Journey to the Homeland of Cashmere, Part 1: Exploring Alashan, China: In Search of the World's Finest Cashmere
In the autumn of 2007, Mr. Ishii from the Merchandise Division of Mitsukoshi Department Store approached us with a fascinating proposal. He stated, "Mitsukoshi Department Store, with its 335-year business history, has recently merged with Isetan and is embarking on a fresh initiative. As part of this endeavor, we aim to establish a unique custom-ordered knitwear line using the world's highest-quality cashmere from the Alashan region. We are very keen on partnering with UTO," he said.
Having read my book, "The Story of Cashmere and Knitwear," published the previous year, Mr. Ishii approached me for advice after discovering that UTO offers custom-order cashmere knitwear. During this discussion, he presented some Alashan yarn, considered the best raw material by cashmere connoisseurs.
Cashmere is obtained from the wool of goats inhabiting the highlands of Inner Mongolia and the Republic of Mongolia in China, as well as regions around the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts in Kyrgyzstan, India, and Afghanistan. Among these areas, Inner Mongolia in China produces the highest quality raw wool.
Upon hearing Mr. Ishii's proposal, my heart raced with excitement. This is the essence of custom-order knitwear crafted from the world's finest raw materials. The prospect of creating a globally unique sweater was exhilarating!
However, the cashmere industry is one where the authenticity of products is often questioned. If you don't collaborate with a trustworthy partner, you might face serious issues down the line. Especially for UTO, where cashmere is the cornerstone of the business, any issues with the raw material could be catastrophic, even leading to bankruptcy.
Therefore, as the first Japanese to visit Alashan, I was determined to witness the entire process from harvesting of the raw cashmere wool to the spinning of the finished yarns. This journey allowed me to comprehend UTO's cashmere knitwear manufacturing process thoroughly and implement a high degree of traceability.
I had a hidden agenda for this on-site visit, which was to ascertain whether any abuse of cashmere goats occurred during their upbringing or the collection of their wool. I firmly believed that a friendly, symbiotic relationship between humans and cashmere goats was a vital precondition to my aspiration of becoming the leading cashmere knit producer globally. While I could hardly fathom such mistreatment, I was prepared to sadly step away from the cashmere knit business if humans were indeed abusing these goats to extract their fine wool.
This concern over potential abuse towards cashmere goats initially arose after learning about the tragic history between humans and the Chiru, an animal indigenous to Tibet.
The Chiru is a bovine species native to the highlands of Tibet and other parts of Asia, boasting fur even finer than cashmere. Unable to be domesticated, these creatures inhabit the wild terrain above 3,000 meters in Tibet. Scarves made from their fur, known as Shahtoosh, are considered the world's finest wool. However, to obtain this fur, the Chiru must be killed, leading to a drastic decline in their population. Although over a million Chiru roamed these regions in the early 20th century, today only 75,000 remain, marking the species as endangered. Consequently, the collection of Chiru fur has been prohibited by the Washington Convention.
Thus, my journey to Alashan was filled with a blend of anticipation and apprehension. I eagerly looked forward to discovering authentic cashmere, yet the fear of potential cashmere abuse hung over me like a dark cloud.