Like so many things loved by Britain, cashmere isn’t originally British! In fact Cashmere is really a product from the far off lands of Asia and the Himalayan Mountains.
The production of Cashmere has been recorded as early as the 14th century in Persia and Nepal. At this point, the material was used by tribes for clothing and insulation from the cold winters. Even in these early days, the wool was making its name as a luxury item. Over a one year of period, one goat could produce enough wool to make one scarf. To collect the wool at its finest was not as simple as simply sheering sheep as in Britain. The goats would rub their chins on rocks in the spring, leave clumps of wool to be collected by villagers. This wasn’t at ground level either, by the way, the goats preferred to reside at an altitude of about 4000 metres.
As the cashmere or pashmina goat was resident only in certain remote parts of Asia, the luxury of its wool remained unknown in Britain.
The beginnings of cashmere’s love affair with Britain began when Mir Sayyid Ali Hamandi, a Persian Sufi, and a mover of the 14th century, brought the villagers cashmere wool to the Indian area of Kashmir. The wool quickly became popular in Asia but took another few centuries before reaching Britain. Following the Sufi’s introduction, in 1500 Zayn-ul-Abidan brought Turkestan technique to the production of cashmere wool. This made it easier to regiment the wools production and bring it to European markets.
The now refined wool industry turned Kashmir into a point of interest from a European point of view. Kashmir had developed its industry through trade with Tibet. Europe took it’s chance and created trading routs with Tibet, India and Kashmir.
What became of immediate interest by European ladies, (especially British and French) were the wonderfully woven Pashmina scarves. The Empress Josephine pioneered their route to fashion in particular and allegedly owned hundreds of them.
At first imported pashminas were sold at premium price. Britain, together with some European counterparts decided they wanted a direct slice of the financial action.
There were mutual benefits from this trade. Asia gaining trade from imported wool and goats, by the 18th century, France had developed a method of weaving the wool which allowed for bigger and better production. Captain Charles Stuart Cachrane, a Scottish entrepreneur saw an opportunity for himself and went to France to learned the procedure, which he then brought to Scotland where he was awarded a patent for the method. He went on to sell the patent to Henry Houldsworth and Sons of Glasgow in 1832.
By the 19th century Scotland, France and Italy were Europe’s largest cashmere producers (the game had most certainly changed), the invention of the mechanised Jacquard loom also brought true industrialisation of the craft bringing cashmere to reach its largest production scale ever.
It is with good reason cashmere is so popular as a material, especially in Britain. It is worn by an animal which can withstand winters of -40C and worn by native populations who can survive in such inhospitable climates. It is warmer and finer than sheep’s wool, making it more comfortable to wear in today’s world.
Cashmere is often combined with other fine materials such as silk. It is most definitely an ideal product for fine, warm jumpers and cardigans.
What’s equally wonderful about cashmere, aside from the fact that, unlike the vast majority of cheap materials available today, it ACTUALLY keeps you warm, is it has become a luxury product that is affordable for almost everyone. Whether you want a high street cashmere or you choose to go all out on a designer garment, the purchase of a cashmere garment is certain to become a valued treasure. The wool is endurable, as demonstrated by the mountain people of the Himalayas. Its Scottish industry lives on and although cashmere is now at home in the very competitive world of fashion, Britain will loyally wear its cashmere cardigans and scarves faithfully throughout the seasons, no really, it’s bloody cold here.