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Jade Sapphire Exotic Fibres
Originally published January 20, 2005

A sample of Jade Sapphire Exotic Fibres

After retiring from teaching in the South Bronx and Harlem, Jane Saffir was ready for a career change. A longtime knitter, she was ready to turn her love of yarn into something more—until her 28-year-old daughter was suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer.

"After a nightmarish year of diagnosis, shock, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and all the mental and physical anguish," Jane told me, "I realized how short life really is, and decided that I should simply go for it and start a yarn business."

Instead of opening a yarn store, which was her original plan, she decided to import cashmere and other yarns from Chinese mills to the U.S. In 2003, Jade Sapphire Exotic Fibres was born.

Today, Jane is fortunate to enjoy the best of both worlds. Her daughter is doing well, and Jade Sapphire Exotic Fibres is now carried in shops around the country. Her company offers six weights of cashmere and silk/cashmere yarns in 44 colorways.

This month she will be introducing three new silk yarns as well.

Why China?
As the biggest cashmere producer in the world, China now supplies two-thirds of all cashmere products to the international market.

Having recently abandoned a 13% tax-rebate policy for dehaired-cashmere exports, Chinese firms have discovered that exporting raw materials to foreign mills is not as profitable as exporting processed cashmere products, such as yarn.

For knitters, this means we can expect to see an influx of cashmere yarns coming directly from Chinese mills. These mills are already making aggressive inroads into the handknitting market. Just this week I was contacted by one about importing them myself.

Although this isn't in my future, I look forward to watching as other enterprising knitters, like Jane Saffir, put their own imprint on these materials and bring them to market.

The Question of Quality
British textile manufacturers have argued that Chinese processing techniques ruin the length of the delicate cashmere fibers, which high-quality woolen knits require. In response, the Chinese government—and its Cashmere Foreign Trade Center—are working hard to regulate the quality and pricing of its cashmere exports.

China is the biggest single importer of Mongolian cashmere, snatching up 50% of the raw fibers for its own textile industry. The cashmere in Jade Sapphire Exotic Fibers is from Mongolia but processed in China.

The Yarns
Although I own several sweaters made of Chinese cashmere, I have never knit with it myself—so I took some extra time this week to play with two of Jane's offerings to see how they knit up.

All the Jade Sapphire Mongolian cashmere and silk/cashmere yarns are put up on 55g skeins priced at $33. The thicker the yarn, the less you get in each skein—but the skein weight and price remain the same.

You can view a full list of Jade Sapphire yarns on the Jade Sapphire Web site, including the different yardages, recommended knitting gauges, and colorways. Although many of the available colors are solid and presumably dyed at the mill, I tested two of her beautiful hand-dyed colors. (When asked about her dye source, Jane demurred.

6-Ply 100% Cashmere
The middle of the road for thickness, the six-ply cashmere comes in 150-yard hanks. The yarn knits up at 4.5 to 5 stitches per inch on US 6-8 needles, making it a solid contender—in terms of gauge and yards per dollar—for standard projects.

First Impressions: A Few Issues
While winding my hanks into balls for knitting, I noticed two issues immediately. First, the cashmere fiber hadn't been totally dehaired prior to spinning. In the rich-colored skein you see here, I kept finding glossy translucent fibers that had a different, slightly harder texture than the fine cashmere.

The guard hairs tended to pop out of the knitted fabric, looking somewhat as if a cat had been lounging on my knitting. They also hadn't taken any of the dye, making their silvery white presence even that more visible against a dark background.

Beyond the cat-on-the-swatch factor, my real concern with guard hairs is that they tend to introduce a faint scratchiness to the finished fabric, especially against sensitive areas such as the neck.

I also kept finding faint flecks of (what I assume was) dyestuff left in the yarn. They were easy enough to pull out, but only when I happened to be looking down at my knitting did I spot them.

The color was otherwise fully saturated in the fiber, and none of it came off on my needles or on my hands. Swatches did bleed significantly in warm wash, but within two rinses, the water was clear.

Knitting was fast and easy, and only once did my needle snag the yarn. This yarn has no real crimp or elasticity, and my knitted fabric was lightweight and almost cotton-like.

From a durability standpoint, Cashmere is a notoriously short-staple fiber. Even with the best preparation, cashmere yarn is more susceptible to early thinning and breakage than its more rugged counterparts. I found that a modest tug pulled the skein apart.

Cashmere tends to grow softer with wear, as did my swatches. They were rather quick to develop a surface blur. Because we tend to want cashmere garments to be soft and fuzzy, the blurred surface definition works in favor of this yarn.

Competitive Pricing
If you thought cashmere from Chinese mills would be less expensive than from European mills, think again. Plymouth Yarns Royal Cashmere, a plush cabled cashmere that knits up at the same gauge and has five yards more yarn per hank, was spun at a mill in Italy—yet it only costs $31.99 per hank.

Agreed, each hank has five grams less fiber than the Jade Sapphire hank, but it also had no loose guard hairs, the dye stayed firm, and it wore well over time.

a skein of 12-ply cashmere  a swatch of 12-ply cashmere
Click each image to enlarge

12-Ply 100% Cashmere
This thick, plush, and delicious 12-ply cashmere comes in 70-yard skeins and knits up at a chubby 2.5 to 3 stitches per inch on US 10.5 to 11 needles.

First Impressions: Beautiful Bounce
I found this yarn far more rewarding to work with than the 6-ply, possibly because the nearly horizontal orientation of the multiple plies gave the yarn more bounce and elasticity. This yarn reminded me of Karabella Yarns' Aurora Bulky, only in cashmere form. Interestingly enough, the merino in Aurora Bulky is so fine that I had a hard time discerning which washed swatch was softer, the cashmere or the merino.

The 12-ply cashmere knit up in no time flat. I had no snags, and my stitches appeared perfectly even. This yarn also had fine flecks of dyestuff and loose guard hairs, and it also bled in its warm-water wash.

Washing and Wearing
I was pleased to note that my swatches bloomed significantly more in wash than the 6-ply ones did. They emerged from their warm soapy bath plump, cohesive, and extremely, extremely soft.

Were it not for the higher cost per yard (with only 70 yards in each $33 skein), I would be sorely tempted to make a sweater out of this yarn. But a medium women's long-sleeved sweater with moderate stitchwork would require upwards of 870 yards, or 13 skeins.

Despite Jane's efforts to keep her prices as low as possible "so that everyone can have the pleasure of knitting with cashmere," I still think a $429 sweater is beyond most knitters' budgets.

Even a 10" by 56" standard scarf would require 250 yards or more, running the bill well over $130. The same scarf in Jaeger Cashair, a similar-gauge 65% cashmere/35% extrafine merino blend from England, would come in under $100.

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