The High Costs of Cheap Cashmere Sweaters

I started Isle of Skye Cashmere with a simple concept in mind: everyone ought to be able to buy the highest quality cashmere at a reasonable price.

The best cashmere sweaters –almost as a rule– are knit and hand-finished in Scotland, and the same Scottish mills that knit sweaters for Chanel and Hermes knit sweaters for Isle of Skye Cashmere.

This means that the cashmere sweaters at Isle of Skye Cashmere are as well made as any cashmere sweater you’ll find at Chanel.Rita Jones - Isle of Skye Cashmere

But it also means that through direct sourcing and low overheads, I’m able to offer cashmere sweaters of the highest quality at a reasonable price.

My experience shows that you’d be hard pressed to find sweaters made in Scotland priced more attractively than mine.

That being said, there are plenty of cashmere sweaters on the market today that are far less expensive than the cashmere sweaters I offer at Isle of Skye Cashmere.

But here’s the rub:  these lower cost cashmere sweaters –without exception– are mass produced for companies where standards of construction are lackluster at best.

Indeed, companies that mass-produce cashmere sweaters cut costs by making inferior products – cashmere sweaters that sag at the elbows, cashmere sweaters that pill, and cashmere sweaters that are knit at a low gauge.

More alarmingly, the workers that mass-produce these cashmere sweaters often earn only a few dollars per hour.

Conversely, knitters in Scotland –the knitters that knit for Isle of Skye Cashmere– earn a livable wage; they produce sustainable knitwear; and they adhere to environmental and labor regulations that are similar, if not more stringent, than those enforced in the United States.

In short, companies that mass-produce cashmere sweaters make compromises to achieve a lower cost that Isle of Skye Cashmere is not willing to make. The result of these compromises is a compromised, inferior product – a ‘mass-produced’ cashmere sweater in the worst sense of the word.

For mass-produced sweaters, the first area of compromise is often raw materials – the cashmere fibers.

In sourcing cashmere fibers, it’s true that you pay for what you get.

The best, most expensive fibers are thinner, softer and longer. They are therefore less likely to pill. They are also whiter (color purity when dying).

When mass-producers want to save money, they start with inferior fibers. These fibers are thicker, coarser, shorter, and therefore more likely to pill. They are also off-white (muddy dyed color).

Unfortunately, to the untrained eye, inferior cashmere fibers are extremely difficult to detect. Often, it’s only after wearing and cleaning the cashmere that you’ll notice the difference.

The low-quality fiber shows! The sweater looks and feels worn. It has lots of pilling. It’s not as soft as you would like it to be. Nor is it colorful and bright.

The second compromise mass-producers make: quality of construction – and here it’s easy to cut corners.

Scottish mills –the mills that knit sweaters for Chanel, Hermes, and Isle of Skye Cashmere– use a technique called “fully fashioning” when finishing sweaters.

During this process, individual pieces are linked together with cashmere yarn. And this is done by hand.

This process provides our cashmere sweaters a flexible, comfortable fit. It ensures that our sweaters will retain their shape.

Conversely, mass-producers often do anything but “fully fashion” their sweaters.

Mass-producers often sew sweaters together with machine and thread. This creates a less tailored, awkward fit. (Note: Another small area of compromise is the quality of buttons: Isle of Skye Cashmere uses mother of pearl buttons, whereas mass-producers often use plastic buttons, resulting in an inferior product.)

The third compromise mass-producers make: less cashmere in each cashmere sweater.

Mass producers do this by knitting at a lower gauge (density of knitting stitches).

The Scottish mills that knit for Chanel, Hermes, and Isle of Skye Cashmere knit 2-ply sweaters at 21-gauge. This gives each cashmere sweater a silky, soft drape.

Conversely, you’ll find inferior sweaters are often knit at 15-gauge. This saves money because the lower the gauge, the less cashmere.

Low gauge results in cashmere sweaters that are loose and gauzy. These cashmere sweaters lose shape over time. They bag at the shoulders and elbow.

The fourth compromise mass-producers always make: they knit cashmere sweaters in developing countries, often paying workers only a couple of dollars on the hour.

Isle of Skye Cashmere sources cashmere sweaters from Scotland – primarily from a family-owned company that pays skilled workers a living wage. Further, Scotland has environmental regulations similar, if not more stringent, to those in the US. The steps required to keep the water and air clean are costly.

Many developing countries fail to impose environmental regulations on mass-producers. Accordingly, there are few costs incurred to mitigate the impact of production processes on the environment.

It is an unfortunate reality, but a reality nonetheless.

So the next time you’re looking to buy a cashmere sweater, I hope you’ll keep the information above in mind.

Look at the label. Does it say “Made in China” or “Made in Scotland”?

I have no problem trying to save money on cashmere sweaters; but I do want to provide a clear and transparent alternative to consumers who value craftsmanship and lasting quality. I want to provide cashmere sweaters to consumers who are concerned about the impact of production on workers and the environment. (I have grandchildren!)

These are the values Isle of Skye Cashmere is all about.

Rita Jones
Founder and Owner – Isle of Skye Cashmere

 

Advice from Vogue: Be Crisp, Tailored, and Simple

Jessica Cashmere SweaterIn the November issue of Vogue (with Anne Hathaway on the cover), Marcia DeSanctis tells us what she learned about style one summer spent on the Cote D’Azur with a French woman named Shirin. Some of my favorite quotes from the article:

Marcia’s observation on Shirin’s closet: “Her clothes hung in geometric simplicity. The pallette was black, tan, and white. There were trim linen blouses and A-line skirts of cotton gabardine, Yves St. Laurent and Courreges, and dresses cut at the the neck to highlight a perfect necklace.”

Marcia remembers Shirin’s style while shopping: “The spangles and crazy prints had tempted me, but something steered me away from all of that clutter. Shirin could not have known that her example had already made her mark: be crisp, tailored, and simple. Never skimp on shoes.”

Cashmere Care 101

Rita-Place-Dauphine

Nothing quite compares to cashmere when it comes to style, not even cotton is so gentle on skin: wear it with jeans, wear it with a dress or slacks and you’ll feel wonderful – of course you’ll look fabulous! But any garment so versatile and comfortable requires a minimum of care. Whether it’s new shoes, a new cut or a twinset, special items deserve special attention. My customers want the best return on their investment, and to that end I’ve always provided instructions: with each sweater comes a note outlining proper care – how to wash it, how to store it, etc. But we all live such busy lives! Kids are off to college, dogs need vaccines and houses demand renovation! Cards get lost (where’s a set of instructions when you need it!), so I thought to publish my instructions here. A blog ensures they’re easy to access; it ensures your sweaters –thank heavens they’re timeless!– will keep for years.

The instructions that follow are simple, straightforward. Taken as a whole, they amount to just a little TLC.

After wearing three or four times:

  • Hand wash frequently. Avoid heavy soiling.
  • For best results, soak for five minutes in cool water with baby shampoo. (We recommend Johnson’s Baby Shampoo with Lavender Scent.)
  • Agitate gently when washing.
  • Rinse thoroughly in cool water until the water runs clean.
  • Squeeze gently to remove excess water. But don’t twist or wring out your sweater.
  • Block carefully into shape. Do not twist or ring the fabric.
  • Dry flat. Avoid direct heat or sunshine.

A note about pilling: A few small balls of fiber may form at the surface of your sweater after wearing the first few times. These balls, or “pills,” are caused by loose fiber tangling during wear. Pills can easily be removed by hand.

A note about moths: they love cashmere! We suggest that you keep your sweater in a storage bag to protect it.

Finally, proper care will ensure your sweater lasts for years! I’ve even found my sweaters’ softness to improve following the instructions above. I know! It’s hard to believe! But you’ll find your sweater’s quality gets better and better.

From Great to Amazing…

Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about the importance of building a stylish wardrobe from a foundation of classic pieces. But, we also know that the secret weapon of every stylish woman is the unexpected item(s) that turns a great look into an amazing one. As shown on the left, Heidi Klum knows how to style a classic jeans/blazer/cashmere sweater look with great heels, jewelry, and the pushed up sleeves.

At Isle of Skye Cashmere, we have lots of ideas on how to get that amazing look. Our favorite way to do this is with a great looking cashmere sweater in an eye-popping color. But we also love to add gorgeous shoes, a knockout handbag, a piece of signature jewelry, or a cashmere scarf in a “wow” color or pattern. Here is some advice we give our customers as we work with them to add drama to classically styled outfits:

  • Color – Try accenting your black or white basics with dramatic colors such as a Caribbean Blue or a Ferrari Red, or your personal favorite “statement” color. You can add these accents  with a cashmere sweater, a tailored cotton shirt, or a  silk skirt. Chose colors that work best for you…not what the fashion magazines say is “in” this year.
  • Great shoes – Ballet flats and  pumps are the classics, and black is the most versatile. But Repetto Ballet Flats and Christian Leboutin pumps come in great colors that add “wow” to any outfit.
  • Prints can be risky, because a print that is too bold or busy can be unflattering to many body shapes. A great place to start is low contrast prints, such as soft toned plaids and floral pastels. Worn with a complementary solid piece or accessory, they can look great on most women.  One way to be more dramatic with a bolder print is with a scarf.  Try accenting your classic pieces with a beautiful Cashmere print, or a Hermes silk scarf.
  • A great handbag means great proportion, perfect size, and mouthwatering colors. The Hermes Kelly and Birkin bags are classics, but not practical for many women. But these classics have inspired other similar designs in handcrafted Italian leather. Consider choosing a classic style in a color that makes a statement.
  • Belts – with jeans, over a sweater, nipping the waist of a tailored dress. A simple, elegant and beautifully made belt can be the perfect accent piece to any outfit.
  • Jewelry – The French believe that a woman’s life story lies in her jewelry box. Your classic style can take the exuberance of your most dramatic statement jewelry. But it will also look amazing with the simplest stud earrings or pearl necklace. Accessorize with jewelry that tells your story.
  • Fashion Fun – Add an interesting piece representing the latest fashion trend. Fashion items come and go, so it’s fun to buy an inexpensive, but trendy item to add some drama to your classic pieces.

A key to getting that amazing look is knowing when to stop with the accent items – sometimes you have to experiment to get it just right. Stylish dressing is all about understated elegance –  if there are too many pieces competing to make a statement, then its usually just one loud mess.

Cashmere Princess
Fashion Apprentice – Isle of Skye Cashmere

Isle of Skye Cashmere Summertime Style

Summertime…

And cashmere cardigans make living easy. For those cool nights on the Cape, nothing quite compares. Likewise with cashmere shawls: they’ll keep you comfortable, chic. Warm but never too warm, our sweaters and shawls –made with pure Scottish Cashmere– are perfect for those balmy island nights, for those late evening walks down shore. So say you’re fogged in on the Grey Lady –‘Sconset, Nantucket– or maybe you’ve gone out west –the Bay Area– to visit an ambitious, adventurous son (this August mine is married a year!): a sweater or shawl ensures you won’t miss out on Surfside clambakes, on late afternoon rambles through Golden Gate Park. Lightweight, whisper soft: Isle of Skye Cashmere is clothing to wear with any kind of weather – no matter the coast. It makes comfort and style easy; it gives shelter from the fog. Summertime with family and friends! If only things were always this good!

Dressing with Style

Even after 40 years, we can look to  Audrey Hepburn, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as an example of what dressing with style is all about.  Audrey’s wardrobe in that movie was designed by Hubert de Givenchy, who believed in clean lines and restraint.  The editors of InStyle Magazine make our case so eloquently that we will quote them:

Givenchy’s message of simplicity is the essence of timeless design. It’s the reason a look endures, not only for seasons, but for decades. Trends, on the other hand, are mercurial by nature. Chasing them is not only exhausting and expensive, but the payoff – a fleeting moment of hipness followed by a lifetime of groaning at old photos — is pretty paltry, too. That isn’t to say that trendy items have no place in the wardrobe of a well-dressed woman. But they should be used sparingly,like seasoning, so they complement a wardrobe of your favorite classics without overwhelming them.

So what are our favorite classic pieces? Well, at Isle of Skye Cashmere, we would start with the list below. And by the way, you can find them all at our store:

  • Tailored Pants – a pair of flat front pants without pockets made from high quality, lightweight Italian wool is the foundation of classic style.  The length should work with the heel height you wear most often. The leg style (tapered, straight, and flared) should be one works best for your body type.
  • Tailored Skirt – A knee-length black skirt made from lightweight Italian wool that fits perfectly and gives a slim, tailored appearance. The pencil skirt is a classic, but the flared skirt works better for some body shapes. Choose the style works best for your body.
  • Tailored White Shirt – chic and simple of high quality Italian cotton. It can be paired with jeans (Jackie O in Hyannis Port), black pants (Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction), a long skirt (Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday), or a gown (Sharon Stone at the Oscars).
  • Cashmere Cardigan and Turtleneck. Every woman needs a well-made cashmere cardigan in her favorite color. This one piece can brighten up a whole wardrobe of black and white basics…. it works beautifully over a white shirt with jeans or a tailored black dress. The classic jewel neck cardigan can be made into a vee-neck by buttoning the bottom buttons only.  The cashmere turtleneck also goes casual or dressy. It will give your jeans a Left Bank Parisian chic and bring sleek luxury to your tailored pants or pencil skirt. Black is a timeless favorite for the cashmere turtleneck, but a creamy white, rich camel, or chocolate brown are all great basics.
  • Blazer –   A great Cashmere or Italian Wool blazer is the starting point for so many great looks. Like the other basic tops, you can pair it with jeans, tailored pants, or a skirt. Start with a versatile color like black or navy. A well-tailored single breasted jacket suits most bodies best. Avoid fussy details like big lapels or buttons that think they are jewelry – these limit the life of your jacket.
  • Great Jeans are simple and practical. Great jeans are elegant and rebellious. They are so versatile – they can dress anything down and make even the most uptight item look relaxed.
  • The Simple Chic (Black) Dress – This is the dress that is going to let you shine – it is going to flatter you, but not detract from you. It lets your hair, your accessories, and your personality take center stage. The simple sheath dress is a classic; layer it under a jacket for day, but remove the jacket and accessorize it for evening. The classic version is black, but it looks great in white (or a soft toned print) too. Add drama with killer heels and jewelry.

I am a big fan of  Tom Ford, the renowned designer turned film director who re-vitalized Gucci and has just released his own women’s collection. Tom knows all about style: ” Style is very different from fashion. Once you find something that works, keep it.”

Cashmere Princess
Fashion Apprentice – Isle of Skye Cashmere

How We Think About Style

At Isle of Skye Cashmere, our point of view about style starts with the idea that a woman’s wardrobe should be built on a foundation of high quality classic pieces. These foundation pieces should be your investment pieces – the best you can afford:

  • These should be impeccably tailored to fit your body well. A poor fitting designer piece looks much worse than a perfectly tailored item bought at a less expensive store.
  • They should be constructed from the highest quality fabric; great fabrics are the foundation of beautiful clothes. You get maximum versatility from high quality multi-season natural fabrics such as lightweight wool, silks, and fine cashmere knits.
  • The foundation colors should be basic and versatile. Black is a great place to start because it is elegant, versatile and slimming. But, white, camel, chocolate brown, and navy are all great foundation colors to add to your basic black pieces.

The secret weapon of every stylish woman is the unexpected item(s) that turns a great look into an amazing one. Of course, one way to do this is with a great looking cashmere cardigan in an eye-popping color. You can also add gorgeous shoes, a knockout handbag, a piece of signature jewelry, or a cashmere scarf in a “wow” color or pattern. There are lots of other ways to add personality pieces to your look…we’ll talk more about this later.

Cashmere Princess
Fashion Intern – Isle of Skye Cashmere