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Theres nothing quite like the soft touch of cashmere on your skin. Its hard to imagine that the impossibly soft material is made from anything besides the threads of clouds and rainbows and its usually so expensive that youd believe it if it were. But do you actuallyknow what its made from?

Shockingly, its not clouds or rainbows. It is made from goats. Yes, you read that correctly. Cashmere comes from cashmere goats, the only animals that can produce those dreamy, luxurious, highly coveted fibers.

FREDERIC J. BROWN via Getty Images
Cashmere goats, aka your future sweaters.

Pam Haendle, a cashmere goat farmer in Central New York, started farming cashmere goats after retiring and has anywhere from between 55 goats in the winter to 90 in the summer on her farm. She provided some insight as to why cashmere goods are so expensive.

A single cashmere goat does not produce a whole lot. You only harvest the fibers once a year, and most of us do so by combing the undercoat, which sheds yearly. You can get between six and eight ounces from a really good goat initially, but once its processed youre not likely to get more than four ounces back, she said.

To clarify, the undercoat is not the hair youre seeing on the goats in the photo above. The undercoat is closer to the goats skin, and must be separated from the outer layer of hair.

Thats why, Haendle said, she has been told it takes about four goats to make one sweater.

Karl Spilhaus, president of the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute, echoed that sentiment.Its a very finite resource, there is only a certain amount produced in the world. Like diamonds or gold, it is rare, so its priced accordingly.

Haendle explained that the market in the United States is too small to work with major retailers, who she said typically work with cashmere imported from places like Mongolia and China. [The U.S.] imports a tremendous amount of cashmere because we just cant produce enough, she said.

Haendle combs the naturally shedding undercoats of her goats using a dog comb as soon as she sees them starting to shed. She explained that while ideally youd like to have a goat that has good quality cashmere all over, the best areas for shedding are typically the goats mid-side or back.

That dispels the myth believed by some that the cashmere from a goats neck is best. There have been different stories that have come up about places on the goat that are particularly good for cashmere, but actually the wool on the neck tends to be the lowest quality. They also dont have anything of any length on their bellies. Thats another myth that sprang up because someone misunderstood what we meant by undercoats. As far as the chin goes they dont have anything on their chins besides maybe beards, which are made up of guard hair, she said.

Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Both Haendle and Spilhaus said that cashmere products should always be soft, and it could be a red flag if its not. Spilhaus companys mission is to protect the market from mislabeled goods and uses a sampling process to test finished products in the mass market, either using a microscopic exam or a biochemical analysis. If an item is found to be mislabeled as cashmere, CCMI notifies the store and suggest they rectify the labeling, which they normally do. If they dont, we up the ante legally by either reporting it to the government or bringing up a lawsuit.

So, what gives real cashmere its softness? For starters, its the fibers extremely fine diameter less than 18.5 microns, Haendle said but also a result of the shape of the fibers themselves. Cashmere is not a straight fiber, its bumpy. Angora, for example, is also very soft-feeling, but its a straight fiber. The bumpy fibers in cashmere all cling to themselves so nothing sticks out to itch you. Straight fibers are more likely to stick out, she said.

Dimitrios Kambouris via Getty Images
Maria Menounos posing with a cashmere goat, as one does.

Haendle recommends that if you want 100 percent authentic, hand-spun cashmere goods, your best bet would be to buy them from a fiber festival (she runs one in New York state every summer), or to buy online from sites run by local farmers.

If a fiber festival trip isnt in your near future, Spilhaus offered some additional tips for shopping for cashmere at a larger retailer. Some red flags: If its too inexpensive compared to what youd expect to pay, or if it doesnt drape properly or conform properly to someones body. He also said a good product is not shiny or dull and wont feel stiff to the touch.

If you need us, well be busy looking up how to become a cashmere goat farmer for the rest of the day.

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