City Style: Soft Sell

Loro Piana opens on Newbury this month, peddling cashmere that pushes $1,000. What makes a sweater worth so much, anyway?

To many, the reason a classic Italian sports car costs more than an American copycat may seem obvious. But when it comes to another sort of luxury—cashmere—a lot of us could use a little schooling. Once fashionably elite, cashmere nowadays can be had for 20 bucks at Target. But it’s important to realize: Not all cashmere is created equal.

TIME IS MONEY: While no one knits cashmere by hand anymore, the time involved at each level of machine-made quality varies—and, naturally, the more time that goes into making a sweater, the more you’ll be expected to pay for it. The Italian machines used to make a $600 Loro Piana pullover are slower and more meticulous than the ones used in China to make a $40 sweater for a company like the Gap.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Paying more for a cashmere sweater will get you a piece that lasts years longer, gets better with each wash
(just don’t dry clean—the chemicals break down the knit), resists pilling and sagging, and is ultimately more flattering than a less expensive version, experts say. “Put on a $500 cashmere sweater,” says Spilhaus, “and it looks like a million bucks.”

SPLITTING HAIRS: Cashmere goats hail from high-altitude areas of Asia, where frigid winters encourage the growth of a downy layer beneath their outer coats. In theory, two sweaters at vastly disparate price points—one sold at, say, Loro Piana and the other at a lower-end store like Target—could be made of hair from the same goat. It’s the steps taken from goat to sweater that make all the difference.

CLEAN SWEEP: The finest and longest (and therefore most expensive) fibers come from the first combing of the goat’s coat. Later combings yield more of the shorter, thicker fibers used in garments that cost less but show age and wear faster (to say nothing of the itching!). The step in the fabric-making process that varies most is the de-hairing, in which the coarsest hairs are removed from the combings, notes Karl Spilhaus, president of the Boston-based Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute. “It’s a place to cut corners,” he says.

TAG TRICK: Cheaper cashmere might not be 100 percent pure, so be sure to check the label. Some low-end dealers call a sweater “cashmere” when it’s actually a blend that includes wool and even man-made fibers.