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Lucia van der Post
From the Print Edition:
Groucho Marx, Spring 93

(continued from page 1)

There, on desolate plains, in some of the harshest conditions known man, the Kashmiri goats are cared for by nomadic tribes whose sole source of income is the wool. Others (including the Scots) have tried to raise Kashmiri goats elsewhere, but no other conditions have produced a fleece as soft, as light, as special as those coming from Inner Mongolia. The combination of the extreme temperature--blistering heat giving way to great cold--and poor grazing seems to be essential in encouraging the goat to produce long, soft, insulating underfleeces. Each goat has two layers of hair, an outer, relatively coarse one and an under layer of very soft, warm hair, which is what provides the finest cashmere. The colder the temperature, the thicker the under layer.

Unlike sheep, which are clipped, the goats are combed by hand, and only the soft under hair closest to the skin of the goat is fine enough to be used. The goats can only be combed once a year--in the spring--and each goat yields only between three and four ounces. The fiber is so fine that its diameter is measured in thousandths of an inch. To make a single sweater takes the yearly crop of three goats; to make a coat, the fleece of 24 goats; while one goat will produce only enough cashmere to make a scarf.

When the thread is spun the fibers are twisted together, capturing thousands of minuscule air pockets, all of which give cashmere its unbeatable insulation. Ounce for ounce, cashmere gives three times the insulation of its nearest rival. One has only to stroke it to feel the difference. Where other wools merely fold, cashmere drapes and falls like silk.

It is not just in recent times that cashmere has become the world's most coveted fabric. In Italy it was for many centuries the preserve of the wealthy and aristocratic. In Imperial Rome it was so prized that only the Caesars and wealthiest senators were allowed to wear it and centuries later when Marco Polo brought the softest, lightest wools to Italy again, it was still out of reach of anybody but the very rich.

In France the delights of the cashmere shawl were discovered in the suqs of the Middle East by the officers of Bonaparte's marauding armies, and Josephine, his empress, mesmerized tout Paris with her richly patterned, divinely soft Kashmir shawls. Shawls so fine that they could be pulled through a wedding ring became popular state symbols, and cashmere became a byword not just for the fiber but for the patterns that came to be associated with the shawls.

To this day shawls, blankets or rugs made from cashmere are luxury products, sought after by those whose purses allow them to indulge their taste in the finest and the best. So fine, so beautiful a they that few of the pure cashmere blankets remain confined to the bedroom. They are thrown nonchalantly over sofas or chairs, are kept on the back seat of the Rolls or Bentley, and some are even worn with great panache as shawls.

At Asprey, one of London's oldest, grandest stores, they sell a double-bed-size blanket, light as goose down and twice as warm. The blanket goes for £565 (about $865) and comes in dark traditional colors like aubergine, brown or forest green. For those who prefer something more intricately patterned there is a Paisley shawl, all rich, Renaissance colors, for £690 (about $1,055). Toss it over a chair or sofa, swirl it around your shoulders, or use it to keep the knees warm if you find yourself invited to one of those vast Scottish houses where the heating is nearly as antique as the brickwork. There are Prince of Wales plaids 'A at £295 (about $451), and for those who like cashmere but can't afford it pure, there are shawls-cum-blankets made from 70 percent cashmere and 30 percent wool which sell for as little as £295.

If your tastes turn to the more exotic, N. Peal, the cashmere specialists in London's Burlington Arcade, carries shawls in tartans or Paisleys, leopard prints or zebra patterns at £490 (about $750), whilst a traditionally woven Paisley, fine as can be, sells for £660 (about $1,010).

Ralph Lauren has always loved using cashmere for his shawls and blankets, and each season brings new colors to his home collection. Last fall his classic cashmere cable-knit throws came in white, purple, rust or teal and ran £1,757 (about $2,688). For the gray flannel collection there is a gray cashmere throw trimmed with amber suede for £1,050 (about $1,606). All of Lauren's blankets and shawls come big and casual and are designed to be used in a relaxed and informal way on a person or around the house.

The hard times the cashmere industry has been through seem to have forced the major players to rethink their strategies. For many years the knitwear industry in Scotland, where most of the finest cashmere in the world has been produced, had it easy. Classic V- and round-necked sweaters and stolidly traditional cardigans sold in droves. The Scottish knitters had a deservedly fine reputation for quality, but the designs were often, whisper it quietly...just a little dull.

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