Cashmere 101: everything you need to know about buying and caring for it

Olivia Lidbury,
Fashion Editor

Light, elegant and cosy, cashmere requires a little bit of extra maintenance, but treat it with care and it’ll serve you well for years to come

Women sitting outside in winter

What makes cashmere such a luxury?

While wool is harvested from sheep, cashmere is combed from the underbelly of Mongolian goats, where the cold conditions of the country’s high plateau are just right for the animals. Only a limited amount can be collected per goat per year – approximately three to four ounces – meaning a single garment would need to be sourced from several animals. This makes cashmere sought-after and expensive. However, it is three times more insulating than wool and much softer to the touch. 

John Lewis & Partners’ extensive range of cashmere is made from top-grade fibres that start out white. ‘White is the most prized because it’s the cleanest colour,’ explains Kate Bell, Partner & Senior Casualwear Designer. ‘Greige, which is cheaper, tends to be duller, so we use white and dye it to give the cashmere what we call a “bloom” – which makes it look more lively. We then spin a mélange of three, four or five different shades together just to make one colour.’

HOW TO SPEAK CASHMERE

Cashmere is measured in gauges – the number of stitches a garment has per inch. For example, a 12-gauge sweater is lighter and finer than a seven or five, which would create a chunkier finish. 

Every John Lewis & Partners’ piece is fully fashioned, which means that each panel is knitted to size as opposed to cut and sewn together, ensuring a more flattering fit. The delicate stitch detail you can see around a shoulder join or neck trim is known as a fashioning mark. 

Woman sitting outside in winter

Machine-washing cashmere

Not all cashmere is hand-wash only – some John Lewis & Partners styles are machine washable. Devote a separate load to your knitwear and use your machine’s wool program, washing everything inside out at 40 degrees. Always use non-biological detergents specially formulated for wools and silks and avoid fabric conditioner, otherwise your knitwear will thin over time and develop holes. 

HOW TO HAND-WASH

Hand-washing cashmere is a labour of love – but it’s worth the effort. ‘I’m old-school – I handwash little and often,’ says Kate. ‘I like the ritual of it and giving the clothes the respect they deserve.’

Wash several garments in one go and start by ensuring that your sink or tub is clean and grease-free. Use lukewarm water and make sure your specialist detergent is fully dissolved before adding your clothes. Avoid any rigorous actions, instead, gently squeeze the water through the fibres. 

THE ART OF DRYING CASHMERE

‘Reshape while damp’ means exactly that: carefully squeeze out any excess water by scrunching your garment into a ball, avoiding twisting or wringing (you could also lay it out on to a towel, roll it up and wring out water that way). Then dry each item flat to avoid the garment ‘growing’ (you may want to put your clothes airer over the bath if water is still dripping). Once everything is dry, fold it up – hanging cashmere will distort its shape. Oh, and never, ever tumble-dry.

WHY DOES CASHMERE PILL?

Pilling (also known as bobbling) is a natural characteristic of cashmere and not a sign of poor quality. The finer and softer the yarn of your cashmere, the less likely it is to happen, but a small amount of pilling is inevitable. Any that does occur is easily removed by hand or with a special cashmere comb.

BEWARE MOTHS – CASHMERE’S BIGGEST FAN

Moths love to feast on cashmere and they are particularly drawn to moisture from the body, so it's worth lining your drawers with repellent sachets or fresheners. Anything scented with lavender or cedarwood works particularly well.

When packing your knits away for the summer, ensure everything is freshly laundered and stashed in specialist zip-seal storage solutions with anti-moth balls or sachets. All you need is one moth to snack on a jumper to ruin it. If you suspect an infestation, fight back with moth catchers around the house. Freezing items is also an effective way to kill moths and larvae – 24 hours should do the trick.

Main image, from left: John Lewis & Partners cashmere scarf, £55; Reiss jumper, £135; Whistles skirt, £209.30. L.K. Bennett coat, £595; Jigsaw blazer, £199, and trousers, £140; John Lewis & Partners cashmere jumper, £89.