Before I came to Mongolia, I thought the softest thing in the world was the rear end of a baby. But that was before I visited the Gobi Cashmere factory, where I saw the production process from smelly goat hair to high-quality clothes. It’s hard to believe that the scraggy goats you see in the countryside are the source of Mongolia’s fabulous cashmere products, but it’s true. Somehow, the tough conditions of Mongolia lead to incredible, wearable softness.
Mongolia is the second largest producer of raw cashmere, after China. Estimates vary, but Mongolia produces about 20 percent of global supply. China produces about 70 percent. The rest comes from Afghanistan, Iran, India, Pakistan and Central Asia. In spite of this, Mongolia hasn’t succeeded—at least not yet—in branding its top-quality cashmere.
The Gobi Cashmere factory is a sprawling, 10 hectare complex, with endless corridors. The Director, Mr Baatarsaikhan, is an energetic man, the kind of person who runs up stairs two steps at a time. He claims to walk at least 10 kilometers a day within the factory, and I believe him. He’s also visibly excited about his products, and with good reason. They’re simply beautiful.
Cashmere supply is limited. All goats produce it, but in most places it’s not good enough to process. In Mongolia, cashmere fibers are especially long and fine, and make good-quality yarn and thread. The harsh climate must make a difference. In Australia, attempts to produce cashmere with Mongolian goats failed. Mild weather and good nutrition somehow led to coarser cashmere; I guess you can’t pamper your goats.
The raw material is combed out of the goats every spring. It consists of cashmere, which is the soft, insulating undercoat that protects goats from the cold, and coarse outer hair. First it’s sorted by color and roughly by grade. Dirt and the coarsest hair are removed. All by hand. Only then do machines come in, for scouring, drying, and de-hairing (the combing process that separates fine cashmere from the rough stuff).
It’s amazing to watch the clean, de-haired cashmere coming out of the combing machine. It looks like puffed-up spider webs. It’s so soft that you can hardly tell you’re touching something physical. These cashmere clouds are dyed into brilliant colors, spun into yarns and thread, and finally knitted or woven into well-designed, stylish garments. No wonder Mr. Baatarsaikhan is so proud.
I once took my wife there to the Gobi outlet store. It was like dropping a hungry piranha into a tank of goldfish. She tore through the place, buying sweaters, hats, scarves, blankets, dresses, and even a roll of yarn. As she pointed out, cashmere makes a great gift, since it’s always appreciated and easy to carry in a suitcase.
With demand and exports down, the sector is struggling. It especially affects herders, who have seen prices fall from $40 per kilogram to under $25. But I’m sure that Mongolia’s cashmere industry will survive. As long as my wife’s in the country, at least.
As fashionable as Champs-Élysées, but 1/10th the price
It's time to go to Gobi
Hard at work in the Gobi Cashmere factory