The most loved fiber among the ones found in nature.
Soft, warm, fleecy, very light and bright, desired by everyone.
Today everyone can afford a Cashmere garment. But you have to imagine that until the last century, this wool was a luxurious privilege for kings and queens, as well as the fiber chosen by Tibetan monks who used it to protect themselves from the cold during meditation, while propitiating the ritual with the phrase “let the heat enter”.
The Legend and the Origins
The origins and the use of this special fibre have been lost over the centuries and reality is often confused with legend. It is often said that when sultans and emperors heard about the characteristics of this fibre that they wanted to get hold of it.
Legend has it that the oldest origins date back to the 15th century when the Sultan of Kashmir, Zain-uk-Abidin, a descendent of Genghis Khan, known as “Akbar the Great” for his work promoting the arts, invited a weaver from Turkestan to court to make shawls and fabric for him in cashmere.
In the following years, the production of items in cashmere increased until it became the most important activity in the region.
To this day, in northern India, in Srinagar, the summer capital of the Kashmir, there are artisan workshops which make items in cashmere. However, “Pashminas”, shawls whose name derives from “Pashm”, the Persian word for wool, used in the Indian continent to indicate cashmere, are becoming increasingly rare.
The process of producing real “Pashminas” which is still carried out using the ancient methods survives only in the mountains of Ladakh, the area between India and Tibet. The long and time-consuming process involves the entire family throughout the winter and is done entirely by hand. It starts by sorting the fine fibres from the coarser ones before they are spun and woven.
The custom is that these shawls are given by the groom to the bride on their wedding day and tradition dictates that the “Pashmina” must pass through the wedding ring.
Attempts to breed the goats in other areas
In 1808, the Ministry of English Agriculture declared: “If it were possible to naturalise Kashmir goats, it would be more profitable for our farmers that finding the Golden Fleece”.
What so profitable? Because the weavers of Norwich, Edinburgh and Paisley had for years been trying to copy the shawls that the military and civilian personnel of the East India Company had brought home with them as a gift for their loved ones. Shawls with the palm shoot pattern, produced in northern India, were highly sought after in continental fashion circles.
The English imitations were perfect but could not match the softness of the Indian shawls. “This superiority, which must be attested by an objective examiner – wrote William Moorcroft, a young surgeon and veterinarian – derives from the greater softness of goat’s wool …”
The English textile industry needed the fine Kashmir wool. And so, in 1812, Moorcroft obtained permission from the East India company to lead an expedition to Tibet. He brought back fifty goats. But the herd was split up and the ship transporting the female goats was shipwrecked. Only a few straggly animals arrived in England. Just four survived for a few months on the estate of the Duke of Atholl, in Blaire in Scotland.
The naturalisation of the Kashmir goats ended in failure, but the experiment was repeated four years later. This time, it was the French weavers, who had, in the meantime, begun to dominate the European shawl market, who tried importing them.
William-Louis Ternaux, tired of the problems in sourcing the wool through Russia, financed an expedition to the Orient. But, only four hundred of the 1,289 goats purchased from the Kirghisi survived and they did not produce enough undercoat in the mild climate in France. They ended up being crossed with other breeds!
The fashion for cashmere shawls, which had been the driving force behind the industry in England and France, died out at the end of the century. The fascination with cashmere, however, did not disappear altogether. Indeed, it made a comeback at the beginning of the 1920s and, this time, the real cashmere (the fibre) was no longer tied to the cashmere design. The separation had occurred.
In 1980, supply was decreasing and demand was growing, so the British decided to develop this production in other parts of the world.
A major European producer bought 1,250 hectares of land in New South Wales in Australia and set up a pilot farm. The example was soon followed in New Zealand and Scotland.
The outlook for farmers was very positive with an estimated 14 million Australian cashmere goats producing 3,000 tons per year; a market that no longer depended on Chinese supplies.
Ten years after the start of the experiment, the whole outfit was downsized, production had stabilised around 150 tons of wool against the estimated 3,000 tons and to make matters worse, the quality of the fibre bore little resemblance to the fine Asian cashmere.
The climate and lush Australian pastures prevented the goats from supplying the desired quality of the “duvet” undercoat. The possibility of expanding the Australian farms was exacerbated by the fact that the cashmere in that area was not collected by combing, but rather by shearing. The result was a mixture in which the coarse fibres represent about 80-85% of the fibrous mass, while in Chinese cashmere, they vary from 30 to 50%; this resulted in a lower yield and, therefore, a higher cost of the final product. Research on the adaptability of cashmere goats is still being carried out almost everywhere, even in Italy. Indeed, in the early 1990s, an experiment of this type was carried out in Valtellina in collaboration with the CNR. There are cashmere goat farms in Texas and Wyoming as well, but the quality of the fibre that the farmers obtain is, by their own admission, far inferior compared to that obtained in Asian countries. In the case of the American farms in particular, it is possible to obtain a cashmere fibre with a length ranging from 22 to 28 mm, with a fineness that, in the best case scenario, is not less than 19 microns.
It should be pointed out that all goat breeds possess the “duvet” undercoat and, in theory, they could all produce the desired fibre, Unfortunately, however, the yield obtained and thus the processing costs, in addition to the poor quality of the fibre obtained, mean that the herds cannot be exploited outside Asian countries.
Many trials have taken place over time and will still be carried out, but cashmere fibre cannot be obtained in Europe or even in the United States because our pastures are too rich and lush and the climate is too mild meaning the quality of the fibre is poor. In the countries of origin, on the other hand, vegetation is scarce, pastures are poor and the temperatures are harsh. The best fibres on the planet are produced under these conditions.
The Production of Cashmere
In the spring, the shepherds collect the combination of ordinary and duvet hairs which they deliver to the traders to be taken to the collection centre located in the immense area of outer and inner Mongolia, with the task of grouping together the
small quantities produced by the individual breeders, which would otherwise be lost. In the collection centres, the product is first selected and then, packed up and sent of the factories to start the transformation process.
The combination of ordinary and duvet hairs, collected by the shepherds, is delivered to the traders or taken to collection centres. Their geographical location is designed to gather together the small quantities that would otherwise be lost in the vast territory. They are generally located in the most important cities, small clusters of houses or where there is a market in which most of the negotiations for the exchange of goods take place. From the collection centres, the product is packed up and transported in old Russian trucks to the factories to start the refinement process.
Once in the factory, the material is carefully selected by hand and after the coarsest parts have been discarded, the rest is divided into piles based on the colour and fineness. The inevitable contaminations, caused almost entirely by fragments of packaging, are removed during this operation.
The selected fibre is then sent for beating with powerful extraction systems to remove all traces of earth, then it is washed and degreased before being dried. It is then ready to be dehaired. The dehairing or “éjarrage” is a mechanical process which separates the coarse hair from the “duvet” undercoat. There are various mechanical solutions used for dehairing depending on the system manufacturer or the origin of the machinery. The machines are often manufactured, modified and customised based on the knowledge acquired by the operator who, generally, jealously guards the modifications and expertise used to improve the quality and yield. The hourly production rate of these machines is very low and varies depending on the production systems from 1 kilo to 4 kilos per hour. The principle behind dehairing is very simple, but obtaining a good product and yield requires an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the characteristics of the material being dehaired and sound mechanical experience.
The fibres are passed through numerous pairs of drums, generally in line with one another. The guard hairs, the coarsest fibres of the outer coat, which are heavier, fall out, while the finest fibres (the duvet) are passed through the metal gaskets of the machine.
A good batch of cashmere from Inner or Outer Mongolia yields about 50-60% in washing and 60-70% from washing to dehairing. This means that, assuming an average yield per animal of 200 grams, the quantity is reduced to 100-120 grams after washing and to 60-70 grams after dehairing. The product gathered from 6-7 goats is required to obtain enough wool for one sweater, that of 12-14 goats for a jacket and that of 25-30 goats for a coat.
The People of Cashmere
Mongolian Shepherds “in Outer” Mongolia
A culture steeped in history
They were small horsemen with yellow skin, short legs and steely eyes. Their reputation of uncontrolled terror and cruelty proceeded them.
They were called Tartars in Europe and became Mongols from the name Manghol, the tribe to which a man called Temucin belonged, destined to go down in history
as Genghis Khan. In 1206, he became leader of the Steppe people, the “people who live in canvas tents”. Mattia di Parigi wrote: “Like hordes of locusts that moved on the earth, they have wreaked havoc in the countries of the East and destroyed them with fire and massacres. They are like animals, there is nothing human about them. They are not men; they are bloodthirsty monsters who love to drink. They have no human laws, they do not live in comfort, they are wilder than bears”. But as often happens for political powers, even for those built on the lives of millions of people, a turning point towards “civility” and recognition always comes. For the Mongols, this happened relatively soon. Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai, was ruler of China, a wise leader, excellent organiser and chronicled thanks to the stories of Marco Polo.
What remains of such an extraordinary past in the endless wide-open spaces, in the green plains and the great Gobi Desert (which in Mongolian means place without water)?
The Mongolian people today
It should be said that, although they inhabit a land that is distant and, to a certain extent, inhospitable to us, modern Mongolians found themselves caught between populations and events of immense significance, acting as a buffer between Soviet Russia, and, after the Second World War, Communist China. They have somehow always paid the price of the ideological clash and interests between these two countries. The majority of Mongolians have, however, remained unchanged, in the sense of steppe culture, meaning their ability to ride and their sense of freedom. In their everyday life, nomadic Mongolians have retained ancient customs.
Their home has been the same for centuries, the “GER”, a large circular yurt with yak felt walls, which vary in thickness depending on the season, supported by a frame of intertwined wood, large enough to accommodate an entire family. Life inside the “GER” is a communal affair. The beds are arranged along the edges of the yurt around a stove, in which dried yak dung is burnt and essential for surviving the period of extreme cold. The entrance is on the south-east side to avoid the icy winds and rain that blow down at 80 km/h from Siberia in the winter from north west to south west. Daily tasks revolve around taking the animals to pasture, milking and processing the milk.
In winter, virtually all the ground is covered in a coat of ice that the animals must scrape through in order to graze on the scrub grass. When the weather conditions prevent the herds from surviving, the Mongolian shepherds move all the animals to another area.
The much dreaded “KZUD” is an event that occurs on average once a decade. These are very heavy snowfalls that freeze, due to the very low temperatures that follow, forming layers of impenetrable ice for the animals that die of cold and hunger because they are unable to find food. The existence of nomadic families, which represent 80% of the population, is, therefore, conditioned by the needs of the livestock which is the only source of livelihood for the community.
It is mind-boggling to think that the entire family unit, with the herd in tow, packs up and moves within a matter of hours in search of new pastures when the old ones around the camp become bare.
The shepherds of “Inner” Mongolia
In Inner Mongolia, the nomadic Mongolians are an ethnic minority numbering about 2.5 million people who live alongside the majority of the population of Chinese origin, numbering 18 million, in what is a difficult and delicate balance.
No love has ever been lost between the two ethnic groups and even now, when a nomad goes to a city or a village, there is always the risk that his presence will cause a fight. The grudge is centuries old and dates back to the ancient raids of the peoples of the steppes. The Great Wall of China was built 2,000 years ago to counter them.
The Chinese, who are farmers, despise the steppe people whom they call Sao-ta-tse (Stinking Tartars) and in return the Chinese are labelled by the Mongols with the epithet of kara-kitat (black slaves).
But the Mongolian nomads, the descendants of Genghis Khan, are the only ones who are able to live in the steppe.
They are the ones who have been privy to the secret of cashmere for a thousand years (the Chinese loved silk and considered wool to be a fibre fit only for the lower classes). They are nomads, in family group of about 10,000, who live from shepherding and breeding animals.
The Tibetan Nomads
Nowadays, almost half the Tibetan population consists of nomads and semi-nomads.
Those families or clans, who do not live for a fixed period in any region and migrate based on the changes in the seasons, belong to the first group. The second group is made up of those who spend the winter months in specific parts of the country and take their flocks to pastures in other areas only during the summer.
The Tibetan nomads (Drokpa or Drogpa) travel in groups of many families, numbering twenty or more. Each family group lives in a four-sided tent made of yak hair in which all the family’s belongings are kept. There is also room for a family altar with images of Buddha in the tent which is constantly lit by yak butter candles. There is a box next to the altar which contains the family’s valuables. The different families in the group erect their tents at a certain distance from one another, usually because the poor pasture forces the goats and yaks to graze over a vast area to find sufficient food.
Tibetan nomadic life is governed by seasonal rhythms, in the sense that, as the seasons change, the clans, tribes, and families move with their herds from the summer pastures in the mountains and high plateaus to the southern valleys sheltered from the cold winter winds.
The decision of when to move to a new area is taken by all the families in the group. The social basis of the nomadic communities is made up of the family, within which relationships are governed by very well-defined customs and traditions. Polyandric marriage (a woman who married several men, almost always brothers) was once commonplace. Polyandry is still widespread even now, although to a lesser extent than in the past. In every nomadic family, whether polyandric or monogamous, the role of woman is absolutely equal to that of men and she is entrusted with tasks of great importance.
During the day while the men look after the herds of goats and yaks, the women and children carry out the domestic work, i.e. weaving blankets, tanning sheep skins, and making butter and cheese. In Tibetan society, the relationship between the resident components (city dwellers and peasants) and the nomadic ones is one of mutual dependence due to the exchange and bartering of food products and goods. Thanks to trade, nomads get their supplies of tsampa (roasted barley flour) and farmers of butter, cheese and meat. Traditional life was dealt a severe blow in 1968 when nomads were forced into collective and sedentary living by the government. In 1981, the communities were split up and the collective livestock was divided equally: each received 5 yaks, 25 sheep and 7 goats.
This exasperated collectivisation reduced hundreds of thousands of nomadic families to starvation due to the dramatic attempt by the Chinese to bring their free lifestyle under control. Fortunately, today the situation has improved and virtually all the nomadic tribes have returned to their former life, however, the nomads remain the poorest people in Tibetan society.