The $5,000 Cashmere Sweater

When I was about 12 years old my mother bought me a cashmere sweater and though I grew out of it I never got over it. In addition to being very warm, although much lighter than any of my wool sweaters, it felt good. I never tired of feeling the strange effect of draping it over my hand and noting that although I could barely sense its weight I could easily feel my palm warming!

Many years later I checked dozens of yarn shops all over the country in an effort to find cashmere so that my world-class-knitter-in-residence could recreate my vivid childhood encounter with a magical sweater. Alas, many of the folks in the shops hadn't even heard of cashmere and none had seen any pure cashmere yarn. Once I found a blend with 10% cashmere but it really didn't qualify. After a lot of research I found a place that sold cashmere yarn by the gram as if it were cocaine or gold.

I discovered that there was a budding effort to produce American Cashmere because it turns out that the entire world production of the fiber (mostly in China) was gobbled up by cloth and knitwear manufacturers within months of its harvesting and it could be a viable commodity if it could be produced in this country.

Most of the flocks in the U.S. are based on goats imported from Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania where earlier efforts at establishing a cashmere industry are ongoing. The fiber from domestic animals is thought to be as soft and warm as Oriental cashmere but somewhat more "lustrous", which was considered a downside by the Chinese market.

I found that several women in the Pacific Northwest had gone into goat raising for essentially the same reasons I was looking into it and I bought two pregnant does and with their offspring and the purchase of a buck from another herd I now have eight goats. Out of pocket purchasing and breeding fees to date: $625 - current flock is eight animals, 4 does, 3 wethers (castrated males), and one buck; vets' fees and shots (they are very hardy and need little medical intervention) $75; housing/fencing $400; feed $2500. So in three years I have spent about $3600 on the goats.

Of course if you want a sweater, you could buy raw fleece and avoid that part of the expense, but you'd miss out on the daily feeding, hoof clipping, and combing out the fiber each Spring - as well as the miracle of kidbirth.

The raw fleece, which is about half cashmere and half guard hairs and vegetable matter can be purchased from a grower for whatever she would have gotten for it from the co-op. This is probably the most economical (in terms of cash output) place to start and the most practical if you don't have space (or the inclination) to raise livestock.

To dehair the raw fleece is a quite time-consuming undertaking, but if you substitute it for reading trashy books, or do it while "watching" television it is not an unpleasant task. I spend a lot of time at the computer and even with a fast system there are times (particularly on the internet) when downloading, etc. leaves lots of time to do a little dehairing. The result of this is a fluffy cloud of lighter-than-feathers "stuff" which can then be prepared for spinning.

The dehaired cashmere is fairly easy to prepare for spinning and if you don't want to get a wheel, learn to spin, and experience the remarkable pacification engendered by practicing this craft, you might find a local spinners' group who would spin it for a fee or for some of your cashmere. If you have a wheel and have spun cotton or silk you probably can already spin cashmere. It requires a high speed flyer because you spin it almost as gossamer and ply it into a quite fine sport weight yarn. Another alternative is to buy yarn which has become widely available since the co-op now markets it. It costs about ten to twenty times as much as wool by weight but it goes about twice as far in making a garment.

If you don't want to (or can't) keep goats, hate the idea of dehairing raw fleece, despair of spinning your own yarn - you can knit from the purchased yarn. If you don't want to (or can't) knit, you can buy a very nice cashmere sweater for under $200. The fanciest ones at the "best" stores can be up to $600. I arrived at my $5,000 price by factoring in the hours of dehairing, spinning, and knitting which even at the minimum wage adds up fast. So far I have harvested about five pounds of raw fleece which could produce two sweaters! Of course now that I am combing eight goats, the yield will rise and I may get as much next Spring as I've had to date. I haven't mentioned dyeing since that doesn't interest me but it might affect your choice of fleece color. They come in white but mine are grey to brown and I like the random natural blend so far.

I should dwell at more length on the idea that all of this, particularly the dehairing, is some kind of onerous task which could better be avoided - if only we could build a machine that plucked those guard hairs from that lovely fleece! Well there are such machines and there are also machines to spin the dehaired fleece into yarn and machines to make the yarn into the same sorts of things we can do by hand. There are machines to build new rather than restore old automobiles but somehow one's own restored 1957 Chevrolet has its own reward: the pleasure is in the doing much more than in the owning of the result. Those of us who can our own tomato juice (whether we grew the fruit or harvested it from a u-pick place) or even make biscuits from scratch understand this very well without ever having spoken the word "Zen" or participated in "new age" activities.

Each has her own place to "draw the line": whether to spin yarn at all and if so whether to use a spindle or just twist the fibers in your fingers; or perhaps use a wheel with a quill spindle - or do you make the next step up mechanically and use one with a flyer; do you power it with foot pedals, a hand crank, or God-given power from the electric power grid?; if you dye it do you grow your own colored vegetables or ask help from I. G. Farben?

Each of us whiles away the fleeting hours till the grim reaper performs the final grisly task of separating body from soul and I have found there is more solace, comfort, and downright pleasure in choosing so my sweater will have "cost" $5,000 but will be without price and I will be warmer in it than in the product of goats I never fed, fleece I never plucked, or yarn I didn't spin. All that said, if you want to participate at any level I can sell you a wether or two and perhaps might even be convinced to part with some fleece - but when I get that sweater finished, it is mine to die in!