The purpose of this article is to demonstrate cashmere fiber: how to identify it, how to quantify it, how to qualify it and how to sort it. This is necessary in order for the grower to better understand the requirements of the cashmere processors. Cashmere quality is affected by not only the genetics of the sire and dam but also by the environment. In extreme cases, environmental factors may play a very significant role in determining the quality of cashmere. Goats raised under favorable environmental conditions (ie: as much as they can eat all the time) will grow a longer, “stronger” (meaning coarser) fiber than those raised with little or no supplemental feed. Conversely, a goat that is stressed will grow finer, but shorter, fiber in an effort to minimize energy output and conserve body heat in its attempt to survive. These same goats will revert to growing fiber that is characterized by their genetic package when placed under more favorable environmental conditions.
It is not the goal of this course to define cashmere. The goal is to define the characteristics that are used to describe cashmere and give the growers tools with which to identify, rate and rank the various fleeces that they might see in the future. Cashmere must be defined by the marketplace… the fleece sells for the highest price minus the cost of maintaining the animal will prevail. Our goal is to teach growers how to identify superior animals within their herds before the harvest takes place. In this way, we can then pursue a breeding program designed to increase the return to the herders. Another benefit will be derived if a certain amount of classing can be done on farm, also increasing returns to the grower.
When compared to wool and mohair, cashmere is a fiber that is low in luster… it does not shine, feel slick or feel cold to the touch. Fiber that is long, shiny and that falls naturally into loosely coiled locks should be examined closely for it may be too coarse to be classified as cashmere. Cashgora contains a “third fiber type”, and is the result of breeding too many Angora goat genes into the gene pool, possibly from the use of the cross bred Don Goat from Russia. Mongolian cashmere is known for its luster in as much as it generally has more luster than fiber grown in China and Inner Mongolia. But this does not necessarily mean that it is cashgora. Luster is a relative term and it is important to be able to identify it on a scale that runs from acceptable to unacceptable. Again, too much luster results from Angora gene infusion and it is very apparent when present at unacceptable levels.
Mongolian fleeces are also known for their length, averaging almost five centimeters long. Fiber length is very important and generally speaking, the goal is to breed for a fiber that is at least five centimeters long. Fleeces must also average less than 19 microns in diameter in order to be called cashmere. Consistency within the staple length and throughout the fleece is also a consideration. A fleece that is consistent throughout is a better fleece than one which contains many short, fine, crimpy fibers in a bed of longer, stronger fibers which are then surrounded by the very coarse guard hairs.
In Mongolia, the goal must be to grow fiber that suits the knitwear industry, meaning that it is very fine, (less than 16.2 microns in diameter) and at least 5 centimeters long. Fiber that is super fine (less than 15.5 microns) will begin to attract premiums as will fiber that is pure white. Fiber that averages 17 – 18 microns will de diverted to the weaving market and will be discounted by the processors.
Fiber that is harvested for market needs to be kept clean. Processors will discount fiber that is contaminated by vegetable matter such as burrs; by other natural fibers such as yak or camel hair; by dirt and scurf (animal dandruff); and by synthetic fibers that come from the polypropylene bags used to transport the fiber. Growers can take steps to insure that their fiber is delivered to the processors in as marketable condition as possible by carefully sorting out stained or cotted fiber and fiber that is fouled by burrs, dirt, urine or leaves. Additionally, growers can be sure to use only plastic bags that are in good condition and that are not fraying. If bits of plastic are included with the cashmere, they will go through the dehairing process and end up as fine fibers that will not take the dye like the cashmere does, resulting in an unattractive garment. The same can be said for excessive dry skin flakes.
Growers should then seal their bagged lines of cashmere in a manner that will be tamper-evident if not tamper-proof, reducing the likelihood of having foreign material added to the line after it leaves the growers hands. Perhaps the processors should consider paying a small premium for fiber that is delivered in unopened, bagged lines.
There are five characteristics that are examined when looking at cashmere that can be either measured or described in an internationally accepted manner:
There are three factors that determine gross yield (meaning the percentage of fiber contained within the guard hair). Combed fleeces in Mongolia are usually very high yielding (50 to 60%) and these guidelines will not apply to their examination. Yield has got to be the most important consideration in that the amount of fiber that a single goat produces annually, or yield, is half of the equation that determines whether or not harvesting the cashmere is a profitable venture. Since all Mongolian goats are combed, their yields will be very high. For the purposes of selecting high yielding animals before the combing season, the following equalities can be observed:
Ratio of fibers for each guard hair. There are approximately three fibers for each guard hair. Ratios greater than this mean a high density and therefore higher yielding fleece.
Mean or average micron diameter in a cashmere fleece will fall between 12 and 19 microns and may range as high as 30 microns. Younger animals tend to have finer fiber than older animals, although sometimes a lack of differentiation between fiber and guard hair diameters makes dehairing difficult. Objective testing for fiber diameter can be accomplished using a Fine Fiber Diameter Analyzer (FFDA) or a 400x microscope (either projection or not). FFDAs are available in the US and Australia and the cost to analyze a fleece is between $3 and $5 USD. Analysis using a microscope is very time consuming and is not generally as accurate as only 100 fibers are measured whereas the FFDA measures 1000. Visual inspection can be done to a greater or lesser degree if one is trained in the art and if they calibrate their eye from time to time. It is very difficult to discern between say 15 and 17 microns, so in the absence of testing facilities, consider the following:
Fiber from a goats’ neck or shoulder can be significantly coarser than that from his midside or rump. Additionally, goats will coarsen over the course of their lifetimes averaging an increase of 1.5 microns the first year and .5 to .8 microns or more every year thereafter. So, it is very important to know both the age of the goat and the sample site when looking at a lock of fiber. When assessing micron diameter, pull the fleece sample apart laterally in order to evaluate a cross section of fibers in the sample. Longer fibers are probably coarser. Fibers that are shorter are probably also finer. Unfortunately, it is these finer fibers that are grown last and shed first, so you must take time of year into account when assessing fiber from a live goat. You must take a mental average of all fibers observed when assessing micron diameter.
With a little practice, fiber harvested on farm can be separated and classed not only to color, but also to micron diameter. This will dramatically increase the returns to the growers, especially if the bales can be delivered to the processors unopened. Examples of lines classed by color and micron diameter would be fine, grey fiber (GY1), coarse grey fiber (GY2), fine brown fiber (BR1), etc. All contaminated or sub-quality fiber (fiber marred by vegetable matter, burrs, and urine as well as fiber shorter than 3 cm) must be removed from the fleece and never included within a classed line. All trash fiber should be bundled together in a bale.
Guard Hair – Guard hair comes in four colors: White – Ginger or Red – Brown – Black. Goats that appear grey have guard hairs that are half white and half black, resulting in an overall grey cast. Red goats have guard hairs that are half white and half ginger. Sometimes goats are solid colors and sometimes they have darker or lighter stripes, spots or patches. Stripes and markings that occur on the forehead, legs, backline or underbelly do not impact the classing of the fiber. Spots or patches that occur on the neck, wither, midside, flank or rump make classing the fleece into a line (bag of bulk fiber) difficult.
Sometimes fiber processors have a preference for a fleece color, most often white, and will pay a premium for a fleece where both the fiber and the guard hair is all white, meaning pure and uncontaminated by grey or black fibers from other goats.
Underdown – Fiber or underdown, comes in three colors: White – Grey – Brown. Very rarely, it can be black. Processors usually class the fleeces according to the color of the underdown primarily with the color of the guard hair a secondary consideration.
Fleece – Fleeces can be classed easily into four or five different color lines: White-white, white-with-color, grey and brown (sometimes divided into soft brown and dark-brown). Sometimes processors will split the guard hair and down color categories into many subcategories depending upon their needs at the time. It is very advantageous for growers to be able to class their fleece as follows into basic color lines in order to maximize their returns:
The vast majority of fleeces fall into the grey category in a mixed herd because it includes white goats with just a few black guard hairs, grey goats, light brown goats, multi-colored goats and goats that appear black but whose underdown is actually light colored. The test to determine underdown color in a black guard haired fleece involves COMPLETELY dehairing a lock of fiber, twisting it into a strand and laying it over your fingernail. Grey fiber will appear white or very light in color. Brown fiber will appear darker.
Length of cashmere is determined by measuring the length of fiber that has been extracted from the skin of a live goat and measured without stretching, straightening or extending the lock. Normally, it will be within its bed of surrounding guard hair, which is not measured. Lengths of three centimeters are acceptable, but processors generally prefer lengths to be five centimeters or longer. The dehairing process tends to shorten the length of the raw cashmere and there are very strict specifications governing the length of fiber that can be used in the knitting as opposed to the weaving process.
Unless one’s digits are extremely long, 3 cms is the distance from the end of the index finger to the first bent joint; 5 cms is the distance from the tip of the finger to the second bent joint; and 9 cms is the distance to the first bent knuckle. Fiber that is longer than the distance between the fingertip and the first knuckle is suspect and should be examined carefully for the presence of the third fiber type and coarseness. Fiber that is shorter than 3 cms should not be included in the clip in that it tends to ball up, or pill, in the finished product that lends an undesirable appearance to an otherwise luxurious garment.
The characteristic that differentiates cashmere from its cousin cashgora besides luster, is style. Style also defines relative quality among cashmere fleeces. Cashgora is a fiber type harvested from goats whose genetic package includes Angora goat genes (such as that of the Don Goat). Angora influence was used in the early days of cashmere goat breeding in Australia, New Zealand, Russia and Mongolia and it led to a dramatic increase in fiber length and an associated increase in diameter. Cashgora is characterized by very long, shiny, straight fibers and the presence of a hollow third fiber type that is neither guard hair nor underdown. Processors do not like this third fiber type as it is very difficult to dehair and it adversely affects the handle of the finished product, giving it a rough and scratchy feel not dissimilar to wool.
Style is the presence of very small but acute undulations in individual fibers at regular, if tiny intervals along the entire length of each fiber. These acute undulations “hook” and lock together during the spinning process allowing processors to craft a thinner 2-ply yarn that is still warm and strong enough to be woven or knitted into cashmere garments.
Lack of style does not mean the fiber cannot be called cashmere. Style is that extra added premium that processors love but have problems paying extra money for because it is so hard to quantify. When assessing style, remember the following rules of thumb:
Style should be evaluated by examining the longest, coarsest fibers that extend out of the tip of a fleece sample. Pull the fibers out slowly and look for regularity of crimp along the entire length of the fiber as well as frequency of crimp relative to micron diameter. Fiber that has been damaged by sunlight will appear dry and straight at the ends and the ends may break off easily. But if the lock has been protected by guard hair and is still straight at the ends it is said to “run-out”, a relatively undesirable characteristic that points to the possibility of the presence of long, coarser fibers throughout the fleece.
Growing quality cashmere is not easy. But with a little training and knowledge of what type of fiber is required by the processors, it is possible to maximize returns to the point where maintaining a herd of cashmere bearing goats is a profitable enterprise. Knowing what the processors want is the first step. Step two is learning how to recognize fleece that falls within those parameters. Then and only then can we begin to undertake a selective breeding program that will result in the upgrading of the current gene pool into one that consistently produces goats that grow cashmere under known conditions. Knowledge is the key.