Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Red Dot

From "The Red Dot" episode of Seinfeld

Office Cleaning Lady: "When I was a little girl in Panama, a rich American came to our town and he was wearing the softest most beautiful sweater. I said to him, "what do you call this most beautiful fabric?", and he said "they call it cashmere". I repeated the words "cashmere, cashmere". I asked if I could have it, and he said "No. Get away from me." Then he started walk away. But I grabbed onto his leg screaming for him to give me the sweater and he dragged me through the street. And then he kicked at me with the other foot and threw some change at me. Oh, but I didn't want the change Georgie. I wanted the cashmere."

This is taken from what is probably my favorite episode of Seinfeld. It stuck with me primarily for two reasons. First because my mother is Panamanian and it's rare that the country gets a shout out unless someone on the nightly news is talking about Pineapple Face. Second, I remember this one so well because I felt the same way about cashmere when I was younger.

Cashmere meant twin sets and pearls, long drives in the countryside and friends named Muffy and Chipper. I still remember how happy I was when I got my first twin set for Christmas many years ago. In my mind I imagined that the soft fibers had been hand trimmed using manicure scissors from the soft underbelly of a Himalayan goat (no older than three) who had been raised on a diet of butter and Mozart from infancy. I still love the stuff.

Perusing my junk mail box I saw a coupon from The Gap. Because I haven't completely weened myself from over shopping, I went to the site and low and behold, saw several nicely priced cashmere sweaters. Before I could click "proceed to checkout," I started wondering. Just when did cashmere get so inexpensive anyway? Is there a difference between the $89 sweater from The Gap and the $300 model at Neiman's?

It turns out the answer is yes and no depending on what you buy. Cashmere has apparently become big business and free trade means that with import restrictions a thing of the past China has flooded the market with the woolly stuff to satisfy demand for luxury at low prices.Upscale and mid-level retailers typically buy from the same markets.

Some cheap cashmere is actually deceptively labeled, containing fiber blends or wool from goats of Outer Mongolia instead of Inner Mongolia. Apparently, the Outty goats have coarser hair.

More expensive doesn't necessarily mean better. What you want to look for in quality cashmere is density. The denser the better. Second, you want a high ply or number of strands used to make the weave. Last, quality cashmere is made from long soft fibers, not short rough ones. First, the denser the cashmere, the better quality it is. Second, the higher the ply - the number of strands used - the more luxurious the piece of clothing. Third, the optimum fibres to have are those that are soft and long, as opposed to short and rough: long fibres pull together to make a stronger yarn, and are therefore more durable. Lastly, the best weavers are usually in Italy so if that ballet neck sweater you're fondling meets all these critera, then you've probably got gold in your hands that will last for ages if properly cared for.

Something else to think about is the effect that the cashmere frenzy has had on the environment. Even though the cashmere itself is a natural product. The availability of cheap cashmere means that overgrazing of the delicate farmlands in China has become a problem.

So back to that Gap sweater. I haven't ordered yet. The website gives very little detail about the origin of the cashmere so I'll have to hold off before using that coupon,

Photos: Wikipedia, Neiman Marcus, The Gap


ambika said...

The New Yorker did an article on cashmere and pashmina years ago that I've enver forgotten because they discussed how a place like Costco could carry cashmere and still not charge 100s of dollars. Nice summation & great blog.

FemmeNoire said...

Thanks for the reference and comment. I read somewhere that Costco accounts for something like 20% of cashmere sales in the US. That just blows me away.

Candid Cool said...

I remember that Seinfeld episode.

Anonymous said...

this is a very informative writeup... luv it.... i dont wear much cashmere but at least thanks to you i have a headsup if i ever decide to...