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Tartan Ferret
Test

Cashmere

January 1939

 

 

Christmas has just passed and the Editor and the Author - that is, us or we - had been reading Gulliver's Travels. Not that Gulliver is particularly a Christmas book, but because we were on holiday and could read what we liked. We had just come to the place where he sails to Luggnagg and we rebelled flatly against the bleak and despairing view of life in the story of these Strulbrugs who were born to live for ever.

These immortals were marked from birth, and the future held for them no prospect but misery. Their powers decayed as did those of other men. They outlived their interests and their friendships. They became a burden on the community and were hated from the beginning. This image or simile or allegory, or whatever you like to call it, is not true, we agreed. Another idea was borne in upon us. It has to do with the immortality of Scottish Woollens; also it was a cheerful idea and so we pass it on. We discussed our own feelings and experiences, and they were not at all like the experiences of Swift's old men. It is true our combined ages did not amount to an important contribution to eternity, but they were a start. We found that we had never been any younger and were certainly not any older than we ever had been. We examined different parts of our lives. We found we had always lived just our lifetime - neither more nor less. The only difference between our childhood's days and our grown-up days was that when we were children it was an almost interminable age to look forward to next Christmas - today it seemed almost time to be thinking of presents again. There could be no doubt that in two or three hundred years we could look forward to living for ever in the genial, friendly, warm atmosphere of Christmas.

A Cashmere goat. Photo courtesy of Johnstons of Elgin.This was a much more satisfactory conclusion than Swift's dismal illogic. So we took a piece of chalk and, in spite of quotas and currency restrictions and duties and politicians, we followed Buster Brown's example and wrote up, " RESOLVED: WE WILL LIVE FOR EVER."

In the intervals of reading Gulliver we had been discussing the war in China and wondering how we were to write a " Scottish Woollens " on Cashmere, and how long it might be before there would be a proper supply, and if there were any chance that the Japanese would manage to kill all the goats in China. We thought not. All Cashmere comes from Central Asia, from China from the mountains up towards Thibet and away across the back of the Himalayas to Bokhara. The finest comes from the Eastern end of this great tract of half-explored mountains and finds its way down to Tientsin, where it is classified and packed for the Western markets.

It still travels as it travelled long before Marco Polo explored the Great Silk Road in the thirteenth century. It comes down to the Road in countless little loads by every means of transport - on the backs of men, of yaks, of camels, of horses, on rafts buoyed up with inflated skins, on boats down the interminable waterways of China. A slow journey, probably more than a year long, down to Tientsin, whence modern transport whisks it swiftly to Europe and America. Thinking of the map, we are apt to wonder why the Cashmere should go all across the vast continent of Asia instead of reaching some port of India. Then we remember the stories of the still unconquered Everest and we have the answer. Across the vast barrier of the Himalayas there are no routes. There is nothing for it but to go round. Anyhow, what does time matter ? Time was made for slaves.

Thus it happens that of Cashmere nothing but the name comes from India. That name itself brings before us a most romantic interlude - the History of the Paisley Shawl. We have promised ourselves some day to add this story to our Scottish Woollens. It is a story most intimately connected with Scotland: the East India Company - the ever wandering Scots with their strong memory of home - Pashmina Shawls - Paisley and its beautiful adaptations of the work of the weavers of Cashmere. Paisley Shawls became almost a necessity to the Early Victorian bride. R. L. Stevenson in that incomparable fragment, "Weir of Hermiston," writes of "her best India shawl in a pattern of radiant dyes." And have we not with us at this moment a charming ghost of these old splendours evoked by Laurence Housman, Helen Hayes, Pamela Stanley, and Anna Neagle ?

All this is only remotely and by derivation connected with Cashmere, the raw material. The finest of these cloths from Cashmere were made up from the carefully picked titbits of the wools of goats, sheep, and yak; and their curiously soft and slippery touch gave the name to the even finer product of the Chinese uplands and mountains. Goats' Hair was not a suitable name, for it applied equally to the very coarse material used by the Arabs for their black tents and other very rough wools.

To sum up, the finest Cashmere is Chinese, and it comes from a comparatively small district west of Pekin. It is followed by Manchurian. The coarser qualities come down on to the Persian Gulf and are known as East Indian or Gulf Cashmeres. They run almost into Mohair in character, and lack almost entirely the exquisite silky texture of the Chinese wools. In Chinese Cashmeres the three principal colours are white, which is the least common, grey, and brown. These are beautifully soft shades of stone colour, the warm shades known as " brown," though they are not really dark enough or definite enough to be brown in ordinary parlance. Now and then there are darker shades, say halfway between black and white in depth.

The Gulf Cashmeres are also of three leading shades - white and fawn, which, unlike the Chinese wools, form the bulk, and brown, a much darker shade than " brown" Chinese. Of course, all these shades vary greatly, and those who buy "natural" colours, in the correct sense of undyed, need not expect the standard of matching exacted for ordinary colours. Small quantities of very fine material come from Northern India under the name Pashmina, and also small quantities of dark wool from Turkey of a markedly inferior type (probably partly Ibex). In all these many types of Cashmere the bulk of the wool is not white, and so, when pastel shades are in fashion, white rises to an utterly disproportionate price.

The Angora goat that produces Mohair followed the Dutch settlers to the USA, the Cape and Tasmania. Seemingly no effort has ever been made to acclimatise goats of the A goatherd with his Cashmere goats in Inner Mongolia. Photo courtesy Johnstons of Elgin.Thibetan type beyond their native hills. Cashmere wools are thus entirely Asiatic. Before the Great War the very finest Cashmere came from Russia, but so far as we can learn this Russian Cashmere was grown in' the Caucasus and Turkestan. It was like the Chinese wool in character, and is in fact equalled by occasional lots of the best from Tientsin. We have not been able to find out anything about these Russian wools - whether the various " Plans " run by the USSR have exterminated the goats or whether these wools are absorbed by Russia for their home trade ; but they never appear in the Sales now.

In telling the story of Vicuna we told how many of these Rarer Wools form a sort of double coat for the animals - a strong outer coat growing from the under skin as a protection from the weather and a fine fleece of the softest hair growing from the upper skin to keep the beast warm. Cashmere is like that and has to go through a slow and expensive mechanical preparation to remove the coarse hairs. The difference between the two lots of hair is most remarkable. The fine wool is finer than even the finest Australian Merino - the coarse hair often as coarse as the coarsest Cheviot. Cashmeres, during preparation, may lose from about one-quarter of their weight up to three-quarters' or even more.

The quantity of Chinese Cashmere coming into the London Sales varies from 2000 to 4000 bales a year. Possibly double that quantity would represent the whole produce for the service of the world. Each bale might yield, say, 200lb. of prepared wool, so that in a good year there might be about 1,200,000lb. and about half that quantity in a bad year. The quantity of Cashmere varies greatly from year to year - far more than ordinary wool. Possibly in a season of poor prices each one of the innumerable owners of a few goats just keeps his wool. The fine shades of scientific management cut no ice in Thibet. So we have no very proper figures to go on, and must, just like Evarra, lay down the law for ourselves. " Thus Gods are made and whoso makes them otherwise shall die." It is about a quarter of the quantity of fine Eastern Camel, and although it is a vast quantity compared with Vicuna, it is a very small flea-bite compared with Sheep's wools.

From Persia the total runs to about 5000 bales. The chief collecting centres are Meshed and Kerman. About 2000 bales of the best come from Herman. East Indian wools, like Russian, have ceased to appear. It may be that the native trade uses more than formerly, or it is quite likely that the new disinfecting regulations in Britain have deflected them into Persia. Persian Cashmere has never been popular in the London Sales and only appeared spasmodically. Some years it all goes to Russia. Some years Germany takes a considerable quantity. The wool is now classified and packed in bales. Until a few years ago it was exported as it came down from the mountains, "roped" - that is, twisted into a rope-like form. As one of the principal people handling these wools says, " The strong hairs which were typically Goat were rolled inside and a liberal amount of sand was added."

Now a word about the uses of Cashmere. Its chief feature is its exquisite softness and warmth - partly real, from its excellent non-conducting properties - partly imaginary, from the satisfying sense of luxury and comfort which its use induces. It is so fine that it can be spun to very small yams. Its most unrivalled use is for garments that give warmth without weight. No one with knowledge dare dogmatise on this, but we may venture a very cautious opinion that probably a fifth or even a quarter less weight is needed as compared with other wools. This is a point little appreciated by buyers who insist on their Cashmere cloths being of the same weights as the more proletarian cloths of sheep's wool. Thus they kill two birds with one stone: they add to the price they have to pay, and they destroy one of the chief delights for the wearer. The wool is expensive enough for the extra weight to make a marked difference to the cost.

In China one of its most valued uses is in making " wind hats." Again readers of Everest books will remember the constant and terrible winds that seem to blow for ever in these desolate regions. In Europe a lot of fine Cashmere was used in making the finest Austrian felts for both men's hats and women's. It makes a material smooth, pliable, lustrous, windproof and almost waterproof.

But perhaps the most beautiful feature of Cashmere is its lustre. This feature is most marked in Chinese. Under wet brushing or raising it develops a beautiful, shining, rippled surface. It is true this lovely effect cannot be fixed and that it tends to disappear as the cloth ruffles under wear; but it is a delight to look at, and to a certain extent revives again if it is lightly brushed in the direction of the pile while it is wet on the surface with a shower of rain.

From the trader's point of view. Cashmere, like all limited materials, has a drawback. It fluctuates enormously in price. Not many years ago the sudden and remarkable success of a ladies' material made in France under the trade name of " Kasha," and containing only a percentage of Cashmere, sent Cashmere prices whizzing upwards like a rocket. White rose to prices rivalling - nay, exceeding - Vicuna. It is quite independent of wool, and may be climbing steeply upwards while wool is slithering downwards into a morass of slump conditions,

This beautiful wool has another drawback which it shares with all the wools not grown on sheep. It is very inelastic. One of the most valuable features of sheep's wool is its resilience, so that in closely cut garments it returns to its shape after being stretched. Skirts continue to hang straight. Trousers do not bag at the knees. This lack of spring is certainly a disadvantage in many ways. It causes quite a lot of difficulties in manufacturing, but it has a compensating advantage in its perfect draping qualities in such uses as shawls, scarves, knitted garments, and fine dress goods.

Cashmere is dear - no, rather let us say expensive - but it costs no more to make up than the cheapest cloths. As it approaches the wearer costs accumulate upon it as upon everything else - transport, manufacturing, making-up, and possibly much the highest of all, distribution. None of these can be entirely avoided, but the inevitable result is that the finest and most expensive materials show the highest proportion of intrinsic value when they reach the wearer. To a greater or a less degree this applies to all our cloths, and it is one of the greatest and most real of the many advantages of wearing Scottish Woollens.

 





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