it has been said that putting on a cashmere garment is much like savoring fine chocolate: a sensuous experience hinting at softness, warmth, luxury, indulgence, and even a sensation that is vaguely erotic.

Cashmere comes from the thin coats of fine, down-like hair that grow only on the torso areas of cashmere goats. The goats are principally bred and herded in Outer Mongolia and, unlike sheep bred for wool, the goats sport coats of tough hair which suit the harsh environment in which they graze. The coats of fine hair are thermal underwear to the goats, enabling them to survive the severe Siberian climate.

The quality of a cashmere garment is determined by the yarn used in its manufacturing, and the quality of cashmere yarn is determined first of all by the natural color of the fibers used in its production. Natural colors of cashmere fibers range from pure white to medium purple, with pure white being the most desirable and the most expensive because white fibers can be dyed into light colors as well as darker ones.

The standard established by the industry and upheld by the governments of cashmere producing countries states that to qualify as ‘pure new cashmere’ the fibers in the yarn have to be at least 95% pure, finer than 16.5 microns in average diameter, and longer than 28 mm in average length. Sub-standard fibers are regularly withdrawn and then reintroduced in small percentages into lots of better quality fibers.

Shearing of the cashmere goats is done seasonally. The shorn layers of fine hair are then manually beaten into smaller tufts and sold in bulk by secret bids to cashmere brokers, right there on the Outer Mongolia steppes. Carding machines then remove coarse hair, and scouring baths of sodium carbonate and ammonia or of ammonium carbonate remove impurities such as vegetations and animal products from the bulk fibers.

After carding and scouring, the fibers are known as dehaired cashmere, and are then sold in units of 1,000 kilograms to cashmere yarn manufacturers who would subsequently dye, spin and twist the fibers into yarn according to the specifications and requirements of different garment manufacturers.

Market prices for cashmere are subjected to supply and demand. Currently a 1,000-kilogram unit of dehaired cashmere wholesales for more than US$45,000, mainly due to recent escalations of the ancient feud between cashmere goat farmers and other ranchers over rights to graze on the steppes. This situation has resulted in wide scale hoarding. However, considering the high cost and irregular demand, the risks of speculating in cashmere are substantial and always real.

Along with silk, cashmere is one of the most prized natural fibers used in clothing. Lofty price tags, the rarity factor, and appearances of exquisite cashmere shawls on the shoulders of many a heroine in literature and on stage have no doubt contributed to the perception of cashmere as something exotic, but cashmere garments are also practical and durable.

Direct sunlight has negligible effect on cashmere, although undyed cashmere could turn yellowish if so exposed.

Most organic acids in weak concentrations would not harm cashmere, but citric acid could discolor the fibers. Cashmere is more likely to be damaged by alkali than by acids.

Next to polyester, cashmere is the most resilient. A piece of twisted cashmere yarn can be stretched up to 30% when dry, and up to 40% when wet, without affecting its strength.

Knitted cashmere garments retain their shapes well, and can withstand heavy twisting and crushing without becoming wrinkled or deformed.

Cashmere has medium flaming properties, and is slow burning and self-extinguishing.

Cashmere stands up well to dry-cleaning, but bleaching agents could oxidize the fibers and eventually disintegrate them.

Cashmere is resistant to mildew and fungus, but prolonged wetness may result in moulds. Therefore, cashmere garments should be kept dry and away from moths and other insects.

Finally, cashmere garments should not be placed on hangers. They should be folded and then stored in drawers, ready to serve in the event of another chocolate craving attack when no more chocolate is left.