shorter, coarser hair, he says. Shorter and coarser fibers will cause pilling and itching, he adds.

Because buyers can’t always rely on the label, they should know how to distinguish good cashmere from lower-quality cashmere, Mr. Spilhaus says.

Buyers should gently stretch the garment. If it retains its shape, it is good quality, Mr. Spilhaus says. If the fabric is loosely knit, it probably is made of one-ply yarn. The better-quality two-ply yarn will produce a tighter knit that will hold its shape better.

If a buyer runs a hand over the surface, it should feel soft, Mr. Fang says. Shorter, cheaper fibers will create pilling. If it feels scratchy, the fabric probably contains some wool.

Cashmere is so expensive because it is rare, Mr. Fang says. Cashmere comes from goats that live in Mongolia, northwestern China, Nepal and Siberia. The hair — the longer the better — must be combed from the goats, then separated, cleaned, softened, dyed and spun into yarn.

“To process the raw materials into clothes, it is a 70-step process that involves a huge amount of people,” Mr. Feng says.

Meanwhile, a goat will produce only about 50 grams of washed cashmere annually. That means it takes the fiber from three to six goats to make one women’s sweater — and up to nine goats to make one men’s sweater.

So if you are shopping for cashmere and see a very low price, you may have lucked into a big sale on quality goods — or you may be buying an unmarked blend that won’t last very long.

“You should consider cashmere as an investment product,” Mr. Spilhaus says. “At a higher price, you are going to get a better product that will have those qualities you expect from cashmere: the way it drapes, the loft of the fabric, the way it feels. It should last for years.”

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