Chapter 5:

Reasons to Embrace Winter, Part 2: Cashmere

The rot set in at an early age, I am afraid.

I come from a loving family, but my father was a Church of England clergyman, so our existence veered towards the lean, rather than luxurious side.

We lived comfortably enough, but it was clear that my mother kept a tight control of the purse strings.

Prior to marrying my father, she was a highly respected pharmacist. Once my brother and I came along though, she took time out to bring the two of us up and to embrace the all- important role of vicar’s wife. A stream of family income that she had generated through work vanished, as she changed direction to devote herself to unpaid for and voluntary parish chores.

Her care to preparing flowers for the altar in church every Sunday was remarkable. She even won first prize in a national flower arranging competition, making us the first family in our village to own a black and white television set. We were most definitely the talk of the village and my mother was the perfect vicar’s wife.

As my brother was older than me, all of my clothes until I was 13 and finally taller than him, were his hand-me-downs. This didn’t bother me at all. Like most children, I spent most of my days covered in mud and dirt, so it didn’t really matter what was beneath.

One area though where I didn’t end up inheriting my brother’s cast-offs, was thankfully that of underwear.

This was a time in history, where clothing was predominantly manufactured in either nylon or polyester. Unlike cotton, it didn’t shrink or lose its colour and perhaps best of all, it never required any form of ironing. Polyester was the future!

My mother opted to buy me several pairs of garishly coloured polyester underpants. Initially, I was delighted to be wearing something that was deemed to be the height of fashion.

It was at this point in my life though that my body decided that it would not accept synthetic fibres and after many anxious visits to our doctor and the application of numerous creams to sooth exceedingly painful and unpleasant looking rashes, it became apparent that my parents were going to have to cough up even more money to buy their youngest son cotton underwear. I was allergic to both nylon and polyester.

Naturally enough, this in turn applied to other articles of clothing, which in order to avoid painful irritations, needed to be made of natural fabrics, if they were to stand a chance of coming anywhere near my skin. I am delighted to inform you that you will never see me cycling in Lycra shorts!

Nowadays, I sport cotton shirts and trousers (pants to those of you from across the Big Pond) in the winter and either linen or a mix of linen and cotton during the summer months and my skin is always extremely happy.

At one stage in the 1980s silk shirts made a brief visit to my wardrobe, but although thoroughly natural, somewhat bizarrely, they never felt quite right and were soon carted off to the local charity shop.

So far, so good then, but a harsh winter presents further body insulation issues. When it turns cold, cotton really isn’t warm or thick enough to do the job well and something extra needs to be found, if we are to avoid permanently shivering our way through the darkest and coldest months of the year.

Natural wool is highly considered as a suitable product for heavier and thicker winter protection and in general it is excellent for keeping chill and bitter winds at bay. However, it tends to be bulky and loses shape quite easily.

Wool has been around for a long, long time and has been used as much to keep heat out as it has to hold it in. Bedouins use it as protection against the strength of the intense heat of the sun they live beneath and due to its lower rate of combustibility (compared to cotton for example), it is a preferred material for carpets in planes and trains, where fire is potentially a high risk.

Across the region of Champagne in France, throughout the latter part of the Middle Ages, for close on 200 years, well-organised ‘Champagne Fairs’ took place. The crossroads between North and South, East and West, the six annual fairs were highly successful markets for traders and their goods, consisting mostly of textiles, such as wool, fur, leather and spices. At this point wool was the major product of the affluent area ruled by the Counts of Champagne.

The local wines were well-known, but not as the clear effervescent wines we are familiar with today. More of a light rosé in colour, the still wine of Champagne had been steadily gathering notoriety ever since the Romans planted vines centuries further back. Since then and in particular with the arrival of monasteries in the region, vines were cultivated to provide wine for Mass, to serve to visitors, for daily drinking and to sell for the upkeep of the abbey buildings. Dom Perignon was the Cellar Master at the Abbey of Hautvillers, a highly ranked and regarded position. Apart from supervising the vineyards and wine making processes, the Cellar Master was also responsible for all accountancy matters and the general upkeep and welfare of the monastery. 

At these ‘Champagne Fairs’ local merchants would give wine out to draw visitors to their stalls. Over time, it became blindingly apparent that potential customers were far more interested in the wine of Champagne than the wool that was on offer. As decades and centuries passed, wine replaced fleeces and nowadays, you will be lucky to spot a single sheep when driving through the vast agricultural area that is Champagne-Ardenne. You will however notice several flocks of vineyards gathered on the slopes of the Montagne de Reims!

As an extra layer in winter months, natural wool is perfect as a material to find itself on top of a cotton shirt and whilst it should guarantee warmth, it can be bulky and often over insulating. A further problem is that due to its rougher texture, if placed next to skin, it can cause endless itching.

So, what if we want to be deliciously warm, but at the same time blissfully comfortable?

Finally, we arrive at today’s item to embrace in winter…cashmere!

This textile of extreme luxury is the perfect solution to battling with the cold in winter, but exactly why is it so special and at the same time so expensive?

In the late 13th century, it is thought that Marco Polo encountered these mountain goats on his travels through Asia. At the time the animals would have been bred as much for their meat as for their wool. However, it would not be until the late 18th century that cashmere would arrive in Europe to be woven into fashionable clothing for the aristocracy and wealthy. Its fate as a must have item was further cemented by the Empress Joséphine, the wife of Napoleon 1st who allegedly possessed hundreds of colourful shawls made from pure cashmere.

Coming from goats that live high up (at an altitude of 4000 metres) in Mongolia, the Tibetan highlands and the Himalayas, where in winter it can reach sub-zero temperatures of more than -40C, the fleece produced has unique qualities. Whilst any goat can produce hair that is similar to that of a Mongolian goat, the extreme low temperatures and altitude of the area guarantee some of the finest and longest goat hairs to be found anywhere in the world. For absolute protection against the cold, Cashmere goats produce a double fleece. The wool that is used for jumpers and scarves starts its life as very fine hairs, to be found beneath the coarse top coat and around the neck and underbelly regions of the animals.

Once separated from this coarser coat (destined to be used for making rugs), the hairs are then ready to be dyed and turned into yarn. On average 20% of the fleece can be used as cashmere and it usually takes four goats to provide sufficient material to make one not particularly thick sweater! We are beginning to understand why it is so expensive.

Unlike wool, cashmere is blissfully comfortable next to our skin, is lightweight, coddling us in winter and cooling us throughout the summer months. Yes, it is costly, but due to its finesse, if cared for, it will last a lifetime, never losing its shape. Every time you reach into your wardrobe to use it again, a smile of pleasure and recognition of impending comfort is inevitable.

To avoid having to take out a mortgage, you might like to start off your cashmere leanings by purchasing a scarf. Apart from the warmth and insulation in a bitter winter, the feel of the texture around your neck really is nothing short of heavenly. One Christmas, I bought such a scarf for my father, who became so attached to it that he wore it indoors as much as outside!

Be warned though, for moths, pure cashmere is the gastronomic equivalent of (for example) having free access to a never ending supply of Beluga Caviar. You really will need to look after it (as in cover it up when not in use) and treat it with respect if you want it to last.

There are also three different ‘grades’ of quality in cashmere. Grade A is where the finest (and the most expensive) yarn is to be found, consisting of both the longest and finest fibres. This is where the softest cashmere exists. It is both ultralight in weight and holds its shape incredibly well. Grade B is thicker, which is not quite so soft and a little bit heavier and as a result not so expensive. Grade C is the cheapest  and lowest quality form of cashmere, with fibres almost double the thickness of the Grade A type.

Historically, the best cashmere garments have been made either in Scotland or Italy. If on the label you see ‘100% pure cashmere, made in Scotland’ or ‘100% pure cashmere, made in Italy’…buy it! It is as close to a guarantee as is possible that what you are purchasing is the genuine article. Similar to so many items found in our everyday lives these days, there is now more than an abundance of fakery taking place. The world of cashmere is no exception.

In short, whilst capable of being eye-wateringly expensive, buying something made of cashmere really is an investment in a lifetime of seasonal comfort and happiness.

They even make socks out of it!