Friday, December 2

Cashmere has been hijacked by fast fashion – so be careful what you buy | fashion

Mhmm, cashmere. So soft and fluffy, right? As warm as toast, as light as bubble bath. What’s not to love? A lot, actually. It turns out we are doing it wrong. Which is a bit of a shock, since cashmere has been one of the high street fashion success stories of our times. Just the word – cashmere – has become a brand name, a status symbol in its own right. Like Häagen-Dazs or Chanel No 5, everyone loves cashmere. Retailers, having identified the killer shelf appeal of a neat stack of marshmallow-soft sweaters in M&M colors as a weakness – one that can trigger an impulse purchase of a box-fresh lemon-yellow cardi, when you only popped into the store for a pair of tights – have enabled our cashmere habit.

The thing is, cashmere can be problematic for sustainability and for animal welfare. A yarn once prized for its durability has been hijacked by fast fashion, damaging farming practices in ways that cause unnecessary suffering to goats, and creating inferior sweaters that wear out or lose shape. Like an egg-white omelette, cheap cashmere is whipped up from scant ingredients into something that looks good but is insubstantial.

“Fluffy feels good, but it often covers up weaknesses,” says Tim Ewington, co-founder of cashmere label Aethel, which is pricey, but made to last. “Fluffiness is good at disguising shorter cashmere hairs, which are less well spun and heavily dyed. And it covers up the fact that there isn’t so much cashmere in the sweater, since fluffy cashmere looks bulky even if it doesn’t weigh much.”

His advice? Ask about ply – “two-ply is a good mid-weight sweater” – or take your kitchen scales to the shop, and weigh the sweater before you buy. Is that such a crazy idea? This is a serious purchase, after all. (Aethel’s Big Hug knit weighs a substantial 700g.)

The Good Cashmere Standard (GCS) was launched in 2020 to safeguard the welfare of goats and farmers whose traditional practices are endangered by fast fashion appetites. Belly hair is sometimes combed without waiting for the goats’ natural moulting period, causing distress to the animals. The GCS only gives its approval to farms that follow ethical practices. The White Companywhere a luxurious pure cashmere sweatshirt costs £169, was the first British brand to join the initiative.

“All animals farmed for their yarn should be cared for,” says Barbara Horspool, the White Company’s clothing director. “The livelihoods of remote communities depend on this trade, so it’s about educating and working with farmers.” She says responsibly sourced cashmere is a sound buy. “Handwash it, or machine wash at 30C, and it will last and last.”

Boden and Cos, both GCS signatories, are excellent places to look for well-priced cashmere. Longevity is as much about design as it is about manufacture, as a Cos spokesperson pointed out: look for timeless, less trend-driven pieces. (You can’t go wrong with a Cos charcoal turtleneck, £145.)

Mindful of balancing durability with the frothiness customers have come to expect, Boden sends its cashmere out for testing in real-life wardrobes “to ensure we have the right balance between handfeel and pilling performance”, says Cristina Gilkes, director of product development and buying at Boden. It’s knit tank top, £90is a useful multi-season layering piece.

Occasionally, Aethel hears from customers bemused that their new sweater doesn’t feel like candy floss. But they also get feedback that their sweaters last, and hold their shape. Ewington’s advice to cashmere shoppers is: “Weigh the piece in your hands, feel the elbows and cuffs – ask yourself whether you believe the piece will last.” Because, price aside, that is what cashmere’s famous feel-good factor really feels like.

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