Every region leaves its mark on those who live there, whether they’re animals or humans. While the cashmere most of us know best comes from the Himalayas by way of China or Mongolia, cashmere goats live in many places around the world. They just grow slightly different fibers—and for reasons far more complicated than geography, although that certainly plays a part.
Years ago when I was researching cashmere for The Knitter’s Book of Yarn, I remember spotting fleeting mentions of cashmere also coming from Iran, Turkey, and many of the “stans,” Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan being the biggest. When I asked the experts, they scoffed and said something along the lines of, “They don’t know what they’re doing,” or “That’s not real cashmere.”
But I’ve always been curious to learn more because, as far as I’m concerned, any cashmere is good cashmere, right?
The Kyrgyz Conundrum
Creating “better” cashmere from the hodgepodge of Kyrgyz goat herds has been a focus of numerous NGOs and others in the last few years. They’ve worked to train farmers to comb the fibers (instead of shearing, which dumps the good and the bad together) and sort by fiber diameter, length, and yield. Until they jumped in, most everything had been sold straight to China for a lump sum, regardless of fiber quality.
June Cashmere, founded by Sy Belohlavek, stands out as perhaps the largest and most visible venture bringing Kyrgyz cashmere to the handknitting yarn market.
Sy offers the farmers more for their fiber—but only if they take the time to comb instead of shear, and only if they sort the fibers. What impressed me even more was Sy’s smart choices. While claiming to know little about knitting, he sent the fibers to Belgium for scouring, to Scotland for spinning, and finally to Saco, Maine, to be dyed at the Saco River Dyehouse.
The goal? Maybe not this year, maybe not next year, but slowly and patiently help the farmers establish a premium flock of cashmere goats and elevate the reputation of Kyrgyz cashmere on the global market.
June Cashmere yarn currently comes in two weights, DK (left) and lace (right). Skeins are 50g and cost $44 each, the DK having 150 yards (137m) and the lace 308 yards (282m). You’ll find the yarn and patterns for sale on the June Cashmere website.
Both weights are spun in refreshingly different ways than you’d normally find in cashmere handknitting yarn. The DK is made of six relatively tight plies that have been loosely twisted together; the lace is made from three plies that are tightly twisted together.
If I were to guess, I’d say that the multiple plies exist to stabilize a blend of potentially shorter or not-yet-entirely-uniform fibers—perfectly understood for this stage in the game, and something I’d expect to improve with each generation of goats. Both yarns broke easily with a tug.
There are 12 colors total, gorgeously chosen to mix and match while standing strong on their own. Each has subtle heathered undertones made possible by the fact that this yarn isn’t made from bright white fibers. If I use the “Natural” shade as our guide, I’d predict that the base yarn is a blend of white and grey and a warm, creamy coffee tan. When you dye over those shades, magic happens. (The Scarlet is the perfect pink for a hat, if you’re so inclined.)
If you buy this yarn expecting the tender-soft, ethereal cashmere you are used to, you’ll be disappointed. So put that expectation out of your mind right away. This yarn is a work in progress, a project that hopes to build deep roots, which will take time. The touch is far more nuanced, and it matches the story of the fiber. A work in progress with good intentions and great potential.
I bought and swatched one skein of each weight.
The DK was so loosely plied that my stitches occasionally snagged just a few of the plies by mistake. I started with slick Addi Turbo needles and wished for the grab of bamboo but worried that it could increase the snags. My fabric looked just a tad wonky, though a vigorous slosh in warm soapy water did balance things out a bit.
Knitting with the lace on US 1s was a surprising pleasure. If you have the patience for it, this produces a gorgeous tight stockinette. The only issue was balance. My tiny swatch began to tilt from all that pent-up twist, so I’d recommend lace and/or any stitch that combines knits and purls to help balance any potential bias.
Lacking an electron microscope of my own, I can’t tell you the specific micron count of the cashmere in this yarn, but if it’s labeled “cashmere” and the labels are following the Wool Products Labeling Act of 1939, then the fibers have an average diameter of at most 19 microns. It’s definitely in that range. In fact, I went a whole day with a swatch tucked under my shirt without remembering it was there.
I’ve washed and flogged my swatches and am not finding that angelic bloomy behavior we’ve grown to expect in “cashmere,” although I do like the fabric quite a lot. It has a dry, cottony hand. The yarn has very little bounce—again, it behaves more like cotton—but when knitted on the tight side, the fabric has surprising life to it.
In my two skeins I found zero knots and only one translucent “shiner,” which is a lower grade of fiber you don’t want in the mix. The processing on this is very, very good.
A Distinct Pleasure
I’m a great fan of blends, but I’m also big on keeping ingredients distinct so we can experience each on its own. Here we have a chance to work with a fiber we know is Kyrgyz cashmere rather than some anonymous mystery-meat skein with a multinational provenance. The more variety you give your fingers, the smarter and more intuitive they become. Consider this yarn a $44 (or $88 if you’re in for the extended program) report on the current state of the cashmere industry in Kyrgyzstan.
While most cashmere yarns aim toward the super refined, this yarn has a somewhat rustic, dare I say “artisanal” nature to it. And as I said before, the pedigree is outstanding. If Sy can make this level of choices without being a knitter, I’m curious to see what he does next.
Set your expectations, know what you’re buying (and what you’re supporting in the process), choose your color, and start knitting.