What is Cashmere?
Cashmere, after qiviut, is the softest fiber in the world. It’s easy, as a knitter, to tell by touch a soft yarn and a softer yarn. But over the years, those in the yarn business have come up with ways to measure softness by number. The most current way is to name a fiber’s micron count. The micron count gives the average diameter of a fleece’s fiber. (A micron is one-millionth of a meter). The lower the number, the finer the fleece.
NEWAn average wool from your local sheep my have a micron count somewhere between 23 and 27 microns. Over 27 microns and you find the yarn a bit scratchy. Most merinosthe finest wool yarnsrange in micron count from 18 to 20½ microns, though extra fine merino can have a micron count of 19, or even a little less. A human hair, for comparison, is 75 microns. Cashmere? Cashmerethe best varietiescan have a micron count of less than 14imagine. Thought the not-quite-boutique varieties can be as heavy as 16 microns.
NEWIt’s interesting to note that the finest cashmere comes from Mongolia where the conditions for survival are harshwinters are long and cold and food is scarce. Raising cashmere goats in more hospitable conditions, ironically, produces a lovely product, but rarely will you find a micron count as low as 14 on a pampered cashmere goat.
Most cashmere averages around 14 microns. Compare that with extra fine merino that usually starts around 19 microns. There are other things that determine a yarn’s soft touch and lofty character, but micron count is a standard way to talk about and compare what we knitters recognize with our palms and fingertips.
How did Cashmere become so popular?
According to cashmere lore, it was the Empress Eugenie, second wife of Napoleon, who first made cashmere popular. The story goes that after Napoleon presented her with 17 of the finest cashmere shawls, they became a must-have for Europe’s aristocracy.
If you’d like to know what it’s like to raise your own cashmere goats, check out one woman’s story.