A dilemma faces American cashmere growers just now. Many are looking critically at their fleeces and are asking themselves, “Is this good cashmere?” How do you tell? There are three major aspects of cashmere that govern fleece quality: fiber diameter, yield and a third generally referred to as “style and character.” This is the only aspect of fleece that cannot be objectively tested. Fiber diameter and yield are obtainable, at a price, but the elusive style and character continues to confound. Just what is style and character? Some assign separate definitions to the two words, but for the purposes of this article, the two will be combined into one, “Style.”
So, what is style? Style is the degree of crimp inherent to a single strand of cashmere underdown. A fleece with secondary fibers that are closely crimped is a web of interwoven fibers (see below). Fleece that appears as parallel fibers, uniform in their arrangement, has no crimp and therefore poor style. Goats with poor style usually have long shiny fiber that falls naturally into locks. This little doe “Sophie” was imported en utero, but was cashgora.
The more crimp, the better the style. Style is the built-in quality control mechanism for cashmere fleece evaluation. In fact, style is the #1 selection criteria because fiber with good style can be identified as true cashmere as opposed to fine cashgora. Visual evaluation of a fleece exhibiting good style will readily reveal the presence of the dreaded “third fiber,” the intermediate diameter, medullated (hollow) fiber that bespeaks Angora infusion and indicates animals liable to coarsen in time beyond the range of true cashmere.
These third fibers will stick out like a sore thumb, flying away from the body of crimped fiber like little warning flags. This is also called “running out.” Fleece with poor style tends to hide those runners within their neatly arrayed regiments. Care must be taken to differentiate between “runners” and fiber affected by weathering.
Cashmere that is longer than its associated guard hair will become bleached and straight and these fibers can easily be mistaken for runners. Always examine the shorn end of a fleece staple, holding the weathered end in your fingers to avoid this confusion. Animals which exhibit good style should be carefully evaluated as to their other fleece characteristics and physical condition. They should only be used as breeding stock if they fit the growers’ defined goals. It is always important to look at the big picture and not focus on a single criteria.
But style is the most important fleece characteristic because the presence of style is the essence of cashmere. It is good style that differentiates good cashmere from poor, all other characteristics aside. The presence of the tight crimp allows spinners to fabricate a thin, strong, soft thread that is the hallmark of quality cashmere. Fleece with poor style doesn’t cling together as well and results in thicker, slicker thread. The third fiber types will not take dye and will be unsightly in the finished garment. We the growers are responsible for supplying fiber that qualifies as cashmere; quality cashmere, not a poor substitute or simulation. Style is the only fleece characteristic that can assure this quality.
For this reason, cashmere style is important when defining long term goals. For example, a grower wants to select a buck suitable for use over Spanish does. These does are all under 15 microns (u) , under 10 percent yield and have excellent style. Unfortunately, the fleece is not worth the cost of shearing. These does have true cashmere but the objective here is to make money. Fleeces with these numbers are not economically feasible.
So, the grower decides to sacrifice fiber diameter and shoot for 16.5u fleece that has 25 percent production. How can the true cashmere quality be preserved during this genetic manipulation? Style! The buck must be carefully selected to complement the does in such a way as to produce a majority of offspring, or progeny, that fall within that defined goal. According to research by Pattie and Restall (1990), the selected buck should not only be 18u in diameter with about 40 percent yield but must be from a herd that averages 18u and 40 percent yield.
It is very important to remember that an animal’s ancestry affects his ability to pass on his genes. Bucks with this production level will not exhibit excellent style, but the presence of some style is imperative to assure that his fantastic production is not due to too many Angora genes in his gene pool, especially in young, still fine animals. Growers must guard against this third fiber type in all their breeding stock in order to establish the quality of American cashmere. To return to the above example, the grower has defined a long term goal and the use of style as a selection criteria has assured that as the goal is achieved, quality cashmere is still being grown.
Growers must consider all three selection criteria when choosing breeding stock as all three will combine to define the mature fleece type and ultimately, the amount of money paid for an individual fleece.
But long-term planning must retain true cashmere as its hallmark and style is the key to the definition of American cashmere. Learn to recognize style and use it to select breeding stock. Ask potential suppliers of your next buck about his style as well as his pedigree, micron diameter and yield. Style will never lead you wrong.