Traits of Good Quality Cashmere
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What to look for in Quality Raw Cashmere
As you look at a cashmere fleece for breeding stock purchase or for that special spinning project, you want to assess the following traits:
There should be good differentiation between the diameters of the cashmere fiber and the guard hair. This allows the guard hair to be easily separated from the cashmere fiber using a machine. Where there is poor differentiation, the de-haired fiber will contain too much coarse fiber when processed to feel like true cashmere or it will require more passes through the de-hairing machine costing more to process and pulling more good fiber into the waste.
If fleeces are combed cleanly and are being processed by hand, the negative impact of poor differentiation can be minimized, and is sometimes worth the trouble where the fleece is exceptional; with the idea to improve the differentiation over time through breeding selection. However, when looking for breeding stock you should have good differentiation high on your priority list as most of the fibre sold to the spinning consumer is as cloud or roving. Not many people will want to de-hair a fleece to buy it raw, especially if they have had a negative experience prior.
In general, although not always the case, kids fleeces show poorer differentiation than a second year fleece, but if this does not correct with age, the animal should not be used for breeding.
The cashmere fiber should be quite fine. Cashmere’s upper limit is recognized as 18.5 microns +/- 0.5 microns. In comparison, fine lamb merino tests at 20-21 microns. The fineness rating is generally divided and classed as Very Fine: under 15 microns, Fine: under 16.5 microns, Medium: under 18 microns and Coarse: over 18 microns. With practice and training people can develop a good eye for estimating cashmere diameter, but it is advisable to use laboratory testing in conjunction with visual assessments to ensure consistency and quality.
From a consumer perspective, it is important to understand the traits of cashmere and what it is you are looking for in each project. Ask the producers lots of questions so that together you can determine the best fleece for your project and you can both be happy with your purchase. Also be aware that in general, white fleeces will tend to look a little coarser than the same micron coloured fleece as they reflect the light a little differently making them look bulkier.
This term is used to rate the amount of crimp in the fiber. When holding a sample up or against a contrasting coloured background, you will see the almost 3 dimensional look to the fiber as the crimpiness causes the fiber to go in all directions giving it depth. The term style is preferred over crimp as the word crimp implies 2 dimensional wave more than 3 dimensional depth. Ideal cashmere fiber should have very good crimp and it should be consistent not only from one tip of the fiber to the other, but this consistency should be seen across the entire fleece. The fine crimp is what allows cashmere to be spun so finely and contributes to the drape and elasticity of cashmere products. Style can be assessed through laboratory testing and is expressed as the curvature. This is the degrees of curve over one millimeter of fiber length. Cashmere is a high crimp fibre, but for comparison what a cashmere breeder would consider a poor crimp in an animal is considered exceptional crimp and amplitude in an Alpaca fleece. So although we are talking relatively the same terminology, the number and how that looks in a fine are very different. This difference is a contributing factor to the differences in memory and elasticity of the wool and the end products. Cashmere seems to defy the general rules of natural fibres time and time again.
Known sometimes simply as “hand” is the term used to describe the feel of cashmere. Good cashmere should feel like body temperature (warm) butter so that when you put your hand into a fleece, you can not tell where your hand ends and the cashmere begins. It should not have a cottony or silky feel to it. The warmth of cashmere should be subtle. In fact you might not realize how warm it is until you pass the sample to another person or switch hands. This ability to attract and retain heat is what makes cashmere products so warm despite their lack of bulk.
An interesting thing with cashmere is that the hand seems not as dependant on the fineness of the fleece over all as with other fibre's. This is part of the reason that cashmere shows rate handle separate to micron in their overall classification. We have some coarse micron animals from time to time that have the most amazing hand and some super fine fleeces that feel like brillo. Yet time and time again, I am told at shows by consumers that this bag must be the finest as it has the nicest feel. In most cases this is not true from my assessment when preparing the products for sale and from the annual histogram data we collect.
In the end if the consumer is looking for a wonderful handle, then it doesn't really matter that it is not the finest fleece, but if one is buying the finest fleece expecting the best handle, they may not always be happy with their purchase. Again this is where asking questions of the producer and knowing what traits are most important to you in your project will ensure you get exactly what you need from the cashmere. This is not to say that fine fleeces can not have a wonderful handle, many can, but it should not be assumed that handle = fineness. There is a whole range of what is wonderful cashmere with exceptional qualities.
Cashmere should be low in luster and as such look very dull. This dullness helps cashmere fiber attract, absorb and retain heat. Glossier fibers reflect heat back in towards the wearers body, but also reflect heat from the environment away from the body. Cashmere readily absorbs and traps warmth. Luster can be assessed at a lab, but is easily assessed visually.
If the cashmere fibre was shorn, you will likely see a bit more luster to it than a fleece that was harvested by combing once it had released from the body naturally. This is because in shearing the fleece is harvested while still in the growing stage and as such still has the look of healthy growing fleece. However, this slight patina is very different to the full bodied luster we expect to see in mohair or typically seen in cashgora fleeces.
A good cashmere goat should produce a large volume of cashmere fiber. The average amount of cashmere is 4 ounces or roughly 100 grams. Since coarser cashmere weighs more than finer cashmere we must take both into consideration when evaluating a fleece. Ideally, we want nice fine animals with good volume, but as mentioned above, it is all cashmere and each micron has its own uses and strengths. As a breeder, I would choose to retain a coarse animal with wonderful crimp, length and handle over a fine animal with weak crimp and poor length, but I would expect that coarse animals to produce at least 2-3 ounces more fibre by weight.
The minimum length for fiber to qualify as cashmere is 1 ¼ inches. There is no upper limit. Typically cashmere fiber does not exceed 3-4 inches in length, due to the loss of style as length increases.
Some countries are moving their focus away from maintaining all of these traits in combination in favour of overall length and fineness. A similar thing has happened or is happening with other fibres as well. However, dedicated breeders across most breeds realize that all the traits in combination make for better quality more versitaile fibre products and continue to breed for the ideal fibre in their selected breed.
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Cashmere’s allure is a direct combination of all of these factors working together to create a truly amazing fiber. It’s softness, it’s fineness, its lack of luster and it’s crimp all contribute to it’s ability to attract and retain heat and yet be so lightweight. Only when these characteristics are all present, in combination with volume and length, can a fiber truly be classified as cashmere –the fiber of kings!