Warning: long and ranty post.

(view across the water from Shilasdair)

While we were on Skye last weekend, I (of course) found time to visit Shilasdair. I was last at this naturally-dyed-yarn-mecca in 2007, when I bought Shetland aran in two wonderful muted shades, and made this sweater (rav link), a garment of which I am inordinately fond. The yarn knit up like a dream and then bloomed and softened beautifully. The marvellous dusky colours have stayed true and softly luminous. The sweater is tough and hard-wearing, and yet cosy and warm. I love the sweater and the yarn of which it is fashioned. And so I went to Shilasdair to get me some more. Now, Eva Lambert is a brilliant and inspirational craftswoman, and none of what follows is meant as a direct criticism either of her or her business. . . but. . . I was very disappointed to discover that Shilasdair is in the process of discontinuing the glorious shetland (with which I am clearly obsessed), replacing it with a range of “luxury” yarns: merino, angora — and, of course, cashmere. Only sad bin-ends of the shetland remained, so I bought some of the luxury DK (20% cashmere, 20% angora, 40% merino) with a small degree of regret, and a much larger one of ambivalence. And I’ve spent much of the past few days thinking about about ‘luxury’ yarns, their history, their meaning as commodities, and my attitude to them.

(Shilasdair ‘luxury’ DK. Skye tansy overdyed with indigo).

Cashmere is, of course, deliciously soft and takes colour beautifully. It is wildly popular both with the discerning knitter who enjoys feeding its gorgeous buttery-ness through her hands, as well as with the general consumer, who snaps up cashmere bargains of dubious ethics and standards at Tesco or Primark, or lives for Locharron and Johnston’s famous annual sales. In Scotland particularly, the market for cashmere — both as yarn and finished garment — is buoyant and lucrative. And, as with much of the rest of the country, Skye receives an awful lot of visitors who associate cashmere with Scotland, and expect to be able to buy it here. Many visitors, I suspect, would regard cashmere as Scotland’s second national product (after whisky). So this new Shilasdair range is clearly speaking to a market through a commodity with which Scotland’s national identity is inextricably bound up. To give another example, here in Edinburgh, there is a yarn store (of which I am a good friend and patron) that is conveniently situated off the cashmere-and-visitor lined Royal Mile. In response to market demand, the store has developed a yarn-line of incredible expense and (to my mind) rather questionable quality, containing a small percentage of cashmere.

(“not all cashmere is created equal”. Images and tagline from the Scottish Cashmere Club)

Like other commodities, Scottish cashmere has its own nationalist discourse. Central to this discourse are the familiar refrains of national quality, exclusivity, and luxury under threat. By the British and Scottish governments, as well as by its various agencies and trade associations, Scottish cashmere is represented as perpetually threatened by the inferior products and processing techniques that emerged in China after economic liberalisation. During the 1990s, the Scottish cashmere industry was certainly significantly affected by limited supplies of quality base materials as Chinese manufacturers rushed to cash in on a lucrative market with their cheap alternatives to the luxe sweaters of Bonnie Scotland. Scottish cashmere — our national textile that is raised on the undersides of Mongolian goats and shipped half way across the world before being processed, and shipped out to global markets from our quality Scottish mills — must be protected from the competition of the country that raises the animals who provide most of the industry’s base materials. Of course, the different stages of processing involved in the production of any modern textile mean that, to one extent or another, it will always be an international rather than a national commodity, but the different ways in which textiles are claimed as national are always very interesting — and in cashmere’s case, particularly so. You may remember, for example, that the so-called banana wars that disrupted EU / US trade relations in 1999 and 2000 turned on Scottish cashmere. How so? Well, the inclusion of cashmere on a list of commodities earmarked for punitive US import duties prompted an intriguing personal exchange between Blair and Clinton, in which the former agreed to use his influence to sort out the EU’s banana subsidy dispute in return for the latter lifting the impending cashmere tariff. (Clinton was later attacked in both US houses for removing Scottish cashmere from the tariff schedule). Ironically, the threat that the banana wars posed to Scottish cashmere raised market awareness, and apparently boosted the industry.


I am pleased that the Scottish cashmere industry is buoyant, not least for the thousand or so Scots it employs. But as the labour of this workforce remains largely hidden in cashmere’s nationalist discourse, so too does the question of the impact and ethics of increased production of this ‘luxury’ product. Concerns about the fibre’s environmental impact never feature in the discourse of Scottish national protection. Knitters, spinners, and raisers of wool-producing animals will know that cashmere goats produce just a few ounces of quality down per year, but are, like all goats, voracious consumers. They will also have heard about how, in response to Western market demand for more and cheaper cashmere, goat numbers have increased dramatically during the last decade, resulting in the deforestation and desertification of some grazing lands in the far east.


And the ultimate irony about Scottish cashmere — an exclusive, luxury product reputedly threatened by mass-market demand and mass-market production — is that it was itself first developed in response to the mass market. (Warning: I’m putting my historian’s hat on now). Cashmere first rose to prominence in Europe during the Napoleonic wars. In 1798, there was no more desirable, expensive, or exclusive garment for the fashionable women of Paris than a hand-made cashmere shawl sent home by their male relatives who were then fighting in Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. The original Kashmir shawls (which often took their peasant artisans several years to make) were sold in pairs, were handwoven, and were of incredible fineness, softness — and, of course, cost. In the portrait you see below, Josephine, empress of France, drapes one cashmere shawl about her shoulders, and in the ultimate fashionable-imperialist swagger, has incorporated a second into the lower panel of her dress.

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Josephine, Empress of France (c.1808) (Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Palais Massena, Nice).

In her extraordinarily pricey and exotic drapery, Josephine is a sort of exotic commodity herself: the feminine objective of the empire; an emblem of the gigantic imperial ambitions of the nation at whose helm she stood. If one is not aware of the cachet of these first handwoven cashmere shawls, it is perhaps hard to see what Josephine is wearing here in terms of its truly outlandish luxuriance. And perhaps the design of such shawls is also so familiar to us now that we no longer read them — as they would have been read in the early nineteenth century — as signs of the exclusive, the oriental, and the exotic. In fact, the first word that springs to our minds when we look at Josephine’s gorgeous cashmere could well be Paisley (of which more in a moment)

(Cashmere shawls in fashion plates from Costumes Parisiennes, 1801-1811).

In the first convolute of his Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin writes of the “cashmere fever” that gripped France during the Nineteenth Century: “it began to spread during the Consulate, grew greater under the Empire, became gigantic during the Restoration, reached colossal size under the July Monarchy, and has finally assumed Sphinx-like dimensions since the February Revolution of 1848.” Cashmere shawls appear on a number of occasions in this early convolute, and Benjamin’s fascination with them is clearly about the way they typify the transition from exclusivity and luxury to the mass-market (there are several remarks about their depreciating value over the course of the century). The same process that Benjamin found interesting in France was happening across the channel too: Britain was experiencing its own “cashmere fever” and demand for quality shawls far outstripped supply. After an innovative method of spinning cashmere yarn was pioneered at Barège in France, a premium was offered by the Board for the for Encouragement of Manufactures to introduce similar techniques to Scotland, in order to produce cashmere yarn and cloth of a quality that was deemed to surpass that of the French. In 1833, Houldsworth and Sons of Glasgow were awarded the premium and then the looms of nearby Paisley — a manufacturing centre already well-known for its fine silks and muslins — began to reproduce (and, indeed, to creatively transform) the textile patterns and effects formerly achieved in the earlier, Kashmir hand-woven shawls.

(Kashmir / Paisley motifs)

Spun and woven cashmere was certainly big business in Britain by the mid nineteenth century. The Catalogue of the 1851 Great Exhibition features an incredible number of cashmere shawls, as well as the fibre of the cashmere goats that Prince Albert was then attempting to raise at Windsor Palace. And I must say that what first sprung to my mind when I started thinking about cashmere a few days ago, was the striking and handsome figure cut by Margaret Hale in the opening pages of Gaskell’s North and South (1855). With her tall frame and (convenient) mourning dress, Margaret forms the ideal draping-model to set off “the long beautiful folds” of the soft, colourful cashmere shawls acquired by her uncle in India, which were to form the luxuriant centrepiece of spoilt cousin Edith’s marital trousseau.


I have come a long way from where I began, but my point is that the nineteenth century origin of Scottish cashmere is precisely as a mass-market product, that was developed in order to compete with the exclusive hand-woven shawls of the peasant crafstmen and women of the east. Yet now the Scottish cashmere industry has lent itself a certain kind of artisanal status (or at least claims a national(ist) heritage that overlaps with the artisanal), and is threatened by eastern responses to the demands of the mass market. So where does this leave me and my skeins of 20% cashmere Shilasdair yarn? Well, I’m still pondering the significance and symbolism of Scottish cashmere (an historical matter of a particular method of yarn-processing), and I will confess to a certain amount of Benjamin-like distaste about the contemporary fashionable rhetoric of cashmere as an Affordable Luxury to which Every Woman Deserves to Treat Herself. According to Jennifer Sanders in the closing paragraphs of an utterly pointless piece of self-help froth entitled Buy More Cashmere (2005):

“Cashmere is a wonderful metaphor for whatever it is that we seem to deny ourselves. “Oh no” you say, as someone offers you a treat, “I really shouldn’t . . .” Yes, you really should. Why pour yourself and your energies into others on an endless basis? Please, save some of you for you. And I’ll see you at the cashmere counter!”

This consumerist rubbish — in which the purchase of a mass-produced woollen product somehow compensates for the deficiencies of a self-abnegating femininity — really makes me lose the will to live. I’d like to say to Jennifer — and to my yarn-consuming self as well: don’t buy more cashmere. Those whose business it is to reflect critically on the economics of global textile production have raised serious concerns about the environmental impact of producing and processing the fibre.* And at a moment when a British sheep can be bought for under ten pounds, when British wool is being burnt rather than spun, and when a quality fleece can cost less than the price of the shearing, there are probably better ways in which to spend your money. I’m of course aware that my knitting is in itself a luxury, and that, in pursuit of it, I deploy many of my own ideological / national delusions — perhaps particularly in relation to my love of Shetland wool. I’m also aware that there are many great small cashmere producers, spinning gorgeous yarn, with a careful eye to the ethics and impact of what they are doing. The same can be said of the many wonderful independent dyers, on Skye, or elsewhere, who produce beautiful cashmere yarns. But I still wish I could have bought that Shetland.

As always, your thoughts and comments on this issue will be much appreciated.

* “The challenge to supply the markets with cashmere wool serves as a significant economic struggle to meet increasing demand and maximise profits. One must look beyond [the] fashion and luxury of cashmere garments to the possible detrimental effects on the environment.” Robert Franck, Silk, Mohair, Cashmere and Other Luxury Fibres (Textile Institute of Manchester, 2001), 223.

Further reading:
Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project (Eiland and McLaughlin, trans) (Belknap Presss, 1999), Convolute A: Arcades, Magasins de Nouveates, Sales Clerks, 32-61.
Linda Cortwright, “The Cashmere Complex“, Wild Fibers Magazine, Spring 2007, vol. 4, issue 2
John Irwin, The Kashmir Shawl (Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973).
Valerie Reilly, The Paisley Pattern (Richard Drew, 1987)

62 thoughts on “golden fleece?

  1. I buy my cashmere fibre from Australian producers (I’m a spinner). Having known a few, the goats are treated well. They don’t need to be mulesed, as they don’t get flyblown, unlike sheep – where flies lay their eggs in the skin of the sheep, around the moist rear end.

    As for not buying Australian merino, it is not as simple as Australian sheep farmer=evil. While mulesing could be better handled (and things have definitely improved in the last ten years), only large flocks are mulesed (so not all merino are mulesed); smaller flocks are crutched (where they shear the sheep’s rear). Mulesing is done once, whereas crutching must be done at least once a year, and is only appropriate where flies are less common. The alternative – flyblown sheep have a truly horrible death – is far, far worse. PETA think that sheep should live as pets. Australian sheep live in large flocks (many properties have thousands of sheep), and most of the time live an almost wild existence – which is much better for the sheep.


  2. I read this post some time ago, but came back to re-read it. I was thinking of how Austen uses the cashmere shawl as a symbol too – in Mansfield Park where Lady Bertram thoughtlessly expects William Price to be able to obtain her one or two shawls when his ship takes him somewhere eastern, making no attempt to give him the money in advance.


  3. Wow. I receive Knitters’ Review every week and followed her link to your Deco pattern – which I love, BTW. I then realised you were the creator of the famous Owls sweater :)….I started trawling through your site and arrived on this page and oh god I almost wish I hadn’t… I suppose I would have preferred to remain in deluded cashmere love – just kidding, as someone who has been saving water, recycling and upcycling and so on and so forth since long before it became practically mainstream, I am so glad I did. I stopped buying Australian merino ages ago, and, since it’s impossible to buy yarn here without shipping it from the Continent or the States, I already feel bad about my carbon footprint. So now – this has to go. So I’m glad that except for one foray to a Chinese manufacturer of cashmere sweaters here in Malta (little island in the Med) years ago – long before cheap cashmere was available in high street shops – most of my cashmere is Italian, Scottish and quite old. And over the last few years, I have bought quite a bit – mostly from posh yarn, and some from Rowan. Hopefully theirs was ethically sourced – who knows? Suffice it to say that after this fascinating and thought provoking read, I shan’t buy any more. Pity, as I really do itch like crazy with most other yarns, and can actually wear high necked cashmere sweaters without getting a neck and chest rash except when they’re black….


  4. Hi there! I found your blog on a web search for paisleys. I love the ones you have posted here…I’m curious if they are copyrighted images or if they are public domain (hoping for the latter).
    Beautiful blog!


  5. Good quality, real cashmere (not cashmere fleece) comes at a high price to us little people and isn’t stocked by Tesco, Marks, Primark or Gap. Ethically sourced cashmere (by Loro Piana for example) is in short supply and costs a mint as, in my opinion, should be. It does really last a lifetime and gets better with age provided it is only hand-washed.

    Oh and you may like to know that also Elspeth Thompson recommends wearing cashmere in her very pointless Wonderful Weekend Book. Why do I buy this trash? I don’t know. I also have Wear More Cashmere… Well done on this piece and well done on the Rowan article too. Are they totally local though? I heard not long ago that they spin in, shock horror, CHINA.

    All the best!


  6. I read this and the comments with great interest, a fascinating argument. I too have a somewhat nostalgic led fondness for what I like to call, proper, woolie wool but I am currently knitting with a fine lace cashmere for the first time and have to confess to being very taken with the butter soft, colour saturated stuff.

    I always read your posts but never comment so I wanted to take a moment to say how much I enjoy your posts and all the information which you manage to impart in such a beautifully illustrated manner.

    Congratulations on the Rowan article I will look out for it when pick up my copy.


  7. Only you could cite Walter Benjamin on your blog and no one would bat an eye:)

    I am so curious to know what you think of Rowan’s Purelife British Sheep Breeds line…very rustic and highly appealing (I just bought a sweater’s worth) but I had the distinct feeling that my desires to harken back to a simpler time and tap into certain ‘pure’ notions of Britishness were being targeted and thus I felt I was being somewhat (happily?) manipulated as I plunked down my credit card.


  8. This piece has been exercising me since I read it and I have had to mull it over before putting fingers to keyboard. I am not a knitter. I try to curb my lust for beautifully textured and coloured fabrics and on the whole I manage this by having a limited budget and being picky about what I invest in. I choose to say “invest” deliberately because I want to get pleasure from my purchases for as long as possible, even when they are ripped or mended or darned In fact, prolonging the life of a garment for as long as possible adds to the pleasure – a pleasure derived not from the fact that I am “worth it”, but from the all round loveliness of the object. But while I have bought cardigans from a company which uses long established Scottish mills, I am ashamed to say that I had not checked in detail the ethical policies of this company. I have now, and it looks like I have not been fleeced, at least I hope not.

    Thanks, as ever, for provking thought.


  9. Very interesting post. Cashmere abuse : I totally share your views. And the slight obsession with shetland, too : where can we sign up for the ‘good’ole shetland protection league’ ??


  10. I too was very interested in your post, thank you for putting forward the ecological & ethical impacts of cashmere overuse.
    In the aspect of the parisian cashmere shawls though, I went a while ago (1998) to an exhibit on them in Paris, at the Musée de la Mode. I was fascinated. But I think to remember the material they are made of is not cashmere, but wool? I was confirmed in this when I went to Cashmere a while ago…but initially I did not touch them, and now I am really sure anymore. This particular weaving technique was a speciality of Cashmere though, and became associated with these shawls.


  11. I really love reading your blog. You either give me something to think about, ponder about or drool over.

    As far as the cashmere issue, it is a dead one for me as I am allergic to the stuff. In light of that, I have sought and appreciate not only British Breeds but other animals that produce a yarn that is soft, beautiful and more hard wearing than cashmere. Bluefaced Leicester is my favourite yarn because it is soft, beautiful and easy to work with. Alpacas produce a warm,lofty and even softer yarn to work with, that can be worn by those who are allergic wool. I guess what I am saying is that luxury is where you find it and some of us don’t find it in cashmere, whether it be due to allergies, ethical reasons or financial reasons.

    For myself and others, the luxury in knitting is that we are not having to produce much of our clothing for ourselves and our families. The luxury of choosing what we want to knit is lovely and I greatly love it.


  12. Thanks for this very interesting and enlightening post! I know very little about these issues, except for what I’ve read from Adrian at Hello Yarn about the sustainability problems with cashmere. I try to avoid cashmere in my yarns, both because of what little I know of the issues surrounding it, and also because I tend to prefer a slightly more “rustic”, wooly yarn.


  13. I really enjoyed that! Fascinating – hurray for the history hat!

    I have to confess to a fondness for cashmere, I think more for its softness than its ‘because I’m worth it’ luxury connotations (that paragraph you quoted made want to throw things around..) – I know you love Shetland wool, but it is bloody scratchy!


  14. American here and a history major and rustic yarn lover so you have another sympathetic reader of your article (blog). One of the things I derived from your article (blog) is the inevitable ebb and flow of commerce. We humans are a fickle lot and back in the fifties and sixties were married to acrylic (horrors!) and now luxury yarns like merino, cashmere and silk (of which I have dozens of orphan “souvenir” skeins) are gobbled up by yarn snobs all over the planet. Me, I am yearning for a shetland or Icelandic shawl made of rustic taupe and cream wool which I can wrap around me on a cold night and feel really WARM not fashionable. From your commentors it looks like I’m not alone and perhaps their will be a “rustic yarn” backlash and your shetland will be available – and much in demand – once again.


  15. Thank you for such an interesting and thought provoking piece. I get angry that I live in a country with millions of sheep and we don’t process much of it here any more . Every skein of yarn that I knit with has amassed more air miles than I am likely to . I too love my knitting but I question the problems behind obtaining my yarn.


  16. fascinating, thank you. i was thinking of the scene in the bbc production of north and south where the cotton filaments are flying through the air of the factory in a blizzard, quite heart stopping, when you made ref to the novel.

    here in albuquerque NM there are what are called heritage seed saver programs or something of the kind to preserve the biodiversity and the heritage seeds of the native americans. surely the scots could (if they are not already) do the same thing with heritage sheep and yarn.


  17. Wow, what a great and interesting post. I think it’s funny that Scotland was really just doing what Britain had been doing all along though – appropriating the customs of nations it had come to dominate with Imperial spread. Par for the course, really. While I can deal with that (that is what humans do after all, subjugate and appropriate), I don’t think I’ll be buying any cashmere in the future, I’m not into pollution, thanks to the two readers who posted that eye-opening Seattle Times article link!


  18. Sorry, didn’t mean that to come across as mean-spirited as it probably did. Knitting and gardening do constitute more than a mere ‘hobby’ of course, middle class or otherwise, as your always fascinating blog regularly reveals. Off to do some log cabin knitting right now :o)


  19. Thanks for the post and insight into the history of cashmere, of which I was entirely ignorant (though I have never been a fan of cashmere, cheap or otherwise).

    Interesting as to what constitutes ‘luxury’: I consider my knitting habit a luxury in that good quality yarn is expensive and the time taken to create a garment renders it almost priceless. I can only justify it because it satisfies the creative impulse in me in a relatively practical manner (particularly as I knit a lot of gifts). I equate it in that respect with my husband’s ‘hobby’ of the allotment – another (formerly) working class neccessity that has been increasingly adopted by the middle classes as a hobby.

    Wholeheartedly agree with the ‘consumerist nonsense’ of the ‘Because You’re Worth It…’ ethos. Thanks again for the post.


  20. Yes. Finally, someone is standing up and telling the world that much of the cashmere we enjoy buying is turning parts of the East into a dustbowl. I must admit, I always had the idea that Scottish cashmere was exactly that – Scottish. By that I mean grown, processed, spun and woven in Scotland. Live and learn. I have some of the Shilasdair in stash, and I must admit it is very nice, but I for one would have preferred a pure wool base. I like character in my yarn. I do believe that many knitters are becoming far more educated about their yarn choices, and articles such as this are all helping that.

    The fact that Scottish cashmere was a mass-market product pretty much from day one just adds to the idiocy of the whole thing. Oh and that very expensive yarn you mention? Yeah. With you on that one. If I want a British / Scottish pure yarn, I’ll go visit New Lanark.


  21. I always find it slightly amusing the ploy some companies use upon women to buy something because “you’re worth it”, or “yes you are soo good/abnegated/dutiful/and nobody gives you your due value oh! poor suffering female. Therefore yes! You should enjoy this or that”…. Go for the cashmere, the Godiva chocolate, the Manolo Blanik or the latest technological advancement to keep yourself thinner/wrinkleless/more beautiful. After all if you do not like yourself the way you are you can always pretend to be someone else. When I see it works I do not know if I should laugh or move back to Mars.

    The fact that in the US we are seeing an increase in weather related problems due to the dust storms coming across the Pacific from China is just like the icing on a cake.

    Myself, I spin my own cashmere and angora as it irritates me to no end the never ending shedding of poorly spun yarns and textiles. Plus I have found that sharing my life and home with an angora rabbit, a small not very bright animal with an overabundance of attitude, just my perfect match :-)

    Thank you for your post, thoughtful as usual.


  22. I was just at my local yarn store to buy Noro on sale, but I can no longer buy the lovely, hard-working, made in america by american sheep, sport weight wool in solid colors that they used to stock. They say there is no demand for it and I wonder if I was the only one interested.

    Will cashmere ever go out of style? Thanks for your great, thoughtful post. I’ll be mulling it all over in my head for a while.


  23. Another intelligent, interesting and thought-provoking post. I love stopping by to catch up with your blog. It’s a shame that the yarn shop on Skye has stopped stocking Shetland wool – surely that’s seen as a ‘Scottish’ product as much as cashmere is? (In fact, I have to admit that cashmere and Scotland weren’t linked in my brain at all before reading this – possibly because I’ve never bought a cashmere sweater/cardi.) Thanks for the continuing education about all things textiley and fibrous!


  24. Thanks for a really interesting piece of writing. I have to say I know hardly anything of the history of yarns and not a lot about country or region specific techniques, but I have to admit it seems strange that cashmere can be referred to as Scottish when the actual goats have not been raised in Scotland and the fibre has to be imported. Or is the “Scottish” aspect relating solely to the production process? Or is all a bit ironic? Thanks again for a great post :)


  25. This is so interesting. Shamefully I had no idea where Cashmere came from. The irony of the ‘banana wars’ turning on cashmere is heightened further when you consider that they were largely represented as conflicts between the US and EU with almost no reference to the Caribbean banana producers whose livelihoods were ultimately at stake.

    Thanks for your blog! This is a first de-lurking comment …


  26. Kate, what are your thoughts on the differences between a nation ‘adopting’ (to use a phrase possibly more positive-sounding than I mean to be) a foreign fibre and its industries (cashmere), and a nation adopting a foreign pattern or design (the patterns we know as paisley)? As your excellent post demonstrates, both are integral and literally and metaphorically interwoven in British (Scottish) imperial history. But while there are, as you say, obvious problems with the ‘material adoption’ of cashmere, do you think that the adoption of the paisley pattern (as something that has been given a Scottish name, and is reproduced and reinterpreted in textile industries all over the world) is entirely problem-free?


  27. Thanks for this really interesting article. I realised in the course of reading it that I’m not actually a big fan of cashmere – it’s tied in my mind to cheap jumpers in Tesco that look good on the hanger but don’t hold their shape and go bobbly after a couple of wears. A sort of false luxury.

    To me, real luxury is more likely to be spinning hand-dyed shetland into yarn ready to knit into mittens for the winter.


  28. Nice historian hat, wouldn’t mind seeing a picture of that, too! I presume it’s made of Shetland wool?

    I do have a mass-market (supposedly 100%) cashmere sweater, one of the last things ever purchased for me by my grandmother (a self sacrificing woman if I ever met one, and also someone to whom luxury items meant a lot). After many years it unfortunately succumbed to moths last year, so I decided to incorporate it into a felted wool project that I have had kicking around for a while. But, though I washed it on hot and let it spin in the dryer at highest heat for what seemed like plenty of time, it has simply refused to felt. Now, what do you think of that!


  29. This is a really interesting and thought-provoking post. I spent much of last winter freezing cold and ranting about the number of ‘luxury cashmere-blend’ jumpers in the shops which were 90% acrylic, but I’d never connected that with ‘luxury’ knitting yarns. I do think it’s a great shame that there aren’t more people producing mid-range yarns, though – luxury yarns are all very well for scarves and hats, but for a jumper I’d take pure wool every time; warm, hard-wearing and (perhaps most importantly!) affordable.


  30. I don’t know what to say! This is truly excellent research and writing, maybe you could start a series about yarn and its history?

    It is people like you who educate us and help us make wiser choices.

    Thanks so much.


  31. V. thought provoking. Although I’ve been knitting for around five years I’ve only really just started to consider the impact of my yarn purchasing both on markets and the environment. Felix drew my attention to the article on cashmere a couple of weeks ago and I really appreciate you providing some more background.

    ps I too immediately thought of Margaret Hale when you started to mention Indian shawls.


  32. This is a very interesting post – thank you. I’ve never given much thought to the origins of cashmere. I’m not a huge fan of it – I do own one cashmere sweater (to my shame, bought from Tesco some years ago) which is fantastically soft and lovely, but I actually prefer the more rustic feeling of woollen yarns.

    I visited Shilasdair last year. Although I didn’t buy anything (due to lack of forward planning and not having any particular projects in mind!) I will probably return this year. I’m sorry to hear there won’t be Shetland there any more, because I’d be more interested in that than “luxury” yarns (which are expensive, widely available and tend to pill).


  33. Thank you for a beautifully written and well-researched article. Very illuminating!
    There is some sustainably farmed cashmere being produced here, in Washington State. It’s gorgeous….and priced accordingly.


    1. I happily bought some Washington State cashmere and was very pleased to have supported a small, ethical American farm, selling an excellent product. The best of both worlds, in my opinion.


  34. I have never understood how something can remain a luxury if it is easily affordable. This kind of thinking is what I believe is making people here in the U.S. obese. It seems like the idea is that if something is good, then we _deserve_ to have it.

    That said, I have never bought cashmere because I can’t afford anything that seems ethical. But, I also buy merino all of the time, even though I have no idea where it came from – your article is reminding me to be more conscientious!

    I learned a lot from this post about the Scottish cashmere industry – thank you.


  35. Here thanks to M-H putting a link on her blog. I so enjoyed reading this post, and thinking about the luxury-connotations of cashmere, and on into consumerism.


  36. As always, a thought-provoking post. Although a knitter for many years I’ve only really started exploring yarns beyond mass producers in the last couple of years. I had simply no idea of the costs incurred by cashmere yarns and will certainly make more educated purchases in future.

    And as a history graduate, I like your historian hat too. More please!


  37. I enjoy your historian hat, and your thoughtful discourse is why I keep coming back. The discussion of a sort of false nationalism based on the fairy tale notion of the cashmere industry in Scotland strikes a chord with me – as a Canadian recently transplanted to the UK, I’m constantly aware of the brief history of my proud little country, and how entangled so many elements of my national pride are with the issues of sovereignty and appropriation. I also loved the discussion of the feminine self v. luxury (or as defined by luxury?) Ruth’s reference to the Radox ‘quarter to you’ ad currently making the rounds was spot on. Keep the ranty posts coming, please!


  38. Thanks so much – a fantastic post! I really agree with you about the consumerist rubbish and share your sadness about less fashionable fibers falling from grace.


  39. Wow! I had no idea that there was such a story behind cashmere or that it was considered a Scottish yarn! In fact, I have to admit that I don’t often think about the fiber that I am using in my projects except to check that it isn’t acrylic and that it is as local as possible. Thanks for a very thought-provoking read.


  40. Fantastic and thought provoking rant! As a textile science student it is easy to get lost in the properties of material and forget about the social and economic contexts of which is it produced and consumed, nice to be reminded to think beyond the skein at hand.


  41. I am very sad that you couldn’t buy your Shetland and feel similarly to you about buying cashmere in terms of environmental damage because it doesn’t seem worth it to me and I have also felt very unsure about primark and uniglo “cashmere” bargains. Can you get sustainable cashmere? I’m not sure.

    However I really enjoyed the discussion of cashmere and nationalist discourse particularly the linking with bananas wars (which I had no idea about). And I think it is really interesting how a cash crop like cashmere can straddle the luxury/mass market divide.Hmmm lots to think about, I’m a bit tired reading this but I know I will come back to this post to muse more on this issue.
    P.S I am so glad that you mentioned North and South as I started reading I was thinking I’m sure that Mrs Gaskell mentions an exotic shawl in N&S so I was excited that you had thought about it as well!


  42. What a wonderful post! (says this shy lurker). I love your historian hat.

    I personally have stopped buying cashmere ever since Adrian from her Hello Yarn blog linked to this article and turned me onto the dubious ethics of consuming Mongolian cashmere. When I really really feel close to succumbing I usually turn to colourmart, and think to myself that it’s not AS bad because I’m not really encouraging a market or creating a demand if I’m using the ends of mills. I’ve also started telling my friends and family (non knitters, mostly) to keep away from keep cashmere sweaters if they can avoid it – I explain why and hope it’ll make them think.

    I think you’ve stirred the important questions in a very intelligent and thoughtful way – which is unsurprising from you, because you often do! :)

    (I think the French word you were reaching for is cachet, not caché. /translator hat off)


    1. Thanks for the link to the article. I had no idea that cheap cashmere came at such a cost. I shan’t buy any.


  43. Well, apart from wanting to vomit all over whatever cashmere sweater Jennifer Sanders was urging us self-depriving women to buy to make our lives worth living, it is a subject that’s fairly complex–at what point does something legitimately become artisanal/a national treasure? At what point does it (re)commercialize itself to be anything other than a shadow of what was valuable about it in the first place?


  44. Fascinating! Haven’t yet made it to Shilasdair but was dismayed last week upon visiting Teo’s Handspun in Broadford to see their almost exclusive emphasis on ‘luxury’ yarns. A tiny handful of Wensleydale aside, everything else was clearly intended for a particular market, despite advertisments for the best of ‘traditional’ British wools.

    I’ll be thinking about this a lot. Oh, and the Paisley motifs are gorgeous – where is that plate from?


  45. Thank you for putting your history hat on, and for another stimulating, interesting post! I think there certainly needs to be a discussion/re-evaluation of what constitutes our ‘national’ products, and how and what we should assign value (to), if those ‘national products’ are no longer appropriate. Personally, the only thing that has ever put me off some ‘British’ yarns is my fear that, being slightly sensitive to wool, I will find them uncomfortable to wear, though I’m aware that this is likely to be an inherited assumption (wool itches).

    I’m also intrigued by the presentation of femininity and the combination of both self-abnegation and excess… interesting in the current climate, and also makes me think of the ‘it’s a quarter to you’ Radox advert…

    Btw, thanks so much for the images of paisley designs – they look like they might be ripe for some embroidery :)


  46. I understand your views and think it is very unfortunate that retailers have to go with the trends to stay in business. Hopefully, the tide will change very soon and your beloved shetland will be readily available again! My preferred fiber is 100% cotton, which have become harder to find because of the luxury cottons and the cotton blends…


  47. I found your blog article really interesting, with beautiful illustrations. I would be interested to know what you think of the luxury dk when you have knitted with it, I think it is the best yarn I have ever used.
    I have never got such an even tension with any yarn, and the colours and texture are amazing.


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