Scotland's cashmere

There is one place that consistently, and for hundreds of years, has been synonymous with quality knitwear - Scotland. Beyond her whisky, tartan and tweed, Scotland's knitwear is perhaps the most recognizable of her products and her cashmere certainly the most coveted.

Cashmere as a fibre has been known in the Western world since Roman times, but it is from Kashmir woven and embroidered shawls, some so fine they could be pulled through a wedding ring, that cashmere is named. The Empress Josephine, the wife of Napoleon I, made these shawls the height of fashion in eighteenth century Europe and she is still noted today for her extensive collection.

The diameter of cashmere fibre is controlled by both genetic and environmental conditions. The high desert plateau of Mongolia is ideally suited to ensure the growth of the fine down with extremes of temperature reaching 40 degrees below zero in the winter and minimal nutrition. As a result, the purebred Cashmere goat, Capra hircus, develops an unusually thick, soft down beneath their exterior coat. In summer, nomadic farmers painstakingly comb out this precious fibre by hand contributing to its rarity and cost. The down is then sorted by grade and colour; white, grey or buff with the longest pure white fibres being the finest and most highly prized. Once spun the resulting yarn is soft but does not pill easily when knit. Each goat will provide about 115 gm (4 oz) per year of the soft down. To put this into perspective, the annual production of 3 or 4 goats is required to make a sweater.

Over a century a tradition of skill and craftsmanship has perfected the process of dehairing of cashmere (separating the coarse outer guard hair from the fine down). In the 1870s a Scotsman named Joseph Dawson was travelling in Kashmir. He saw the laborious process of separating the fine goat fibre from the course outer hair to make the down suitable for spinning. In turn he developed a method to mechanise the process and by doing so began the commercial spinning of cashmere yarn.

While knitwear has been produced in Scotland seemingly forever, in the late 1800s factories were set up to knit underwear of cashmere and then in the 1920s Paris fashion houses, such as Chanel and Patou, discovered the tactile quality of cashmere for their "new" sportswear collections.

The ability of cashmere to hold colour, the way it reflects light, a multi-generational understanding of the innate qualities of the yarn, the effect of Scotland's soft, pure waters of her lochs and rivers all contribute to the value we place on cashmere products made in Scotland.

Vanessa wears Sumair by Hillary Rohde