To begin, let’s define “cashmere.”
The 1985 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary states simply:
- Fine, downy wool growing beneath the outer hair of the Cashmere goat. 2. A soft fabric made of wool from the Cashmere goat or of similar fibers. [After Kashmir, a region in India.]
The Cashmere goat is described as a goat “native to the Himalayan regions of India and Tibet, and prized for its wool.”
We can probably find a lengthier, more recent, description in Wikipedia, but the old definition is just fine.
Now, let’s consider the disturbing role that cashmere sweaters played during my high school years.
I attended a Chicago public high school decades ago. My school was filled with a wide variety of students stemming from a number of different ethnic groups. Some of my fellow students were aspirational and willing to work hard to achieve success both academically and socially. In many ways it was an inspiring environment. Unfortunately, however, a bunch of cliques held sway, dubbing each student “popular” or not.
I was generally viewed as one of the popular kids. I was a member of the most desirable social clubs, I was elected to class office—twice–and I was chosen by Mrs. Keats to join the mixed chorus. (Mrs. Keats admitted you to the mixed chorus only if you were either a great singer or you were a good-enough singer who was also popular. I fell into the latter group.) So I was spared the worst treatment doled out by the cliques.
But it was an evil system, allowing the social clubs to blackball potential members and do countless other destructive things.
One of the most destructive focused on the clothes we wore. I have no knowledge of the boys’ clothing choices. But I do remember that most of the girls were eager to acquire what they viewed as fashionable clothes. Often these were pricey, and not everyone could afford them.
Chief among the clothes in this category were cashmere sweaters and, frequently, matching woolen skirts. (Yes, girls were required to wear skirts to school in that benighted era, even when Chicago temperatures dipped below-zero during our frigid winters. This was one more example of gender-inequity.)
Emphasis on cashmere was particularly noticeable. When gift packages were opened at birthday parties, the cry would go up: “Cashmere! Cashmere!”
After my father died when I was 12, my family of three lived on a modest income, no longer supported by the breadwinner my father had been. I became quite frugal, choosing not to add to my mother’s budget problems. But, ironically, because my mother’s family owned a women’s apparel store, I was able to wear clothes not terribly different from my friends’. I simply had fewer of them.
My mother, raised in her family’s retail business and now working part-time in their store, thought it was important to wear the right clothes for every occasion. So I wasn’t completely shut out of the cashmere game, and I owned one or two cashmere sweaters. But what about the girls who couldn’t afford to buy them?
Once I began working and had my own disposable income, I sometimes added a new cashmere sweater to my wardrobe. Truthfully, cashmere can be soft and warm, making it desirable in cold climates. But I stopped buying new cashmere sweaters years ago. Please read on….
Let’s look at the way cashmere is promoted.
In March 2023, I wondered just how cashmere sweaters are currently bought and sold. Knowing what I do now (see below), I wouldn’t consider buying a new one for myself. But cashmere sweaters are readily available.
Checking the website for one store in the mid-price-to-upscale category, Nordstrom, I discovered the following:
Hundreds of cashmere sweaters were listed on the website in a wide range of prices, beginning at about $100. Among the highest prices I came across were a Balmain brand for $1,995 and a Loro Piana brand for $2,050. Some of the sweaters had reduced prices as winter sweater-wearing weather wound down.
Nordstrom partially redeems itself by having a policy called “Sustainable Style,” in which at least 30% of an item is made up of “sustainably sourced” materials. A few sweaters include “recycled cashmere.” Without doing further research, I assume that the store is aware of the price we pay for luxury goods, not merely in dollars but also in the harm they can cause to the environment. (Of course, “fast fashion,” which is generally cheap, is also harmful. But that’s a story for another day.)
Patagonia is a high-quality retailer featuring outdoor clothing. With a history of concern for the environment, it has recognized the harm inherent in cashmere and has stated the following on its website: “We use recycled cashmere (blended with 5% virgin wool) because of its soft, lightweight warmth.” The website says a lot more, which I’ve added below.
Now let’s consider something I’ve been hinting at: The harm done to the environment by the production of cashmere. I’ll hazard a guess that most of you are totally unaware of this harm.
In her 2019 book, inconspicuous consumption: the environmental impact you don’t know you have, Tatiana Schlossberg devotes a chapter to “the yarn that makes a desert.” This chapter is a cleverly written discussion of the worldwide demand for cashmere, along with the destructive path the breeding of cashmere goats has caused.
Schlossberg focuses on Mongolia and its Gobi desert, where nomadic herders have been shepherding their cashmere goats for thousands of years. These goats have “some of the world’s warmest, softest hair,” which “used to be considered a true luxury item.” Unfortunately, the goats also damage the soil, harming the plants they eat and changing grassland to desert. The result is, according to Schlossberg, that 90 percent of Mongolia is at risk of becoming desert unless management practices change. Climate change plays a part, but “right now, the goats are directly implicated.”
Increasing demand for cashmere has driven down the price, so the herders breed more goats, and the supply of high-quality cashmere has shrunk. “To be sure, there is still a lot of really expensive cashmere out there,” but there is notably a desire for cheap cashmere, particularly in the US. Schlossberg makes clear that it’s not the fault of the consumer that some cashmere is now cheap, and “it’s not wrong to want nice things or to buy them, sometimes.” But…”we can’t all have unlimited amounts of cashmere if we want to live in a world that isn’t spinning into a desert, in order to keep us swathed in cashmere at cheap prices because that’s what we’ve decided is important.”
She adds: “It’s all part of the same problem, and it’s not just cashmere. It’s everything we wear and how we use it.” [Please see my August 2022 blog post on the issues related to cotton, “Totin’ Cotton,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2022/08/18/totin-cotton/.%5D
Now let’s look at the Patagonia website, which confirms everything Schlossberg has written:
“In the 1960s and ’70s, cashmere was used as a luxury material for overcoats, suits and sweaters. As people became familiar with its soft, warm feel, demand for the material grew. Today, cashmere is widely used throughout the industry as a commodity fiber, which is leading to the overbreeding of cashmere goats, a decrease in fiber quality and the desertification of the Mongolian region where the vast majority of cashmere goats live.
“Patagonia uses high-quality recycled cashmere to buck this trend and reduce the environmental cost. We started using recycled cashmere in 2017 after reviewing our supply chain and noticing an increase in the overgrazing of cashmere goats in Mongolia. Today, we collect pre-consumer scraps from European factories and send them to a sorting facility where they are meticulously sorted by color and then put in large machines that shred the fiber. We blend those fibers with 5% virgin wool to create a strong, undyed yarn that we use to make sweaters, beanies, scarves and gloves.”
Patagonia adds: “Innovations like Cashpad—a mechanical recycling program for cashmere and wool textile waste—are helping us scale up the production of recycled cashmere. In coming seasons, we hope to incorporate it into more of our products. Together, let’s prioritize purpose over profit and protect this wondrous planet, our only home.”
By the way, even Patagonia isn’t shy about asking high prices for its cashmere sweaters. A women’s “recycled cashmere” cardigan is listed on its website at $269.
Some concluding thoughts
It’s heartening to learn that changes are happening in the retail world. “Recycled cashmere” may begin to diminish the harm done by breeding cashmere goats simply to add to the world’s supply of cashmere sweaters. “Consumerism”—the desire to acquire more and more things–still rides high in our world, but we appear to be moving towards more enlightened consumerism.
Looking back on my high-school years, I clearly see that our fixation on cashmere was all wrong. We honored the wrong values. Instead of clamoring for cashmere sweaters and other pricey material goods, we should have set other goals for ourselves. I believed in the value of an excellent education, and I worked hard to get one, but I should have aspired to do more than that. “To make the world a better place,” as the current phrase goes.
I was aware of poverty in Chicago, and I was vaguely troubled by the unequal position of minorities in the city, but I never tried to achieve change. It wasn’t until much later that I recognized the need to do so. Instead, during high school I bought into the desire to wear cashmere sweaters. Although I was not among the more affluent students–those who could afford countless luxuries–I never thought about those students who couldn’t afford any of them.
Looking back, I regret that I had such a limited outlook on the world at that time. I like to think that I’ve lived the rest of my life in a way that has tried “to make the world a better place.”
What a valuable lesson and for me, a trip down memory lane.
Mrs. Keats and cashmere sweaters, that was the big important focus of the time.
Not a member of “the popular group” but in Mrs. Keats mixed chorus as an alto. Not because I could sing, but because I could dance. I always wondered what the percentage was of kids who actually could sing. Money was tight growing up, but my parents made sure I had the all important status statement of owning a couple of cashmere sweaters. Thank you for calling us out. Like you, I believe my priorities have changed and I am able to identify what really matters and what does not. Perhaps it took that high school experience to find the way. Haven’t had a cashmere sweater for decades and for sure there is no big hole in my life. Thank you Susie.
Being involved on the instrumental music side at Senn, I never realized mixed chorus had more emphasis on social, rather than musical standards. Having regrets later is a good thing; as Marsha said, priorities change. Always love the way you can reflect on the past, Sue. You’re so talented. Stay dry–Marty
PS–What I remember most about mixed chorus was that Shelley Markham was the accompanist, and later went on to fame as a Broadway composer and lyricist.