Luxury Scottish cashmere direct from Scotland - the secret of super premium quality cashmere at high street prices!

Luxury Scottish cashmere direct from Scotland - the secret of super premium quality cashmere at high street prices!
By Nick Fiddes

Cashmere is one of the world's most cherished natural fibres, prized for its warmth and sublime softness. This is the story of how a tiny country far from where it is grown came to dominate this market, to become universally recognised as home to the world's most exclusive luxury fabrics.

Our story is also (and this is probably the bit that interests you!) about how to spot the good stuff from the cheaper copycat products that today flood the high street worldwide. And, most importantly, we'll be letting you in on the secret of how to find that super premium product at a fraction of the price you'd pay for the same thing with a high end label.

We'll cover this in three parts. First, if you want to enjoy your luxury Scottish cashmere to the full, it's great to know a little about where the fibre comes from and how it's produced, if only to impress your friends. So we'll start with a short history of cashmere's development and manufacture.

Secondly we'll explain why Scotland in particular became known for producing the very finest cashmere in the world. This remains true to this day. Even if you're buying an exclusive luxury garment with an Italian or London label, the chances are high the product itself will have been produced for them in Scotland.

Then finally we'll let you in on the secret of how to distinguish the very finest Scottish cashmere from the ordinary stuff you'll find elsewhere - and indeed how to tell 'good' ordinary cashmere from the really poor copies that are frankly best avoided. Now you'll be ready to stock your wardrobe, or gift your most loved friends and family with the world's most luxurious fibre, while paying a fraction of the price your neighbours might. That's got to be worth a few minutes? If you think so, read on!

A history of the cashmere industry

Although quality cashmere is now synonymous with Scotland, its origins lie hundreds of years ago, and thousands of miles away. The name Cashmere comes from the South Asian region of Kashmir, that lies between the Himalayas and the Pir Panjal mountain ranges.

Cashmere goats - image Jelle Visser https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Image: Jelle Visser

The fabric's discovery has been credited to a Persian named Mir Sayyid Al Hamadani who noticed that the Hircus goat native to Outer Mongolia had an extremely soft under-fleece. The animal (understandably) produces this for its own comfort during the long harsh winters, where the the Siberian Anticyclone means temperatures can reach as low as -40C (-40F). In fact cashmere is about eight times better at trapping body heat (i.e. warmer) than normal wool, whether worn by a goat, or a human! Also cashmere fibre is bumpier at a microscopic level than wool or angora. This unevenness helps the fibres to cling together rather than stick out as straighter yarns may, so feels smoother against the skin.

The Hircus goat's undercoat is particularly long, but deep beneath its coarser outer layers are found the softest and finest downy hairs that insulate the animal's soft belly. This rare fleece is the most desirable - and because it is found only in tiny quantities is also the most expensive!

The width of these most prized fibres averages around 14.5microns - less than a quarter of the size of even finer human hair, which may give you a sense of just why cashmere is so precious.

Al Hamadani realised that this delicate fleece could be spun to produce a woven textile. He carried this knowledge to Kashmir in modern northern India where early production has been traced to the fourteenth century. Thus he gave birth to what has become a huge international industry.

To this day, this artisanal trade begins with goat herders whose way of life has changed little since biblical times. Semi-nomadic, they await the mild spring weather to set out on an annual migration spending months out in the hills. There they gather fleece, gently harvesting it through a pain-free and harmless combining action.

Each animal yields around 250 grams (0.5 lb) of wool, meaning that to make a single premium quality cashmere sweater needs the wool from at least three goats. Even today, total global cashmere production is only around 6,500 metric tons per year (compared with two million for wool). The scarcity of this finite supply helps explain why such a sought-after fabric is never going to be cheap.

This fleece is then taken for sorting, where much less than half makes the grade as the finest, softest, longest Grade A fibres that fetch a premium on world markets. It is this wool (yarn defined as 2/26 or 2/28) that is prized by the Scottish cashmere industry.

Worker sifting the long cashmere fibres. Image: Adrianrowe https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode

Image: Adrian Rowe

This tradition goes back to the 1700s, when a Scottish textile manufacturer started to import the yarn to produce luxury clothing. Every year since, Scottish cashmere producers have sought out the very best of world cashmere supplies to ensure it maintains its reputation as the source of the world's very finest cashmere. But that's not the only secret to this exclusive tradition.

Scottish cashmere - the world's finest

Cashmere throw

So now we have the first and most important ingredient that makes Scottish cashmere so uniquely desirable - access to the very finest fibres. Of course other producers in the world may try to compete for these. But Scotland has established such renown for excellence in this area, that no other country can truly rival its reputation as the source of the finest cashmere.

The second special ingredient in the Scottish cashmere is, perhaps a little surprisingly, water. This is impossible for most other nations to copy, as the manufacturing process relies on large volumes of "soft" water (low in lime or other minerals) or else the fibre would become harsher. In Scotland we have this outstandingly soft quality of water in abundance, thanks to our volcanic geology.

The third element that goes into making Scottish cashmere the most luxurious in the world can be summed up in one word. Experience. This know-how is vital, because if cashmere is over-milled it may feel soft on the shelf but will soon disintegrate, while without adequate milling it will hardly feel like cashmere. Scottish manufacturing expertise has been refined over centuries. With time, comes expertise. And with that comes innovation and investment. The Scottish cashmere industry has never stood still, and today combines ancient skills with the latest technology.

Finally there is what happens with that luxury fibre next. After the cashmere wool is processed and spun, it goes directly to a network of Scottish textile designers and producers who continue the nation's cherished tradition of producing the world's finest knitwear. It is in everyone's interests to keep these standards high, to ensure Scottish cashmere remains synonymous with quality. Every year cutting edge designers bring a freshness to the range of products on offer.

Meanwhile established producers know never to compromise on the exceptional standard of garments they produce. A Scottish cashmere sweater, for example, will typically be knitted much more densely than the light, fine pullovers made overseas, where costs are kept down by knitting the garment loosely to require less fabric. But the result is incomparable. The cheaper garment will neither wear nor last nearly as well.

Thus Scotland enjoys an unrivalled combination of the finest fibres, the softest water, the deepest production experience, the most creative designers, and the most skilled producers with a deep-rooted commitment to quality. These come together in harmony in a cashmere industry producing products that define both luxury and quality.

This all leaves foreign competitors able only to compete on price by cutting corners. High streets worldwide are awash with cheaper sweaters that prominently use the word 'cashmere' in the label, even when only a minor part of their mix. But these are almost always made from the coarser and shorter second or third grade remnants of the sorting process, after the finest cashmere fibres have been separated that go to Scotland. Inevitably they don't have access to Scottish water, or to the centuries of skill for which the Scottish industry has developed a justified reputation.

Cheaper foreign-made garments can feel nice at first glance. But the unavoidable reality is that such garments are overwhelmingly of inferior quality, lacking Scottish cashmere's inimitable softness, or temporarily added by soaking in chemical additives and softeners. And the shorter fibres used leave such products more vulnerable to losing their shape or strength with wear.

But of course Scottish cashmere's quality comes at a price, not least due to its more expensive premium fibre. Thus a single sweater with a premium brand label can sell for four figure sums in the boutiques of New York and Milan. But the industry has a little secret. If you know what to look for (and you do now!) you can find almost exactly the same items for a fraction of the price. Now we'll tell you how.

How to find premium cashmere - without premium prices

Now we get to the good bit. This is where you learn how to find those ultra high quality products for much much less than the designer labels charge.

Cashmere stole

Actually, it's pretty simple. The first rule, of course, is to make sure that the label states "100% CASHMERE" as any other blend will be inferior.

Most cashmere actually Made in Scotland is of premium quality. The trick is to ensure that the garments you're looking at are the genuine article, and don't just carry a Scottish-sounding label.

Beyond that, you are mostly considering the style of product you'd prefer, such as how it's knitted (or woven) and the thickness and finish it's given. Whatever you choose, if it's Made in Scotland the quality is likely to be superb. Your choice is largely between thicker (2 ply or more) or thinner, fluffier or finer, traditional or adventurous, and so on.

One tip if you're on a budget is to choose darker colours. Cashmere yarn naturally comes in a range of shades between white, ecru, and brown. The light shades are the rarest, and dark fibre cannot be dyed lighter. So the price of white or cream garments can be higher than deeper shades.

But the real key to finding the ultimate deal is to avoid the big name labels for which you'll always pay a premium, and to buy as close to the source as possible. And since the manufacturers themselves do not retail directly to consumers to avoid competing with their all-important distributors, you're looking for a retailer in Scotland who purchases directly from the maker.

Can you see where we're going with this?

Cashmere sweater

As Scotland's oldest heritage retailer on the Internet (and probably the world's oldest online vendor of bespoke clothing) Scotweb CLAN is uniquely placed to provide this service. We're located in the heart of Scotland's capital, which is the country's traditional business centre. And in our decades of operation we've never wavered from our mission from sourcing the very finest Scottish products to offer at the very keenest prices.

At CLAN, we offer one of the world's finest collections of Scottish cashmere. We supply both Scottish-made and foreign sourced cashmere because we recognise that not everyone can afford the very most luxurious products, even at the most competitive pricing on earth. So as well as authentic Scottish cashmere, we also source the best of the rest, putting our own name on high quality foreign-produced cashmere that in our view exceeds the standards of most high street vendors. But we'll never sell the really cheap rubbish.

But if it's the real deal you want - the finest Scottish cashmere at the lowest possible prices - we make this easy for you. All our cashmere products that are Made in Scotland are clearly identified as such. So it's just a matter of clicking the Locally Made filter in the left hand column (which can include other parts of the British Isles for some products, but in this case always means Scotland) to find the super premium cashmere you're looking for. Then just enjoy the prices. And, most importantly of all, enjoy the snug and cosy feeling for many years to come.