The History Of... Cashmere: The golden fleece

THE SEPTEMBER editions of the glossy mags all agree that when planning your autumn wardrobe your first concern should be luxury and that can only mean one thing: cashmere. Possibly the designers' favourite fabric, soft, silky cashmere is synonymous with status and wealth and has been seducing consumers for centuries.

Cashmere comes from the fleece of the cashmere goat, found in Inner Mongolia, China, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan and the earliest documented usage dates back to the 14th century. It takes a single goat one year to produce enough cashmere for a scarf.

The fibres, which are longer, smoother and straighter than sheep's wool, are removed with a comb from under the goat's chin, then spun into a filament ready to be woven or knitted.

In the late 18th century, cashmere shawls were being exported from Kashmir and India to the West, particularly to Britain and France. Woven with a paisley-like traditional design, they were bought by women from the wealthy upper classes, who draped the shawls around their shoulders, keeping themselves stylishly warm as they dressed in the Neo-Classical style of short-sleeved, high-waisted dresses.

In the early 19th century, the Empress Josephine reportedly had hundreds of cashmere shawls, but by 1870 the imported shawls were selling less and were eventually replaced by cheaper, locally made imitations. In the 20th century, cashmere has featured mainly in jumpers and cardigans, especially during the knitwear revolutions in the Twenties and Seventies, and in the Fifties twinset. Sheep's wool cloth was used extensively until the Eighties, when designers like Shirin Guild began using cashmere in cloth as well as knits to make dresses and suits, promoting cashmere as a luxurious fabric.

Designers have used cashmere this season more than ever, and it is safe to assume it featured in every collection. Elspeth Gibson debuted her cashmere knitwear range, Louis Vuitton showed understated luxe clothing in cashmere while Narciso Rodriguez featured cashmere Birkenstocks on the catwalk.

Cashmere knitwear can be found in stores such as Marks and Spencer and Principles. But while a double-faced cashmere coat from Louis Vuitton costs pounds 1,430, the high street has managed to keep prices low by mixing the cashmere with other fibres and buying in bulk.

It is unlikely that this covetable fibre will ever go out of favour with designers, and its widespread availability means it is now more accessible than ever to the masses and not just the privileged.