Here at InStyle, we love sweater weather. Whether we are opting for light, paper-thin styles to sport solo or chunky knits to layer over crisp oxfords, these chic basics are wardrobe essentials. And the coziest options happen to be cashmere. But, when shopping for these knits, the huge difference in prices can be extremely perplexing. For instance, you can buy a crewneck cashmere sweater from Uniqlo for as low as $49.90, whereas a ribbed cashmere knit from The Row costs $1,690. Why is one option so much cheaper than the other? To get to the bottom of this, we chatted with designers Ryan Roche and Marcia Patmos, and Fashion Institute of Technology Assistant Professor Sean Cormier on the differences between expensive and affordable cashmere sweaters.
Cashmere is naturally an expensive fabric.
To give a little perspective, Cormier explains that while "polyester is 63 cents a pound and wool is $1 a pound, cashmere starts off at about $18 to $20 a pound." This inherently makes any 100-percent cashmere garment more expensive than a blend or another piece in a different fabrication. But, Cormier thinks that the variance in price of final garments is too much, saying in his opinion, “a nice cashmere sweater will be somewhere between $125 and $200."
Quality is a tricky proposition.
There are three different grades of cashmere in terms of softness: A, B, and C. Grade A fibers are the best and most expensive, meaning they are the finest and thinnest. Grade B is slightly thicker than A, so it is less soft. Grade C is almost double the thickness of Grade A, which is significantly coarser. Unfortunately, cashmere garments never list grades on their labels, Cormier says. "You're not going to know what the grade is because the tag is going to say the country of origin and 100-percent cashmere," he explains. "Your best bet is to go with how it feels on the hand."
The 'Country of Origin' tag doesn’t indicate where the cashmere is from.
"Generally speaking, the country of origin refers to where it was made, not where the fibers are from," Cormier says. "Mongolian cashmere is claimed to be the best, but most cashmere tags don't say ‘Made in Mongolia.'" Still, some manufacturers are known for their regular use of Mongolian cashmere, like Loro Piana. "Loro Piano is one of the highest end cashmere producers in the world," Roche says. "They have their own herds that they control. They're completely in charge of that environment and the animals are being treated so well—the goats are really thriving. You can't just bring the goats to Italy, where Loro Piana is based, because they won’t produce the same kind of cashmere as they do in Inner Mongolia, where the climate and environment is perfectly suitable for the best cashmere."
The thicker the sweater, the more expensive it is going to be.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but "a boyfriend cable is going to be more expensive than a lightweight shrunken style," Patmos says. "The weight makes it more expensive, so if something is made to create airiness, lightness, and gauziness, it's cheaper. Also, [how complex the knitting is] is also something to consider. A jersey stitch, which is super plain, like a J. Crew cardigan or Uniqlo basic pullover, is fast to make, so that would be more inexpensive. A cable or waffle is slower to knit, so it's more expensive."
No matter the price, all sweaters pill.
Whether your cashmere sweater is $50 or closer to $2,000, all sweaters pill. "The fluffier or lighter the knit is, the more it will pill," Patmos says. So does that mean the cheaper the sweater is, the more likely it will pill? Not necessarily. "Sometimes cashmere is washed more times in the manufacturing process to be softer than its original form," she says, "so really soft sweaters at all prices will pill."
You pay for details.
Pricier sweaters will have more tricked out design elements. For Patmos whose cashmere sweaters range from $450 to $700, one example is how the piece is sewn. "When a garment is on the knitting machine, it's just being knit in a straight way, but if you have a curved arm hole, the yarn slowly forms this nice curve and these pretty marks show on the sweater—that is more detailed and pricier," Patmos says. "A cheaper sweater might be cut and sewn from different pieces instead of one seamless piece." Hand-knit sweaters, like Roche's, which are made in Nepal, are also considerably more expensive because of the time and effort that went into them. Additionally, you can expect novelty sweaters that feature embroidery, embellishment, and other details, to cost more.
Supporting a smaller designer versus a mass brand is going to cost more.
As a consumer, you should be aware of what you are putting your money behind, Roche says. "When you're spending $400 on a sweater at The Elder Statesman, you’re supporting him and his philosophy and the sustainability behind that," she explains. "For instance, he produces his work in California, so you are encouraging him and the local economy there, which won't be the case with a mass brand.”