Men’s Sweater, $1,295, Brunello Cucinelli, 212-334-1010; Unisex Sweater, $75,; Men’s Alan Paine Sweater, $325, Oak Hall, 901-761-3580; Men’s Sweater, $100, Photo: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas

LIGHT AND SOFT, cashmere is sometimes called the “diamond fiber.” Culled from the bellies of certain well-dressed goats, the fine hairs are naturally scarce and were traditionally accordingly priced. But roughly 20 years ago, decades after your grandfather passed on his one precious Pringle of Scotland sweater to your father, the prized fiber went mass-market. Its price dipped during the Asian financial crisis, whetting demand and triggering expansions by producers in China and Mongolia and timesaving fabrication shortcuts. What was once a fancy-schmancy item became a bargain at Costco. Today, prices for cashmere crew necks range from $75 for direct-to-consumer versions from Naadam to $1,985 for a “baby cashmere” piece from Italian luxury brand Loro Piana. But is there an appreciable difference? 

Simon Cotton, chief executive of upscale Scottish knitwear maker Johnstons of Elgin, said the company’s creative director tests the softness of the company’s cashmere by kissing it, because “the most sensitive part of you is the upper lip.” Try that approach at your local department store and you might attract stares.

‘Where and how the fiber is turned into a sweater factors into what you’ll pay.’

Though all true cashmere is made from the delicate hairs that help insulate alpine goats from extreme cold, it’s not all harvested in the same way, and the fineness and length of the unprocessed fiber contributes to a sweater’s feel and longevity. Pricier, more desirable, longer fibers tend to result from traditional harvesting methods: As molting goats shed their winter coats in the spring, nomadic herders comb out the soft undercoat. Cheaper, shorter fibers can result when producers machine-shear farmed goats.

Softeners and other chemicals can make lower-grade cashmere feel smoother but can also damage the fiber, shortening its lifespan. But, beyond kissability, the distinction between a $100 crew neck and one costing 10 times that can be as much about the design details as the quality of the raw materials. While lower-priced finds tend to be constructed simply, refined pieces from designers like Brunello Cucinelli feature details such as edged ribbing on the cuffs and collar.

Raw cashmere comes in various shades of goat. White is the rarest and doesn’t need bleaching before it takes colored dyes. Naadam buys darker fiber for its black and navy garments, which keeps prices down, chief executive and co-founder Matt Scanlan said. “If you’re thoughtful about how you purchase raw materials, they will cost less, be just as soft and you don’t have to dye them or bleach them.”

Where and how the fiber is turned into a sweater also factors into what you’ll pay. Brunello Cucinelli imports its cashmere from Mongolia, then does all the spinning and knitting in Italy, where other pricey brands like the Row also fabricate their sweaters. Garments made using the more expensive workforce in Italy and Scotland tend to cost more and carry a reputation for quality.

Determining a sweater’s provenance can be complicated in an era of global fashion supply chains. Some companies “used to make everything in China and send it to Italy for the tags to be sewn in or the buttonholes made,” New York-based cashmere designer Armand Diradourian said. Uniqlo’s head of marketing declined to disclose production details for its cashmere sweaters, citing competitive reasons, but said its products “are based on the unrivaled traditional knowledge of Japan’s textile industry” and that partner factories are subject to strict quality control. (The blue Uniqlo crew neck shown above—serviceably soft but on the thin side—was made in Vietnam, per the label.)

Justin Berkowitz, the men’s fashion director for Bloomingdale’s, advises shoppers to look beyond softness when browsing. Rub your hand vigorously against the sweater. “If fibers break off or ball up, it is going to pill,” he said. If a sweater “doesn’t spring back to shape when you take it off, it’s probably not the most well-made garment.”

In short, invest in the best cashmere you can afford, within limits. And don’t be afraid to make out with it to know if it’s the right fit.

Write to Jennifer Smith at

The Wall Street Journal is not compensated by retailers listed in its articles as outlets for products. Listed retailers frequently are not the sole retail outlets.

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