Vicuna–The World’s Most Luxurious Textile

 

vicuna jacket

 

Vicuña

 

A garment made of vicuña wool is so rare and so precious that it is highly unlikely that even the proverbial “gentleman who has everything” has ever heard of one or seen one, let alone worn one.

 

Vicuña wool is considered the world’s most costly textile:  Based on 2018 pricing, a yard of it retails for approximately $5,000, a custom-tailored men’s suit typically priced between $30,000 and $50,000.  Even a vicuña scarf can command prices of around $2,000.  But for the few men who have ever had the pleasure of wearing a garment or accessory made of vicuña wool, it is worth every penny.

 

The vicuña (also spelled vicuna and vicugna), the animal that gives the precious textile its name, is a wild South American camelid that lives in the alpine regions of the Andes Mountains. It is a relative of the llama; is believed to be the wild ancestor of the alpaca; and like the closely related guanaco, has never been domesticated.  Smaller, more graceful, and more delicate than the guanaco, the vicuña is native to Peru, northwestern Argentina, Bolivia, and northern Chile, living at altitudes of 3,200-4,800 meters (10,500-15,700 ft.) above sea level. (A small introduced population exists in Ecuador.)  From head to tail, the animal measures about 5 ft., is about 3 ft. tall at its shoulders, and weighs on average less than 150 lbs.

Vicuna photo

By law, a vicuña can only be shorn every two years—after being rounded-up in the wild.  Each year, in an event called a “chacu” (also spelled “chakku,” “chaccu”) that dates back to the Inca era, the vicuñas are herded, captured, and shorn. (Only animals with wool longer than 2.5 cm may be shorn.)  Once shorn, the females and young males are released back into the wild. Old males, however, are slaughtered for their fleece and flesh.

 

The extraordinary warmth of vicuña wool is derived from tiny scales on the hollow, air-filled fibers, the scales causing the fibers to interlock, thereby trapping insulating-air.  Vicuña wool fibers are amongst the finest in the world, comparable in diameter to that of the angora rabbit and the down-hair (underfur) of the chiru (the Tibetan antelope) that is used to weave the fabled (now infamous and internationally banned on account of traders killing the wild antelope to get is precious fur) shahtoosh shawl, so fine as to be able to pass through a wedding ring. Vicuña, for example, is noticeably finer than cashmere. [It is also much rarer and, correspondingly, much more expensive:  While only 12 tons of vicuña wool that can be processed into yarn are produced annually worldwide, the tonnage of cashmere yarn is 25,000; likewise, 2 pounds of vicuña wool cost between $400 and $600, while a similar amount of cashmere costs $75-$85, with sheep’s wool running around $5-$6.  Harrods of London sells pure vicuña sock by Falke’s for over $600 per pair. And while a cashmere sweater retails for around $1,000, a vicuña one demands $5,000.  Vicuña wool is so fine that to place one’s hand into a sack of the sheared wool is like placing one’s hand into a sack containing nothing but soft, balmy air.]  And since the wool is sensitive to chemical treatment, it is usually left in its natural golden-tan color, dubbed “the golden fleece.”  (Modern manufacturers of the fabric have recently unlocked the secret for dyeing the textile into various fashion-colors.)  But the animal yields small quantities—about one pound per animal per biennial harvest—of a very fine, soft, extremely warm wool. Hence, its justifiably high price.  The Inca civilization (12th-16th century) so prized the wool—declared by Spanish conquistadors “the silk of the New World”—that it was against the law for anyone other than royalty to possess it. And according to Inca mythology, the vicuña was the reincarnation of a beautiful young maiden upon whom a coat of pure gold was bestowed when she acquiesced to the advances of an old, hideous king. Today, the vicuña is the national animal of Peru and is featured prominently in the country’s coat of arms.

 

The vicuña was protected under Inca law.  And today, there are national and international regulations that safeguard the animal and its precious wool.  But from the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1532 until 1974 when the vicuña was officially declared an endangered species, the animal was largely unprotected, resulting in its being hunted and destroyed almost to the brink of extinction. (In 1824, Simón Bolivar[1783-1830], in his capacity as governor of Peru, banned the killing of the vicuña.)  By the mid-1970s, only about 6,000 vicuñas remained. Part of the reason for the animal’s decline is that, because it lives in the wild, harvesters of the wool tended to shoot the docile creature then collect its precious wool rather than undergo the labor-intensive process that engages the services of hundreds or even thousands of people to form a “human ring” around a vicuña herd then slowly close-in on the animals to round-up the live animals, thereafter shearing them before releasing them back into the wild. In 1987, CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) declared that only wool obtained from living vicuña could legally sold. During the Inca era, it is estimated that 3,000,000 vicuñas roamed their Andean habitat.  Today, as a result of local, national, and international efforts, the vicuña population is around 350,000.  And the gentle animal remains on protected species lists.

vicuna round-up

The world’s foremost trader in luxurious vicuña wool, garments, and accessories made therefrom is the Italian firm of Loro Piana (www.LoroPiana.com ).  Founded in the early 1800s by the Loro Piana family in Trivero, a district in northern Italy renowned for textile production, by the second half of the 19th century, the company had moved its operations to Valsesia, Italy, serving as merchants of wool.  In the 1940s, the company, under the direction of Franco Loro Piana, began exporting its fine wool textiles, becoming world-famous for its production of cashmere and then, in the mid-1990s, vicuña.  In 2013, LVHM (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy), the Paris-based French multinational conglomerate of luxury goods, purchased 80% of Loro Piana for $2.25 billion. Today, the Loro Piana family, which has been in the wool business for six generations and over 200 years, owns 15% of the company.

 

 

 

 

vicuna jacket

Cashmere: One of the Luxuries of the World (What a gentleman should own of cashmere and know about cashmere)

A Black Cashmere Turtleneck Sweater

Cashmere is best appreciated when worn directly against the skin. And it is for that reason that turtleneck sweaters made of cashmere are especially luxurious. The concept of a garment with an extended neckline dates back to the Middle Ages when knights would wear undershirts of chainmail with extended necklines—sometimes extending into a hood or skullcap—in order to protect their necks from the edges of their metal armor (and, of course, their bodies from enemy blades that might manage to breach their armor). Unlike cardigan, crew neck, and V-neck sweaters, for example, which are typically worn over shirts, turtleneck sweaters are most often worn over the bare torso, caressing a gentleman’s chest, back, arms, and neck. (A simple T-shirt is sometimes worn under a turtleneck in order to provide an additional layer of warmth and/or to protect the precious sweater from perspiration and deodorant stains; but whenever possible, a gentleman should relish in the luxury of cashmere, letting nothing come between him and his sweater. Mineral rock/crystal deodorants offer residue-free odor protection, but perspiration wetness may still be an issue with such products).

Though referred to by common usage as “wool,” cashmere is technically a hair—the fine undercoat or “underdown” harvested from the Cashmere goat, the subspecies Capra aegagrus hircus. Cashmere is collected in the late winter/early spring months when the goats moult—naturally shed their winter coats. The optimum time for harvesting the cashmere typically occurs within a two-week window, each animal having its unique harvest optimum. A doe in kid, for example, because of hormonal conditions, typically moults earlier than normal so as to have shed her coat prior to kidding. An observant harvester will recognize a goat’s precious cashmere undercoat peeking through or pushing upward the animal’s outer guard-coat as the optimum harvest time. In the moulting process, the cashmere detaches from the animal several days before the outer coat of guard hair.

The cashmere undercoat is harvested by hand. A short, sturdy, rake-like comb, about four inches wide, with teeth measuring about three-quarter-inch in length, is used to comb through the goat’s fleece, resulting in tufts of the soft undercoat being lifted from the animal’s skin. (The objective is to harvest the the precious undercoat just before the goat begins shedding its protective outer coat since separating the cashmere from the longer goat hair is time-consuming, painstaking, and expensive. Some manufacturers shear, rather than comb, their goats and must thereafter clip away the undercoat from the long, coarse outer hair). An experienced harvester can glean the cashmere of one goat in about twenty minutes. The average yield of pure cashmere per goat—after animal grease, coarse hairs, and foreign material such as dirt and grass have been removed from the fleece—is approximately one-third pound. The collected cashmere fiber is then washed, and any guard hair is removed. The cashmere is then dyed and converted into yarn, textiles, and garments. China is the world’s largest producer of raw cashmere, and Italy is the world’s most esteemed producer of cashmere goods.

Cashmere has been been manufactured in Nepal and Kashmir (the modern spelling for ancient Cashmere) for thousands of years, written references to cashmere shawls dating as far back as the 3rd century B.C.E. But the founder of the cashmere wool industry is widely believed to be Zain-ul-Abidin (recognized by UNESCO in 2014 for his contributions to the culture of Kashmir), the 15th -century ruler of Kashmir. Other sources credit Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, who journeyed to Kashmir in the 14th century with 700 craftsmen from across Persia. Arriving in Ladakh, the homeland of the cashmere goat, he noticed the extraordinarily soft wool of the goats and had a pair of socks made for the king of Kashmir, Sultan Kutabdin. Both men shortly thereafter, it is said, embarked upon a joint venture of producing shawls made of cashmere.

Cashmere is not only luxurious, it is expensive. So a gentleman who can only afford to indulge in one cashmere sweater should invest in a black turtleneck: He can wear it in all seasons of the year except summer; he can wear it frequently without negative notice; and a black turtleneck sweater complements everything from white linen trousers to blue jeans to gray flannel slacks.

A cashmere sweater is best cared for by gently hand-washing it in cold water with a mild detergent after allowing it to soak in cold water for at least one hour. After a thorough rinsing in cold water, the sweater should be squeeze-dried in a towel, then allowed to air-dry flat on the floor atop a dry towel. When completely dry, the sweater should be folded and stored on a shelf.