Goats are the oldest domesticated livestock. Ancient burial sites in Asia contain the mummified remains of goats. Why? Goats not only provide the things necessary to Man’s survival… meat, milk, hides, fiber and companionship, but also those things necessary in the afterlife. Believe it or not, goats helped Man discover coffee. Undigested coffee beans concealed within goat droppings must have gotten thrown on the fire and the rest is Starbucks History.
Ever since Victorian England “discovered” the loft, warmth and feel of fabric made from Cashmere, it has been in demand for those in high society. Just pick up a novel or a fashion magazine, especially in the Fall, and you will see references to cashmere sweaters, socks, suits and shawls… all costing a lot of money. Historically, demand for these items has remained steady through feast and famine, war and peace. This is because of the wonderful feel or handle of the fiber combined with low bulk and high loft. These factors combine to make the warmest, softest and most comfortable garment money could buy.
Cashmere producing areas remained in the Himalayan region throughout the first part of the 19th century, extending east to China and west to Iran. But because of political and geographical barriers, western clothiers never saw the animals that produced the fiber; they bought cashmere in bulk, primarily from India, China, Iran and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, both Australia and the American Southwest were being settled by a tremendous influx of immigrants from Europe. These peoples brought with them as much as they could from the “old country” and this included the domestic goat, known for its durability during long sea voyages, and as a provider of milk and meat. Over the years in Australia, farms failed and many goats escaped, resulting in flocks of wild, or feral, goats in the vast interior “Outback”. In America, especially in the Texas “outback”, huge tracts of arid lands were dedicated to running what is called a “Spanish” goats because nothing else would thrive. In neither environment were these goats tame. They ran wild most of the year and were rounded up annually to harvest the young animals for the meat market. It was the Australians who first noticed that natural selection had produced a hardy, robust and wily animal, some of which had a luxurious, downy undercoat as protection from the weather. In the late 1970’s, the Aussies began selecting those fiber bearing animals and selectively breeding them in an effort to establish a new industry.
Some Australian goats were exported to the United States in the mid 1980’s. Emphasis was placed on fiber production, diameter and style, the natural “crimp” along the length of an individual fiber. As the search for suitable mates for these few imported animals progressed down to Texas, it was discovered that our own Spanish goats had similar fiber already! These animals were removed from their wild environment and bred to the Aussie imports with visions of bales of fine cashmere dancing in our heads. Very quickly we learned that cashmere is an elusive target. The very does who exhibited fine fiber in the wild, suddenly turned into well fed matrons that produced a similar fiber that was not cashmere. This fiber was at the time, called cashgora, although it is not truly a cross between cashmere and mohair, produced by the Angora goat. Later research proved that fiber diameter in goats is controlled both by genetics (genotype) and environment (phenotype) and that goats raised under less than optimum conditionscan exhibit finer fiber than they would otherwise, as is the case in China, where even the people are underfed. Goats exposed to a greater nutritional level as is necessitated when removing them from the arid southwest and taking them to Colorado, New Hampshire or Washington State, resulted in the production of this coarser, straighter, but still luxurious fiber, now called commercial cashmere.
True cashgora has a third fiber type called kemp, and is very much avoided by both the mohair industry and the cashmere industry. Especially in young animals, it is very difficult to differential between cashmere and cashgora. Unfortunately, this lead to the introduction of many “top quality cashmere goats” that were not, resulting in many disenfranchised and disappointed breeders.
The good news is that we have realized the role that environment can play in fiber quality and have redoubled our efforts to identify goats that are genetically capable of producing cashmere. While we have not yet established a true breed of cashmere goat, one that will pass along its desired genetic package the majority of the time, we have made great progress and are now producing American grown cashmere. We are proud that we can grow our cashmere using traditional American values… that of high nutritional levels, good husbandry practices and humane harvesting techniques. We cannot and will not starve goats into growing “hunger-fine” fiber as they do in the historic cashmere producing regions of the world.