© Liba Brent
Some yarns draw the eye, some beg to be touched, while a select few reach out to the heart. These last are the yarns with a story, the rare skeins that combine quality of fiber with extraordinary character: Cashgora, distributed by Port Fiber in Portland, Maine, is one of those yarns. You know it the instant you touch a skein: each is soft, lustrous, and, when you bringing to your face to caress, you sense not the lingering scent of oil from the mill or vinegar from the dye bath, but a humane softness, a feeling of the yarn as vivid, living fiber.
© Liba Brent
Cashgora fingering weight yarn is the result of an extraordinary project in a remote region of the world. Before receiving grants from the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme, and the Aga Khan Foundation, all of the fiber grown in the Pamir mountains was sold directly to China for spinning into commercial yarns. Paid at a low rate per kilogram, there was no quality control oversight and no incentive for the herders to improve either their stock or their fiber collection methods. The three grants, awarded in 2013 to a women's spinning collective in Tajikistan – and overseen by Wisconsin-based sociologist Liba Brent – allowed the women to refine the quality of their product, the transparency of their production process, and also improve their own quality of life.
Cashgora fiber is the result of crossbreeding cashmere, Angora, and other goats in the Pamir mountain range of eastern Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan. The fiber is slightly longer and coarser than cashmere and, while nearly cashmere soft, is more lustrous and slightly less prone to pilling. The fiber also has a nearly silky sheen that elevates the softer halo. As a result of the grant, the herders are able to take greater pains in combing their goats for cashgora down, because the women's collective is able to pay higher rates for higher quality down. Once the down is sorted by quality and color, it is transported to the city of Herat, in Afghanistan, for scouring and dehairing, as there is no suitable site in Tajikistan that is close enough to this remote mountainous region. The processed fiber is transported back to Tajikistan, where the collective of women spinners creates the yarn by hand; because it is handspun, the fiber is not treated with chemicals and so is both softer and more durable than commercially treated fibers.
© Liba Brent
The Tajik women who are part of the collective meet rigorous standards for the quality of their handspinning – they work diligently to produce yarn that is consistent from skein to skein and pleasing to knit. Each skein features the name and photo of the woman who spun it, and the biography of each spinner is available on the collective’s website, so you can learn more about the history of the skein in your hand. This brings us back to the heart of knitting, that each project you undertake is a story – the story of your skill, your values, and your time. What story will your knitting tell?