"Not so long ago, Afghan farmers collected the thick winter undercoat their goats shed every
spring and threw it on the fire to heat their homes and cook their food.
Some have since learned that the super-soft fluff that comes off in clumps as the weather warms up, once cleaned, refined and spun into yarn is cashmere."
Afghan cashmere has found customers as far away as the United States, Britain and Europe. It's changed life for goat herders like Mohammad Amin. He has
120 goats grazing the open spaces around an industrial park on the outskirts of the western city of Herat. At this time of year, most of the female goats
have kids and shed the cashmere, which Amin pulls off in huge handfuls.
With an extended family of 13, he has a guaranteed income from the best of the cashmere he harvests as traders, processors, donors and international businesses
are cottoning on to Afghanistan's potential as a major producer.
"Buyers come to us and buy the good quality cashmere, the rest we take to the market and sell," Amin said.
Each animal yields up to 250 grams of cashmere, Amin said. Each season he can earn more than $1,100 USD in a country where the annual national average
is less than $700 USD.
Only about 30-40 percent of Afghanistan's 7 million goats are combed for cashmere, according to estimates by the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International
Development, even though up to 95 percent of the animals could become part of the production chain. Most of the raw product is bought by traders who sell
it to Chinese buyers to produce clothing.
Afghanistan is the world's third biggest producer of cashmere, its 1,000 metric tons a year, worth $30 million, accounts for 7 percent of the global market
though it lags far behind China's 70 percent and Mongolia's 15 percent.
The Afghan government, recognizing potential, recently came up with a "cashmere action plan," aiming to target the highest end of the global luxury market"
where a designer-label cashmere sweater can cost $1,000 USD.
But it's a long haul. Afghanistan remains a country in conflict after almost 40 years of war and few foreign investors are prepared to face such an insecure
and uncertain environment, even if it's to exploit world-class oil and mineral resources, or agricultural products such as pomegranates, saffron and cashmere.
Long-term, it could be a self-sustaining industry in Afghanistan, one that will create jobs, including work for women, generally marginalized in this society.
Cashmere is not a wool but a hair, which accounts for its unique characteristics compared to sheep's wool, soft and fine in texture, light and strong at
the same time. In the near-sterile conditions at a processing plant, the grimy, matted raw goat coat is washed and the long hair is separated from the
The cashmere is repeatedly refined, becoming increasingly gossamer-like as it is transformed into the highest quality, pristine, aerated fluff. It is then
baled and sent to Europe, ready to be spun into yarn that can be dyed and knitted or woven into fabric, carpets and clothing.
A small spinning operation in Kabul called Qaria has had success with a three-month pilot program spinning the cashmere into yarn and dying it using plant-based
colorants sourced locally, such as saffron and indigo.
Briton James Blewett, a partner in Qaria, says they have orders for the yarn from America, Britain and Europe, where it is gaining popularity in knitting
shops. Qaria yarn sold out within hours at a recent wool trade fair in Britain, he said.
Blewett said the company's first hand-knitted garments could be on sale later this year, carrying with them hopes of cashmere excellence with a label bearing
a stylized goat's head, with the words "Afghan Made."
Story courtesy of Lynne O'Donnell, Associated Press – April 2015.