WEAR­ING THE FINEST WOOLS

NAT­U­RAL FIBERS ARE TREND­ING AND IN DE­MAND.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at sun­dayed@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

For most en­thu­si­as­tic Chi­nese shop­pers who line up pa­tiently out­side lux­ury-goods bou­tiques in fash­ion cap­i­tals, de­signer-lo­goed hand­bags, shoes, vis­i­ble ac­ces­sories and even cloth­ing rec­og­niz­able by style are tro­phy pur­chases. But as any so­ci­ety de­vel­ops in wealth and ed­u­ca­tion, there will be those who will want to stand out with­out scream­ing. Oth­ers have tastes that will evolve from just be­ing in fash­ion to be­ing fash­ion­able, per­haps to the point of achiev­ing an elu­sive “sub­tle el­e­gance” from be­ing “in the know”.

One of the most dis­creet ways of en­joy­ing cloth­ing with­out declar­ing your ob­vi­ous wealth and taste is also the most tac­tile. Think of the soft­ness of un­lined cash­mere against your skin or the drape of su­perfine merino wool that flows with your ev­ery move­ment.

No one but you will know how much care, pride and her­itage has gone into the pro­duc­tion of a gar­ment. No one but you will know how great it feels to wear some­thing that only a dis­cern­ing few can af­ford and most of all, ap­pre­ci­ate.

Lux­ury fab­rics like cash­mere and su­perfine merino wool are ex­pen­sive be­cause their re­sources, like pas­tures and breeders, are rare and their pro­duc­tion is time-con­sum­ing, la­bor-in­ten­sive and in­volves ex­ten­sive re­search and de­vel­op­ment. For ex­am­ple, it takes many years of cross-breed­ing in dif­fer­ent cli­mac­tic con­di­tions with vary­ing di­ets to ar­rive at a breed of merino sheep that can pro­duce the finest wool. It takes many years of busi­ness re­la­tion­ships and trust to con­vince cash­mere breeders to co­op­er­ate in the sourc­ing of “baby” cash­mere.

Th­ese fab­rics com­prise the per­fect travel wardrobe be­cause at the high­est qual­ity, they are prac­ti­cal by be­ing wrin­kle-free and suited to most cli­mates.

Cash­mere and baby cash­mere

Cash­mere gets its name from a breed of goats called Kash­mir. The breed got its name from Kash­mir, cur­rently a dis­puted re­gion at In­dia’s bor­der, where the fiber was orig­i­nally pro­cessed and traded as early as the 1500s un­til the 1900s.

An­cient roy­alty and courts used th­ese shawls in po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious events and as diplo­matic gifts. In the late 18th cen­tury, th­ese shawls were brought from In­dia to Bri­tain where they be­came pop­u­lar with the up­per class for its light weight and warmth. Mi­cron for mi­cron, top qual­ity cash­mere is warmer than sheep’s wool.

About two goats are needed to make a medium-weight two-ply cash­mere sweater avail­able at re­tail from $200 to over $700. (Ply refers to the strands that are twisted to­gether to make yarn.) Only 6,500 tons of cash­mere are pro­duced ev­ery year com­pared to wool, which runs to 2 mil­lion tons.

Cash­mere is also one of the finest fibers. Each hair mea­sures 13-16 mi­crons while or­di­nary wool mea­sures 22-25 mi­crons. Com­pare that with hu­man hair at 50-60 mi­crons. (1 mi­cron = 1/1000 mm)

Un­like sheep, which are sim­ply sheared, the fur of Kash­mir goats has to be sorted by sep­a­rat­ing the soft un­der­coat (the fibers used to make sweaters) from the rest of the wool. This is the be­gin­ning of a chal­leng­ing process where peo­ple have to see, feel and sin­gle out the soft­est wool by hand.

China is the largest sup­plier of cash­mere, but the finest wool comes from goats herded in Mon­go­lia where win­ters are harsher.

The spin­ning and weav­ing process also con­trib­utes to the cost of a prod­uct. Un­com­pro­mis­ing la­bels such as Loro Piana and Ber­luti buy the best cash­mere from Mon­go­lia but spin and weave the yarns and then sew the gar­ments in Europe, usu­ally in Italy.

Loro Piana has made its rep­u­ta­tion as the “go-to” brand for the best cash­mere in the world, while Ber­luti, known for its men’s shoes, re­cently in­tro­duced a lux­u­ri­ous ready-to-wear line for men fea­tur­ing un­lined cash­mere pieces in tightly wo­ven yet ex­tremely light dou­ble­ply cash­mere. French label Eric Bom­pard makes only cash­mere prod­ucts that are mostly man­u­fac­tured in China. They are of rel­a­tively good qual­ity and this has helped build the label’s rep­u­ta­tion as one that has value for money for cash­mere items rang­ing from tops to trousers (even slip­pers) rang­ing from sin­gle-ply (per­fect for tem­per­ate sum­mer evenings) to heav­ier four-ply knits.

Cash­mere may be a lux­ury but ‘baby’ cash­mere takes soft­ness and fine­ness to an­other level. Pos­si­bly the only brand that retails ‘baby’ cash­mere pieces is Loro Piana.

Af­ter many years of co­op­er­a­tion, the com­pany con­vinced its no­madic Chi­nese cash­mere sup­pli­ers to sell baby cash­mere fibers ex­clu­sively to them. Hairs on 3to 12-month-old kid goats are gen­tly combed out (not shaved).

As it is, Loro Piana’s best “adult cash­mere” has a fine­ness of 14.5-15.5 mi­crons. Baby cash­mere is about 13-13.5 mi­crons and is pro­duced un­der the same la­bo­ri­ous and ex­act­ing con­di­tions as “adult cash­mere”.

Be­cause of its size, each kid pro­duces only 80 grams of fiber per year com­pared to the 120-150 grams pro­duced by an adult goat.

Loro Piana’s baby cash­mere prod­ucts are iden­ti­fied by a spe­cial wo­ven brown label with gold in­scrip­tion. Scarves are dis­tin­guished by a col­ored sel­vage, a line of con­trast­ing col­ored thread run­ning along one edge.

Su­perfine merino wool

Merino wool comes from the epony­mous sheep, which are now pri­mar­ily found in Aus­tralia and New Zealand. This breed orig­i­nates from the Spain and was in­tro­duced to Aus­tralia by Euro­pean set­tlers over 200 years ago.

Su­perfine merino wool is the finest and most ex­pen­sive wool in the mar­ket to­day. Fine merino wool, used by some de­signer and lux­ury brands, is 18.6-20 mi­crons. But su­perfine merino wool mea­sur­ing less than 18.5 mi­crons in di­am­e­ter makes up only 20 per­cent of the to­tal wool mar­ket.

Its rar­ity and cost al­lows it to be used and pro­duced only for the best (mostly menswear) brands in the mar­ket such as Bri­oni, Ermenegildo Zegna, Loro Piana, Ki­ton and Canali who usu­ally use the wo­ven fab­rics for ex­pen­sive suits and jack­ets that re­tail from $3,000-35,000.

Pro­duc­ers and users of su­perfine merino wool claim that the fab­ric drapes well, is vir­tu­ally wrin­kle-free, light­weight and is per­fect for any weather, in­clud­ing hu­mid sum­mers. Zegna has two pop­u­lar fab­rics, the Tro­feo which is 18.5 mi­crons and 15 Milmil 15 which is (nat­u­rally) 15 mi­crons.

How­ever, the ul­ti­mate su­perfine merino wool is sold only by Loro Piana and mea­sures 11.1 mi­crons, finer than “baby” cash­mere or silk, which is 10-12 mi­crons.

“If we broke 11 (mi­crons), any­thing is pos­si­ble in the fu­ture,” says CEO Per Luigi Loro Piana at the world­wide of­fi­cial awards night in Hong Kong.

As a rule, the com­pany does not spin and weave this “record bale” un­til they find an­other bale finer than this in the fu­ture. In that way, this fiber is treated and hedged like vin­tage wine.

The to­tal pro­duc­tion of ev­ery record bale is only about 150 me­ters. This limited yardage al­lows for only 40 cus­tom­made suits at about $35,000. When it comes to lux­ury fab­rics at this level, it would be hard to pull the wool over a con­nois­seur’s trained eye.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Merino, one of the finest types of wool fiber, comes from the sheep bred mainly in Aus­tralia and New Zealand. The breed orig­i­nally comes from Spain.

Su­perfine merino wool is the finest and most ex­pen­sive suit­ing fab­ric in the mar­ket, even finer than cash­mere.

Each strand of baby cash­mere is 13-13.5 mi­crons fine com­pared to adult cash­mere (14.5-15.5 mi­crons) and hu­man hair (50 mi­crons).

Baby cash­mere comes from the fine hair of 3-month to 1-year-old Hy­crus kid goats. The hair is gen­tly combed out, not sheared.

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