1. Why is cashmere coveted? Run your hand across a fine merino wool sweater. Now, try it with cashmere. There's no comparison. Cashmere is softer, and its featherweight fiber is warmer than wool without adding bulk. The supply of imported cashmere to the U.S. ballooned almost 500% from 1997 to 2005, to 14.7 million pieces, as demand also soared. Prices remain relatively high, starting at about $100 for a good sweater. But in the world of luxury gifts, it's hard to beat cashmere's delight-per-dollar value.
2. Is the number of plies in a cashmere garment like a thread count -- the more the better? The yarn in a two-ply sweater is two strands twisted together to compensate for uneven or weak spots in the individual strands, resulting in a stronger sweater. Additional plies add weight and warmth, but they aren't really a measure of quality. Generally, single-ply cashmere won't be as durable. But high-end makers, such as cashmere icon Loro Piana, pull off lightweight, one-ply pieces with high-quality yarn and good construction.
3. Is "100% cashmere" all I need to know? It's a start, but the sweater could be made of short, tough fibers, which don't make a great product. And despite U.S. labeling laws, some suppliers mix in wool or other fibers to boost profit margins. The Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute (www.cashmere.org) -- yes, there's an association for everything -- is on the lookout for mislabeled goods. But, says CCMI consultant Jim Coleman, consumers should also use their own eyes and hands to spot impostors. A sweater shouldn't feel coarse or have a lot of loose fibers, which could lead to heavy pilling. If you're willing to pay more to ensure quality, stick with brands known for their cashmere, such as White+Warren, TSE or members of the CCMI (see Web site).
4. How do I safeguard my investment? Moths like to chow down on cashmere, and leftover sweat, food and dirt are like pink neon diner signs. Always clean cashmere just before you store it (many experts say gentle hand-washing is best), and keep it sealed in a plastic storage box, a cedar chest, or a plastic, muslin or canvas garment bag. Use moth repellent, too.
5. Should I ever buy a blend? If it's less than 10% cashmere, the vendor is trading on the cachet. However, cashmere can add softness and warmth to other fabrics without adding weight, and it can help a garment drape better. But if you want the real deal, look for 100%.
Three warm selections
Malo Thin Knit Scoop Neck
Italian sweaters, like this chocolate-brown one from Malo, are known for their fit. "Luxury doesn't make a difference if the sweater fits you like a sack," says Sharon Haver, founder of FocusOnStyle.com.
For men: Lands' End
For women: Bloomingdale's
Bloomingdale's Sutton Studio sweaters (pictured here in blue) rival more expensive cashmere labels. We love the softness of Bloomingdale's Joseph Lyman sweaters -- a V-neck runs $200. But for fit and price, we like the V-neck from Lands' End for men (pictured here in brown).
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