cashmere goatThe Cashmere Tradition in Mongolia

Few people need to be introduced to Cashmere as its name is synonymous universally with warmth, luxury and softness. However most will not know that after China (who produce about 70% of the world’s cashmere supply), Mongolia is the second largest producer (at nearly 20%). The remainder is split between Afghanistan, Iran, India, Pakistan and several Central Asian countries.

Actually named ‘Kashmir’ after its origins, the material has been recorded in use since at least the 15th Century and is suggested that it can be traced back even further into the 3rd Century BC. Even since these early beginnings the material seems to have been prized by the rich and noble (such as Marie Antoinette) for its superior qualities. Today it remains one of the most expensive materials around.

‘Cashmere’ is not a breed of animal although it is of course associated with the goats found in the highlands of Asia. It refers instead to the fineness of the grade of hair produced which in the US and elsewhere must be under 19 microns thick. To compare it to other materials, a strand of human hair is 100-200 microns and wools are around 25-27 microns. It is this fineness which when woven gives the material its softness, lightness, warmth and strength. Indeed unlike other materials which get harder and weaker with use, cashmere gets softer and remains stronger for longer. Compared to wool, Cashmere is supposed to be up to 8 times warmer and as proportionally soft. Mongolian Cashmere is amongst the very finest at around 14.5 microns thick (compared to Australian Cashmere at 18.5 microns or Scottish Cashmere at 16-17 microns).

Hand shearsThe Process

In theory any animal can produce cashmere grade hair, but climatic conditions seem to have a very important impact. It is for this reason that we find the finest grades of Cashmere located in extremely cold high altitude climates such as Mongolia. The goats naturally produce two layers of hair for themselves, an outer courser layer, and a softer under layer (under down). It is this inner layer which is most prized and between May to June carefully hand combed from the animals before being washed of dirt and sent off to market. The very finest hairs are found under the nape of the neck and the herder can take up to 3 days extracting the precious material from a single goat. The longer hair is then removed shortly afterwards.  
Cashmere comb
At this stage all work is carried out by hand in Mongolia as it requires a skilled touch and patience, with only 150g or so of underdown being extracted per goat. This means that a single jumper can require the hair of up to 3  goats.  China in comparison to Mongolia clips its animals by machine from the start and sorts the grades of hair later. To connoisseurs in the know, this mechanisation caused a coarser end result.

Once the hair has been collected it is sold at market to middlemen who transport it to the capital or borders where it is either processed and woven locally or sent overseas for processing. Like other yarns cashmere can be died a wide range of colours to suit, but by undergoing this treatment, some of the important softness is lost. Therefore if you want the very softest items around, the natural undyed colours are the best.

Mongolian herderThe Mongolian Cashmere Economy

When you buy a cashmere product from us you have the piece of mind to know that it has been produced entirely in Mongolia from Mongolian cashmere. This not only supports the national textile industry but also indirectly the herders who tend the animals.  

Since the collapse of communism in Mongolia in the early 1990s, the importance of cashmere as a national commodity has been recognised with government subsidies and international support offered to prop up the industry. However there continue to be real problems which have major impacts on the country and inhabitants. The first of these is the competition and proximity to China. With China such a major player in the export industry Mongolia has found it hard to compete with most of its cashmere raw material sold unprocessed across the border to its neighbour instead. Secondly the extremely hard winters and dry summers (Zuud) which have plagued Mongolia in the last few years have decimated much of the precious herds leaving the herders not only having to struggle with fewer and fewer head of animal surviving into spring, but also faced with lower raw material rates due to an increase in the  global cashmere supply.  Finally the move to intensive herding for industrial production has had serious impacts on part of the land with desertification and food supply issues noted. This last point is being addressed internally with aid agencies and the government teaching the herders about newer ways to manage their stock more efficiently.