Depending on what you read, cashmere is an ecological catastrophe waiting to happen. The boom in popularity of this once ultra-luxurious wool, and the subsequent proliferation of cut-price cashmere sweaters on the high street, has apparently forced the cashmere industry to its crisis.
How To Care For Your Cashmere
Mongolia, where the majority of the world’s cashmere is produced, is bearing the brunt of the increase in demand. With temperatures frequently hitting -40 degrees Celsius, the region’s goats have developed fluffy undercoats to protect themselves over the harsh winters; these are then sheared by nomads in April-time and sold to manufacturers. Reports suggest that with an increase in demand for wool, more goats have been raised on the pastures than the grasslands can handle. There is also concern for the nomad herdsmen’s welfare, as prices have fallen dramatically. Then there’s the issue of quality: a lot of companies claim to source from Mongolia, but are actually purchasing wool from Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of northern China.
So, where to go for ethically-sourced, sustainably-produced cashmere as temperatures in the UK drop? Try Mandkhai, a newish brand by Mandkhai Jargalsaikhan, which specialises in goat-to-garment transparency, not to mention deliciously soft cashmere. The 30-year-old designer knows her wool: she is Mongolian, and her parents were the first family to set up shop in post-Communist Mongolia twenty-five years ago, with a cashmere factory. The family’s two factories now comprise one of the country’s biggest cashmere manufacturers – as well as a tourist hotspot. “I can remember Julia Roberts and Richard Gere dropping by the factory to see the spinning machines when I was a child!” Jargalsaikhan laughs.
Mandkhai designs are as cosy and comforting as one would expect – and Gigi Hadid is a fan. The model has been regularly spotted in New York swaddled in her chunky mocha-hued, Mandkhai ribbed cashmere coat. “People think we paid her – but we loaned a sample via our PR company and she must just like it,” Jargalsaikhan says. “My dad doesn’t know who she is, but we see a spike in sales on our website every time she wears it!”
Jargalsaikhan came to London in her twenties to study fashion and marketing and has never left. Having completed a post-university accountancy course – “I need to know my numbers” – she set up her own brand in addition to acting as a wool supplier to designers including Rejina Pyo and Grace Wales Bonner. “There was a gap in the market for something different and modern. We’ve moved on from the navy blue crew-neck. And people are looking for quality and transparency.”
Ah – transparency. How can she guarantee her wool comes from happy goats and equally happy herdsmen? “The goats and sheep we source our wool from are free-roaming, so there’s lots of land for them to graze on,” she says. “We’ve been working with the same nomads for years so we always pay them a fair price – over 60 per cent of the price of each garment goes on raw materials, and I know that they have a good quality of life. Then there are the women in the factories, many of whom have worked with our family for years.” The factories, one of which deals with dyeing and spinning of the raw materials, the other for processing and knitting, are run by Jargalsaikhan’s mother, “an encyclopaedia of cashmere” who trained in knitwear in Japan.
Furthermore, reports that Mongolia’s cashmere industry is devastating the land have been exaggerated, Jargalsaikhan asserts. “Mongolia is a huge country – it’s five times the size of Germany – with only three million people living in it. Many of the herds are free-roaming so they don’t decimate the land because they’re moving around a lot. A lot of the sheep who provide the cashmere wool which is harvested every year in April actually die over the winter due to the cold. So, nature has its way of balancing out the herds.” Her family’s factory produces very little waste. “We sell on anything left over to make felt. I looked into what happens to the fabric over time, and it is entirely biodegradable, so there’s no damage to the environment, unlike the fibres in a synthetic sweater.”
Not that she’d ever purchase a synthetic fibre – this is a woman who lives in cashmere, 24/7. “I know I’m very lucky,” she laughs. “But it’s just the best fabric in the world.”