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CASHMERE (& Caprine Fine Fibre (CFF))

All goats, with the exception of Angora goats (and don’t let any Angora breeder tell you otherwise), produce cashmere in varying quantities.

Cashmere is a fine undercoat grown by the goats as a protection against the winter in much the same way as geese and ducks produce down. Most goats produce cashmere in quantities which are too small and lengths which are too short for commercial use and most dairy breeders (particularly those who show their goats) regard it as undesirable and something which spoils the appearance of the goat’s coat.

Feral goats and many of the dairy goats produce the finest cashmere but due to the lengths and volumes it is generally unusable, although once crossed with higher volume producing goats new breeds of good cashmere producers can be obtained.

More than 3,000 tonnes of cashmere is produced worldwide, the majority coming from Mongolia with smaller amounts from Iran, Afghanistan, Australia, New Zealand and a very small amount from the UK. Until recently Britain handled and processed most of the world’s cashmere with the Dawson International group of companies processing around 2,000 tonnes annually, with Scotland the world centre for cashmere finishing, knitting and weaving. In its best year the UK produced 1 tonne! Recently China extended its own processing facilities and the majority of scouring (washing) and de-hairing is now carried out in China along with an increasing amount of finishing. Massive export levies on raw cashmere from China has meant that processing in other parts of the world is now uneconomic and has resulted in the massive loss of jobs and businesses in the UK textile industry, not least in the Scottish Borders.

Cashmere growth on the goat is generally regarded as being triggered by the shortening daylight hours of late summer/autumn although many of us believe that other factors - such as temperature and even diet have an influence on the production of the cashmere.

The coat generally continues to grow until about the end of the year in preparation for the coldest weather and is removed in the early to late spring depending on the method of harvesting. Where facilities allow, the goats are shorn in early March and kept indoors for several weeks before being allowed back out. This ensures that the maximum amount of cashmere from each goat is obtained since it is done before the coat loosens naturally and falls out. Where the facilities to house the goats do not exist it is more common to comb or in some cases simply pull out the fibre. This has the disadvantage of having to be done after the coat has begun to loosen and therefore, much of the fibre can be lost, but has the advantage of leaving the main coat, or guard hair, intact allowing the goat to continue to have protection against the elements. This method also spreads the process out over a much longer period since the goats shed at different times and it usually requires two or three operations to remove all the cashmere.

The fleeces (whether shorn or combed) are individually packed in polythene or paper bags ready for the start of the processing. Until recently Scottish Cashmere Producers Association operated a pool each year with all the fleeces sent to a central point where each fleece was individually graded into categories -
white hosiery white weaving
coloured hosiery coloured weaving

These are more or less in order of value with white hosiery the most valuable since it is the finest and being white can be dyed any colour whereas the coloured (usually brown or grey) can only be dyed darker colours.

Hosiery grade cashmere is internationally agreed as being under 15.5 microns (thousandths of a millimetre) and having the characteristics of cashmere with weaving being above that but under 18.5 microns and having the characteristics of cashmere. Reject (which becomes Caprine Fine Fibre) either is outwith the diameter parameters or does not have the true characteristics of cashmere. This can be caused by a variety of factors and is fairly subjective on the part of the grader who may feel that a fleece is too curly so it might contain mohair characteristics, may be too short, or be too coarse. Because of the very strict adherence to the definition, particularly in the United States of America, erring on the side of caution tends to predominate.

Following the grading the fibre is sent to be scoured, or washed, to remove all contaminants whether they are vegetable matter or simply dirt. Once scoured and dried the next process is de-hairing. This sounds like a contradiction in terms since the entire fleece is made up of hair but is simply a term used to describe the process where the guard hair is separated from the cashmere. On shorn fleeces the proportion of guard hair to cashmere can be as high as 80/20%. Apart from the cost of all the processes this is another good reason for the high cost of cashmere. Once this has been done the cashmere is ready for dyeing, spinning and knitting or weaving.

Regrettably, cashmere production in the UK has decreased to the point where cashmere goats could now be described as a rare breed and in the main is carried on at hobby level.