Warning: long and ranty post.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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)