When the mercury drops and winter’s freeze sets in, millions around the world search for the warmest, coziest garments money can buy.
Two of the most coveted fibers—cashmere and alpaca—have woven their way into the fabric of high-end fashion. But which yarn wins out in terms of value and warmth? Cashmere has become relatively mass-produced, meaning that alpaca has become a more exclusive option.
- Cashmere was previously considered the top of the line when it comes to luxury fabric, thanks to the required fibers and heavily involved manufacturing process.
- Mass production from China made cashmere cheaper and less exclusive, diminishing its relative luxuriousness.
- Alpaca became very popular and is now prized for its softer and warmer fibers.
- Loro Piana and Brunello Cucinelli are two of the premier designers when it comes to cashmere and alpaca products.
A historical favorite for shawls and sweaters—strong-but-soft-and-light-beyond-dreams—cashmere became popular in the 1980s, seized by designers for everything from jackets to sweatpants.
For many years, it was deemed the most luxurious wool of all. Why? For its ultra-strict and painstaking manufacturing process. In order to be labeled "cashmere," the fabric must contain fibers from the downy undercoat of the fleece of a particular breed of goat (traditionally from India's Kashmir region) and pass specific measurement requirements. The finest cashmere consists of only the whitest, longest, thinnest hair from the goat’s under fleece. The hairs must be more than 36 millimeters long to qualify as premium.
Cashmere's status began to change in the 1990s when China began to produce it in volume, essentially devaluing the fiber's status from luxury to mainstream. Cashmere very swiftly went from wool royalty (with a hefty price tag to match) to being available pretty much everywhere, at a moderate price. Although the premium variety from India still comes at a high cost, these days you can pick up a "cashmere" sweater for as little as $80.
Generally speaking, the lesser price reflects a lower-quality fiber—typically shorter, coarser hair from a goat's undercoat (only 28 to 30 millimeters long)—or fabric blended with yak or rabbit hair. To make things worse, these garments are loosely knit, so the customer not only gets substandard material, but there’s less of it.
The mass manufacturing of cashmere has diminished the value and quality of the product, and now alpaca is considered a more premium product.
Cashmere became so mass-produced that couturiers began searching for a rarer, more exclusive alternative. This opened the gates to a new hoofed critter, the alpaca, a camelid cousin of the camel and the llama. Actually, Peruvians had been wearing knits made of alpaca fiber for centuries, but as the silky-soft secret spread to the fashion world, high-end designers began flocking to use the fleece of the shaggy South American native.
Once called the poor man’s cashmere, alpaca has made it to the head of the pack in the designer-garment universe; many now believe that its yarn is more luxurious, slightly softer, lighter, and warmer, thanks to the longer fibers. It also pills less than cashmere and is hypoallergenic—not to mention scarcer. There are an estimated 3.5 million alpacas worldwide, and by contrast, around 700 million cashmere goats worldwide.
Alpaca weaving is a traditional craft, done using sustainable methods, which puts it under the desirable "fair trade" banner. This, combined with the ability to create high-end designs using a lesser-known fiber, are among the reasons alpaca wool has gained such a prominent following in the world of luxury fashion. Design houses that have warmed to alpaca include Giorgio Armani, Max Mara, and Nanette Lepore. Even Loro Piana, famed purveyor of fine cashmere and vicuña, has embraced the camel’s long-lashed relative.
When it comes to looking at retail brands, no one does cashmere better than Loro Piana. The family-run Italian brand has been creating high-quality cashmere garments for more than 90 years. A cashmere turtleneck sweater can cost around $2,000; a baby cashmere coat will set you back about $7,500. Loro Piana's alpaca products also hit the high end, where a baby alpaca/wool blend coat can command $3,600.
Another Italian design maestro, Brunello Cucinelli, started selling sweaters out of his garage in the 1970s. His cashmere (and now also alpaca) garments rival Piana's in prestige, though style-wise, they have a more playful or funkier bent—compared to Piana's timeless classical signature—often subtly trimmed with metal beads or sequins. An all-cashmere sweater will set you back at least $2,000, and alpaca/wool jackets can fetch well over $5,000.
How do you know which cashmere is the real deal? Even cheap cashmere can feel lovely to the touch, but rest assured, the poorer quality will mean it could pill or sag within days. Expensive cashmere will pill too, but that typically stops after the first wash. The best cashmere improves with age. Look for tension in the knit that “pings” the fabric back into shape and beware of anything suspiciously fluffy.
Cashmere may have lost some of its exclusivity, but along the way, it’s been joined by another fashionable fiber, alpaca, to keep you luxuriously warm. To guarantee the highest quality fabric, stick to established brands like Piana and Cucinelli, and steer clear of low-cost products if you want a garment that goes the distance. While the best clothing investments don’t come cheap, they can last a lifetime.