Long Journey into Style: From Goat to Sweater
Folded to perfection and sorted by colours gorgeous sweaters made of luxurious wool await shoppers around the world. Ready to become a new and very cozy favourite in their wardrobes. Yet, before each purchase lies a lengthy journey – from the fine down hair of the goat to the soft, cuddly sweater. And for Allude it begins exactly where the raw material, cashmere, is harvested and processed: in the People’s Republic of China.
More cashmere goats live in China than in any other country, and the cashmere industry that has developed there makes the country what it is today: the world’s largest raw material producer. Of the approximately 26,000 metric tonnes of the world’s annual raw cashmere clip, some 18,100 are harvested in China.
The following abstract is taken from our comprehensive and visuall stunning book „Cashmere“ and explains how this amazing wool finds its way from the idyllic mountain region all the way to fashion boutiques and our online shop. Enjoy this mesmerizing journey into a world of extraordinary craftsmanship!
The production site at Xinjiang
A region very popular for producing cashmere is Xinjiang, which roughly means ‘New Border Region’. It is China’s westernmost region. It occupies one-sixth of the total area of China and is characterised by a variety of different landscapes. Endless, inhospitable deserts alternate with massive snow-capped glaciers, evergreen forests and crystal-clear mountain lakes. The land is interspersed with oases, bazaars, mosques, Buddha caves and densely populated areas, such as the capital Ürümqi at the foot of the Tianshan Mountains, which has about 2 million inhabitants. The city is influenced by the Islamic culture of Central Asia and is of great importance in the steel and textile industry.
At one time, the Silk Route ran along here, linking the different worlds together. Today, there are more than 2,000 manufacturers in Xinjiang who specialize in cashmere production. Allude has worked with a number of production facilities for over 20 years. The fashion house is impressed by the high technical standard in the factories, the implementation of first-rate crafting skills and the excellent know-how of the employees under the strictest adherence to the conditions of production that are required for the creation of high-quality cashmere goods.
A major advantage is the factories’ proximity to the very start of the production process: the cashmere goats. Driven by nomads, they trek through the vast landscape of the mountains of Central Asia.
When the snow on the barren mountain slopes melts in spring, moulting begins, and the cashmere goats naturally change their winter coat to a summer one. During this period, usually from the end of April each year, the animals begin to shed their hair. This is the sign for the nomads that manual combing can begin.
It is exceptionally important to harvest the cashmere down at the right time. The warmer the temperatures and the longer combing is delayed, the greater the risk that the goats will naturally lose their wintery down hair. It might be carried away by the wind or get caught on shrubs.
In turn, too early a harvest of the hair would mean that the goats lack their natural protection from the cold and could freeze to death during the icy nights. This concern is also why the goats are combed and not sheared. Combing prevents the mixing of down and guard hairs and also retains protection for the goats from the elements.
When harvesting cashmere, the shepherds clamp each goat between their legs, tying their feet together with a rope if necessary. They then grab the goats firmly by the horns and comb through the entire coat with a coarse comb to free it from hay and dust. Now they finely comb out the fluffy down hairs with the tines of an iron comb about 15 centimetres wide. They separate these fluffy hairs carefully from the coarse guard hairs and prepare them for packing in large jute sacks. The operation requires special care to ensure the best possible return.
The yield is not very high: on average, each goat supplies about 180 grams of hair a year. It is generally easiest to obtain the hair from goats in their second to tenth year of life. Owing to their physical size, bucks supply around 10 to 15 per cent more down than does. The obtained cashmere yield feels a little felted at this stage, but already wonderfully fluffy. Largely freed from guard hairs, the down is now referred to as crude fibre.
Sorting and cleansing
The sacks are pressed into bales and transported by truck to the collection points in the Xinjiang valleys or – in Allude’s case – directly to Ürümqi, where they are examined and graded by merchants and producers. Before any purchase, however, there are preliminary tests, and the cashmere fibres undergo extensive quality control checks in a laboratory. Here length, diameter, purity and colour are assessed, and it is determined whether the supply meets the requirements. In addition, spot checks of individual samples are made to ensure that no foreign hair or wool types have been mixed in with the fibres.
If the material meets approval, it is spread out over large surfaces in the warehouse and undergoes a first manual pre-sorting. After that, the actual scouring and fine sorting of the cashmere fleece begins. Foreign matter, such as pieces of wood, stones, plants and grass are removed from the greasy cashmere by hand. At the same time, dirt is filtered out and the wool is sorted by colour.
Now the sorted material is transported via long tubes to a washing lane, where it is washed, combed, loosened and disinfected up to three times by machine. During this process, the fibres are cleaned of dust and grease, and the finest dandruff flakes and vegetable matter are also filtered out. The distinctive smell of goat disappears completely during this stage.
Although washing the cashmere raw material is automated, overseeing an optimal cleaning process requires a great deal of experience, as the incorrect use of water and agitation could entangle and matt the delicate fibres. The water should be soft, without calcium and magnesium salt content, and the fibres should be washed with a gentle detergent at not more than 45 degrees Celsius. Once the cashmere material has been thoroughly rinsed in large tanks, it is dried by blowing machines.
Carding and dyeing
After drying, and before dyeing and spinning, the raw material is carded. In this process, the heavy guard hair is separated from light down hair by repeated combing. If, at the beginning of the process, the material is made up of about 50 to 60 per cent of guard hairs, by the end, the guardhair content should be less than 1 per cent. In this stage, the cashmere bunches are divided into smaller tufts and grasped by the pins of the carders, which comb through several times and gently pull the fibres apart, stretching and straightening them so they lie parallel to each other.
The last remaining dirt particles fall away, and the real cashmere separates out; a veil-like pile forms. The now completely clean cloud-like mass flows out of the machine fine as a mist and forms a skein. At this point of the production process, the material has lost about a quarter of its original weight. The cashmere now resembles gauze, and this is the starting point of yarn production.
First, however, the cashmere has to be dyed. Via roller tracks, it is taken to the various dyeing vats. For each shade, a special colour mix is determined by computer analysis. In order to control the extent to which the hair takes on a particular colour, sample dyeings are needed. The results of these are then used as a basis for calculating the ratio of coloured and uncoloured fibres in the mix.
The appropriate dye solutions are then applied by machine and the cashmere mass is dyed. In the drying room, the cashmere will dry and develop lustre. The dyed fibre is then separated into individual strips called slubs, formed into a uniform shape, stretched in combed tops and combined into the desired colour pattern. Later, it is twisted into loose threads.
From yarn to knitwear
These fine threads, called rovings, can still break easily and cannot withstand any tension. This is remedied by spinning, in which the fibres of the rovings are twisted together by means of a rotating spindle. The result is a long, fine thread, which is now twisted or spun to the desired strength into knitting yarn of varying quality. To do so, two or more threads are twisted together. Depending on the number of threads, the yarn is known as one-ply, two-ply and so on. The spun yarn is now processed further, wound on spools and is ready for knitting.
Depending on the design that is to be knitted, the patterns that are to be used and the special features and finishes the Allude garment will have, a decision is made as to whether the piece will be created by semi-automatic or fully automatic computerised machine knitting or whether it will be knitted by hand. Once the patterns have been programmed, the measurements converted into stitch numbers and the requirements for the outlines of the garments interpreted into a form suitable for knitting, the actual knitting can begin. Then follows quality control, ironing and the attaching of the labels. Finally, the completed items are packed and prepared for shipping.
You can find more information on cashmere history, processing and care as well as the success story of Allude as a brand – including many rarely seen and exclusive images in our book „Cashmere“, published. Available in book stores and inr our online shop. Make sure to also read our interview with editor Berit Grosswendt.