Today I’ll be talking more about vintage cashmere. The ad above is a great one to lead into the topic. It is from 1955: The slim and sinuous sweater that takes a fresh look at spring!
One of the great things about vintage cashmere sweaters is that there are so many different styles that most women are going to find some that match their taste. Many collectors focus in on the fancy evening cardigans that were so popular in the 1950s and 60s. Look for beautiful beading in stunning color combinations such as black on red, pastels on white and copper on tan. There are lovely embroidered and appliquéd sweaters with flowers, fruits, insects and oriental motifs. Many of these embroidered sweaters have matching or contrasting satin edge bindings. Many sweaters, especially the highly decorated ones, were made in Hong Kong. In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Hong Kong not only produced beautifully decorated cashmere, but also high quality lambswool/angora blends that are almost as soft as cashmere. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference if the tags are missing.
If you wear fur, there are cardigans with big fur collars that snap on and off for cleaning. These cashmere-fur sweaters are commonly found in contrasting colors, such as a black sweater with a white collar. Sometimes they are dyed to match, often in great colors such as deep green or royal blue.
For women with more classic taste, there are plenty of simpler options. Solid color cardigans, jewel neck and collared pullovers, and turtlenecks can be found in practically any hue. If you like patterns, you might look for intarsia designs.
Italian sweater from the 1960s showing the influence of Emilio Pucci
There have been hundreds of manufacturers of cashmere during the past seven decades. “Made in Scotland” on the label is usually a sign of quality, as the Scottish mills such as Pringle, Ballentyne, Braemar and Lyle Scott produced (and in some cases, continue to produce) top-quality sweaters. Supposedly, the water in Scotland in which the cashmere fiber is washed makes the fibers softer. For whatever reason, it is hard to beat a cashmere sweater that originated in Scotland.
Cardigan made in Scotland by Braemar
The two biggest American labels were Dalton and Hadley. It is fairly common to find Dalton sweaters that are two-tone; usually the sweater is a beautiful color with white or contracting trim. They also made intarsia designs, often in three colors. Scalloped edges were another pretty detail used by Dalton; they also made beautiful appliquéd sweaters.
Hadley manufactured cashmere and camelhair sweaters for many major department stores. They had one line in the 1960s and 70s they called “Cashmere Souffle” that was 6- or 8-ply, compared to the usual 2- or 3-ply yarns used in most sweaters.
Pat Baldwin for Hadley decorated cashmere cardigan
A very special find would be a cashmere sweater that was designed by one of the great designers of the period. Halston became known for his work in cashmere in the 1970s, but you should also look for the big names of the 1950s. Schiaparelli licensed a line of evening sweaters in the 1950s and 1960s. Some were cashmere with rhinestones or beads, but the same designs were also made in Orlon. Bonnie Cashin designed cashmere sweaters and skirts for Ballentyne, and later, for her own company, The Knittery. Tina Leser did lines for Dalton and Pringle.
Helen Bond Carruthers sweater decorated with Belgian embroidery
Many collectors look for sweaters by master decorators. Helen Bond Carruthers, Pat Baldwin and Edith Salzman are some of the best known and most highly collected. Carruthers took the embroidery from old worn piano shawls from the 1920s and embroidered and lacy bits from antique Belgian linens, and attached the decorations like applique to the sweaters. Very often the entire sweater would be covered with decoration. She also often altered these sweaters, shortening both the sleeves and the torso. These sweaters are considered to be the ultimate in decorated cashmere. So look for the large label – it will be in the waist!
When shopping for vintage cashmere, be sure to check carefully for signs of wear and use. The most common problem with these great old sweaters is that moths love them too! Check the sweater carefully for holes. Tiny ones are easily fixed, but require the hand of an experienced mender.
One of the advantages vintage cashmere has over the cheap cashmere that is being produced today is that it was usually made of longer fiber wool, and thus does not readily form pills. Pills are those annoying little balls of fur that appear wherever friction occurs. A sweater that is heavily pilled will probably always produce pills. Look under the armholes for additional signs of friction. Sometimes sweaters look felted under the arms.
Check for stains, as old stains are difficult to remove, and harsh treatments such as oxygen powered cleaners are not good for the fur fibers.
Non-decorated cashmeres are easy to care for. They can be hand washed in lukewarm water with a bit of conditioning shampoo added. Squeeze out the water with towels (no wringing!) and lie flat to dry. Appliqued or sequined sweaters and those with satin bindings cannot be hand washed. They have to be dry cleaned, but don’t over-do it because repeated drycleaning can make the fibers brittle . I have known people who have successfully hand washed beaded sweaters, but I think that is risky and can’t recommend it!