Cashmere has been code for luxury since the Roman Empire. In the 19th century, Napoleon started a fad for cashmere shawls, gifting his wife 17. In the 20th century, designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s black cashmere cardigan was embroidered with Paris icons. Actresses such as Tilly Masterson in Goldfinger, (1964), popularised the roll-neck sweater and its maker NPeal (at Kildare Village), while Katie Holmes striding out in New York sporting Khaite’s cashmere bralette and matching cardigan not only remains a standout image from 2019 but also created a new trend. Cashmere bras … another item to add to the wishlist. According to Khaite’s founder and creative director Catherine Holstein there is plenty of stretch in the material to support various cup sizes.
Most homes now feature a cashmere item – whether a throw, accent cushion or cosy socks for those evenings by the fire. The reasons why cashmere is so popular nowadays are both cultural and economic. The price of raw cashmere, hand-combed from the undercoat of the cashmere goat, is lower, due to the creation of freer markets in China and Mongolia, and this has encouraged more production and, some would say, oversupply. The fashion community has embraced its stealth appeal. Marc Jacobs explains, “There’s a reverse snobbery. The real reason you wear it is for comfort and warmth, and not necessarily to have it seen. It’s the way it feels rather than the way it looks.”
I was hooked when Marks & Spencer first launched Autograph’s machine washable cashmere range in 2006, my first purchase a black short-sleeved crewneck sweater I wore with capris, an homage to style icons like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. Now prices range from as little as €60 for a Uniqlo staple to €3,200 for a Lainey Keogh heirloom piece. Paying more means you are investing in design, brand name or a heritage factory as well as Grade A cashmere. Procuring cashmere is labour intensive: it takes two goats to make one two-ply cashmere sweater, their raw hair sorted into grades based on length and thickness. The sweet spot is to look for cashmere items produced in an ethical way with high quality yarn. As a rule of thumb, the more tightly knit the garment the more longer lasting it will be. The better cashmere softens over time, Grade B cashmere requires heavy washing to produce a soft feel which can lead to more pilling and faster wear and tear.
If the Italians became known for their cashmere credentials in the 1980s (when Fran Leibovitz quipped “I don’t believe in God, I believe in cashmere”) in caffè latte shades, best offset with a ski tan, their Irish cousins are catching up. Dunnes Stores offer Paul Costelloe and Carolyn Donnelly cashmere in classic styles and a neutral palette which, if carefully maintained, are hard to distinguish at a glance from those of Loro Piana. Elaine Madigan, of Madigan Cashmere, believes the reason why there has been such an explosion of “Made in Ireland” cashmere is “people want to be inspired by the stories of the brands they are supporting as much as the piece they purchase. Our traditional manufacturing process means we are taking something from the past, keeping it alive in the present and allowing it to evolve into the future.” Long may it continue.
Caring for cashmere:
1 Spot-clean cashmere and air regularly.
2 Handwash rather than dryclean with wool detergent or baby shampoo and no softener.
3 Don’t wring out the garment after washing, squeeze it gently to ensure it won’t lose its shape and then lay it out to dry flat on a towel.
4 Dry flat and store folded on a shelf, rather than on a hanger.
5 All cashmere is prone to bobbling. To remove this, lay your cashmere flat and gently pass a knitwear comb over the fibres to pick the pills up, or invest in Steamery’s electronic debobbler.
Discover our pick of the best cashmere sweaters to buy now