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From Goat to Coat: A Cashmere Journey

Part 01: Cashmere Herding

Mongolian hills

From Goat to Coat: A Cashmere Journey begins in the wilderness of the Mongolian Steppe, with the nomadic families who have mastered the art of cashmere herding over generations. 

 

There are around 29 million cashmere goats in Mongolia, producing nearly 10,000 tonnes of raw fibre every year. These goats have been herded by nomadic families in the Mongolian countryside for centuries however, it wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union when the country’s cashmere herd began to grow to the size it is today. Now the world’s second-largest producer of cashmere, Mongolia’s industry employs over 100,000 people with a further 750,000 in herding. As the country’s population is around 3.3 million, that is almost a third of the country, so you can imagine the impact the industry has on the lives and wellbeing of those who call it work.

 

Those 750,000 herders live all over the countryside which is extremely bio-diverse. You can find yourself amongst vast grassy hills, forests, overwhelming mountain ranges and even desert in Mongolia and wherever there is grass to chomp, you’ll probably find a cashmere herd nearby

The view from a ger, photo taken by Lotti Blades-Barrett

Cashmere goats are kept in their hundreds and freely roam. They’re herded all year round alongside other animals including horses and sheep and every spring they naturally shed their winter coats to ready themselves for warmer weather. It’s during this time that cashmere herders harvest their cashmere fibres by lying the goats on their sides and combing them with a specialist comb with long teeth. While the comb might look like something out of a horror film, it’s designed to have long teeth and blunt little hooks to do the complete opposite - to gently tease the fibres, rather than pulling them and hurting the goat. The highest quality cashmere is traditionally combed from the underbellies of cashmere goats however it can also be combed from the neck.

A cashmere comb with long teeth that gently remove shedding fibres

Earlier on in this piece, I mentioned the term raw fibre. Raw fibre is exactly what it says on the tin, it’s cashmere fibre that has been harvested from the goat with zero processing aside from colour sorting and manual dehairing. Raw fibre/cashmere or greasy cashmere (as it’s also known) is far from the fluffy and soft cashmere we all know and love, it’s matted, very dirty and made up of majority guard hair, the coarser hair that sits on top of the cashmere. Prior to sale, the cashmere is dehaired to remove some of the guard hairs and dirt and is then sorted into different colours. Why? Cashmere comes in all sorts of colours ranging from dark brown right through to grey and white, and the lighter the fibre is, the more expensive it becomes due to its increased versatility during the dyeing phase. Cashmere herders colour sort their fibres to get the best possible prices for their harvest and once complete they’re sold to traders or ‘middlemen’ from all over the world.

A Mongolian cashmere goat

Who are middlemen?

Middlemen are traders who travel to remote cashmere herding communities to buy cashmere in bulk. They can travel thousands of miles every year, visiting remote communities to barter for fibre which is then, in Mongolia’s case, taken to the capital city of Ulaanbataar or shipped to China for processing. Middlemen are sometimes the herders’ only connection to the next stages of the supply chain during harvest season which means there can be a lot of competition for the best fibres in a very short period of time. It’s this competition that has raised several questions about the sustainability and transparency of the cashmere industry. However, there are multiple organisations such as the SFA (Begg & Co are members) who are striving for better transparency and for more sustainable cashmere to bought at a higher premium.

A remote community in the Mongolian Steppe

As Begg & Co’s cashmere is processed in Mongolia I’m going to stick with what happens to cashmere inside the country’s domestic industry. All cashmere bought from herders by middlemen for the Mongolian industry travels through the capital Ulaanbataar, so next time I’m going to talk about my experiences of the next stage of cashmere’s journey, in cashmere processing. This is where the dirty raw cashmere fibre is turned into the white fluffy clouds we all adore, so until then, I wish you all the best and stay safe (..and home!).

 

All photos were taken by me (Lotti Blades-Barrett) in May 2019!

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