It might be the soft drape of cotton, the warmth of lambswool or the luxury of cashmere. Whatever the appeal, the natural fibres of cotton, lambswool and cashmere offer a special experience that cannot be matched by synthetics.
No one knows exactly how long cotton has been used by mankind, but archaeologists have found scraps of cotton cloth in caves in Mexico that are at least 7.000 years old. Cotton was grown and made into cloth in the Indus River Valley in Asia as early as 3,000 years before the birth of Christ. The Egyptians were also weaving and wearing cotton textiles around the same time.
Today, cotton is one of the world’s most widely grown crops. The comfort and softness of cotton – which is derived from cellulose fibres – is due to its excellent absorbing qualities. Cotton garments quickly absorb perspiration, thus keeping the wearer more comfortable.
Good quality cotton has a matte lustre, a pleasant drape and feels smooth and warm to the touch. One of cotton’s less popular characteristics is that it can wrinkle very easily, but technical innovation has led to the creation of a number of cotton treatments which can be used to treat cotton fabric so that it will retain that crisp, freshly ironed look for much longer
The sheep’s ability to stay dry and warm in freezing weather and pouring rain was also spotted by mankind many centuries ago. Wool is a great insulator and highly water resistant. This is because wool fibres, unlike hair or fur, have a hard, water-repellent outer layer that surrounds each hollow fibre.
Of all the types of wool available, lambswool is the highest quality of sheep’s wool available. Lambswool is taken from sheep at their first shearing, normally when they are about six or seven months old. Lambswool offers unequalled softness and its fibres are smoother, tougher and more elastic than other wool types. Because of these properties, lambswool fibres are typically used in the production of clothing worn close to the skin.
Like cotton, lambswool fibres can absorb moisture without becoming damp or clammy, while the hard outer layer on each lambswool fibre protects against moisture. Water is repelled, but humidity is absorbed and this helps lambswool clothing to maintain a comfortable, even body temperature.
Lambswool is a wonderful heat insulator. The crimp of the wool produces insulating air spaces that retain heat next to the body while the hard outer surface of lambswool fibres moves liquid moisture away from the body. Because lambswool has this ability to regulate temperature and let the body breathe, it is ideally suited to changing weather conditions and the vagaries of the British climate.
Lambswool also has superior spinning properties, making it easy to fashion and shape. Meanwhile, the flexibility of lambswool fibres allows garments to mould to the body, whilst still retaining their shape.
In an age where allergies are commonplace, lambswool has another important benefit. It is not well-known that lambswool is also the most hypoallergenic of all wools. Lambswool is even resistant to dust mites making lambswool clothing an ideal choice for sufferers of common allergies and asthma.
Cashmere wool, known for its exquisite softness, is derived from fine haired Kashmir goats that live in the coldest, least hospitable parts of the planet such as the remote mountain ranges of China, Mongolia and Tibet. Each animal only produces around 150 grammes of cashmere per year – hence the luxury status and added expense of cashmere products.
Cashmere goats produce a double fleece consisting of a fine, soft under coat of hair mingled with a straighter and much coarser outer coating of hair called guard hair which cannot be used.The cashmere fibres must also go through a series of complex de-hairing, washing and carding before it is ready for use.
The natural crimp of cashmere fibers allows the fibres to interlock during processing and means they can then be spun into an exceptionally fine and lightweight fabric. The crimp of the fibre correlates with the fineness of the spun yarn and the softness of the finished product. The fabric retains the loft of the fibres which means that cashmere is wonderfully warm, but has hardly any weight.
The good news is that all of these natural fibres can be successfully blended with synthetics; yet still impart their own unique characteristics. In many instances, the addition of man-made fibres to cotton, lambswool or cashmere can actually enhance their natural qualities. Cotton, for example, is less susceptible to creasing when blended with other fibres.
There is also cost to take into account. Luxury and quality always come at a premium price, but the blending of cotton, lambswool or cashmere means they can be within everyone’s price range.