In 1991, estimates of the average annual production of “greasy”, or raw (unseparated) fleece worldwide were as follows: China – 10,000 tons; Mongolia – 3450 tons; Iran and Afghanistan – 1800 tons; Pakistan – 600 tons; New Zealand – 150 tons; Australia – 65 tons. About 150 breeds of goat produce cashmere. The world production is led by China. In 1999, China’s output increased to 20,000 tons and Mongolia’s to 5600 tons. This sudden glut of cashmere coincided with a marketing craze for “pashmina” shawls and other high end cashmere products. Prices for finished goods came down but demand for these items has increased. Today, cashmere sweaters are available at discount stores as well as Neiman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.
In 1991, China disrupted the world market by withholding its entire clip. Spinners and processors in the United States, dependent upon the Chinese supply, closed their doors. China purchased its own spinning and dehairing machines and is producing its own line of sweaters, but the result was disastrous for world cashmere prices. They plunged from a high of $99 per kilogram in 1989 to $25 per kilo in 1991. During the mid 1990s, the price of raw cashmere stabilized at $30 to $40 per kilo. Prices in 1998-99 increased to $17 per kilo, and the latest report show that it has soared to $90 per kilo as the Western consumer market becomes hungry for cashmere sweaters and the latest passion “pashmina”. Pashmina is just plain old cashmere, not some higher priced fiber combed from the necks and bellies of Himalyan goats. It’s just cashmere, more often than not, cashmere blended with silk. But the market hype put upon these products has driven the price to over $500 per shawl. Somebody is making a lot of money and I bet it’s not the producers.
But, a drop in prices from 1990 is consistent with world prices for other natural fibers such as wool and mohair, which plunged to as little as $.07 per pound. The surviving manufacturers realized that consumer demand for quality sweaters remained, and that with the price of cashmere so low, they could produce superior quality sweaters using the finest fiber available… cashmere. All available cashmere in the pipeline was bought up and this caused an increase in the price because there was so little in the absence of the Chinese product. Fine department stores now carry “reasonably” priced cashmere sweaters as are the prestigious mail-order catalogs such as Lands End and LL Bean. These sweaters are mostly Chinese made, using hunger-fine fiber produced in some of the most arid regions of Asia. This fiber is combed from winter weakened goats. It is estimated that Chinese goats lose 40% of their body weight between November and May.
But how can the free world producer, especially we in the United States hope to compete with 30 million Chinese goats?? The answer is, we can’t… we don’t have to. The American grower is in the unique position of being able to produce fine cashmere and service a niche market of mid- to upper-income consumers wanting a unique American product. American cashmere is different from the Chinese fiber. Ours is richer and even more luxurious because we either shear a living fiber from a robust animal or lovingly comb the fiber out as it is naturally shed in the spring