29 Jan 2009
Cashmere is a big investment and needs some TLC, but nothing out of the ordinary
A reader, Susan, asked the other day, how should she care for cashmere?
"The sweaters I've gotten my family (second hand) seem to develop holes at an alarming rate. We gentle wash and flat dry them. Is this a good way to care for them? Also, is there a way to judge what quality of cashmere is in a sweater?"
Well, ouch, is my first reply. If these sweaters are developing holes, it usually means moth damage - at some point, possibly long before they got to you, they've been stored incorrectly and the moths have gotten in. You often don't notice this at first - it's only when the garment's washed that the damage becomes apparent.
The good news is that the moths are easily killed by washing, and also by putting the garment in the freezer. Whenever you buy a second-hand garment, popping it into the freezer for 24 hours is a good first port of call.
Once you've got moth damage, how you repair it depends on how big the holes are. Most can be repaired easily by good old-fashioned darning, though it can be hard somtimes to get a colour match with the yarn. I will shortly be in this situation with a salmon-pink sweater that's developed some cat-claw holes - I just can't find a yarn to match the colour, so any repair is going to be more obvious than I would like.
Bigger holes, usually caused by wear, can occur at the elbows or underarms. Under the arm, where the fabric can become thin, it can pay to back the inside of the underarm area with cloth, like a dress shield (only less stiff) or iron-on interfacing to strengthen the fabric. Holes at the elbows, in traditional British fashion, are treated by sewing on leather patches: preserving a good sweater in this obvious way is considered a subtle sign of quality, not thrift - a kind of quiet snobbery.
Wear at the wrists is best treated by sewing on bias binding to cover the crumbling edge of the garment. I make my own from stretch velvet, as I find this the most comfortable and compatible fabric, but you can buy bias binding if you prefer, though I find the commercial types rather stiff. I usually choose something contrasting rather than toning, and make a feature out of it. Satin also works well.
When a sweater is really completely done in, I quite often cut the sleeves off and make a waistcoat plus handwarmers/anklewarmers out of the remnants.
Susan says she gentle washes her sweaters and flat dries them, and that is indeed the best way to care for them. I am not, personally, precious about my cashmere - it all goes in the washing machine on 'wool wash' and cold (I pretty much wash ALL my clothes on cold unless they're filthy), and is then flat-dried on a rack. If you have the time and energy, a light press doesn't do any harm either, and it will go a lot easier if you refrigerate the garment first for 30 minutes or so. If you're washing only one or two sweaters at a time, put them in a lingerie bag so they don't get twisted and strained in the wash.
Always store your sweaters-in-use flat, and no more than three deep for preference, in order to maintain the 'loft' and not squash the fibres. If you wear them often, you needn't bother with drawer fresheners etc, but for anything in storage out of season you absolutely need moth repellent. Moths seem to prefer wool to all other fibres, and cashmere to all other wools, in my experience, so make sure you've got cedar balls or lavender bags or scented drawer paper or something in there.
The scent isn't to kill the moths - it's just to deter them, so anything strongly scented will do. Make sure that the drawer paper is the real deal and acid-free or the sweaters will discolour, though underneath the liner that actually touches your garments, plain old newspaper works very well as a repellent because moths hate the smell of the ink.
Never, EVER put away a sweater dirty - ALWAYS wash it first. Even a single wear will soak the fibres in skin oils, dead skin etc, which are an absolute banquet to moths - they will beeline straight in on the soiled sweater and then happily munch their way through anything clean as well. They also love things like food drips down the front, or crumbs. Being clean and tidy here will pay dividends in the long run.
Keep your drawers or shelves clean - make sure they're dusted and polished (repainting once a year can be a good idea too), and when you put your sweaters away at the end of winter, store them out of the light and absolutely smothered in lavender bags. Out of season I keep mine in 1930s suitcases with fabric linings and I spray perfume on tissues tucked into those linings. Perfumes like lemon and lavender seem to work very well, or some women swear by vanilla essence.
Let your spiders live - they eat moths. Better a few cobwebs than a munched sweater. And for when all else fails, keep a can of Doom handy. It's nasty stuff, but it really does work when you actually need to kill moths rather than just deter them.
A good quality cashmere sweater should feel luxuriously soft, heavy and thick, and in this regard, I've found two reliable indicators - age and the label. Sweaters from the 1950s and before can be found in three-ply cashmere, which is really no longer available. It feels thick and sturdy in your hands, and amazingly soft - it's also surprisingly heavy when you pick it up. Snap these up if you can.
Good modern cashmeres are usually two-ply (or 'double') - if a sweater is suspiciously cheap, it's probably one-ply, in which case it's simply selling the word 'cashmere' rather than the real concept. Most manufacturers are proud of their garments and will liberally sprinkle the knit with labels telling you the fabric quality. Many modern good-quality cashmeres come from Italy.
Cashmere varies widely in price because the original yarn varies widely in quality. Good yarn should be 16.8 microns thick or below, and comes from a very specific altitude. For the ordinary consumer, however, the best indicator is the price - a good quality new sweater should cost £200 or so, full price, excluding sale or damage. Cashmere-mix sweaters do not generally contain the best-quality cashmere either - manufacturers don't waste good cashmere by mixing it with lambswool or angora.
Design also tells you a couple of things. A sweater should be fully-fashioned, with proper knitted-in sleeves, and should have long cuffs that you can fold back.
Good labels have also never let me down. Although I have sweaters from Scotch House, Marks and Spencer, Jaegar etc, by far the best I own remain those from the traditional Scottish brands such as Pringle, Braemar and Ballantyne (traditionally, the Scottish water is meant to soften the yarn). These are manufacturers that concentrate on quality rather than fashion. Makes of this kind aren't usually found on the high street, nor online, but in the higher-end shops of the New Bond Street type such as Austin Reed, Burberry and Aquascutum.