Made in Britain – actually made in China with smuggled Central Asian materials, finishing touches in the UK: cashmere’s long road to our high streets and supermarkets

Kyrgyz goats

UK retailers are selling cheap clothes made in China from cashmere smuggled out of Central Asia, a leading academic has claimed.

Dr Carol Kerven, Research Fellow at Imperial College London, said that supermarket cashmere sweaters that peel or ‘bobble’ shortly after purchase are due to Chinese traders crossing into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and smuggling back cheap, low-quality cashmere to be processed in China, finished off in the UK, and sold as British-made.   

She said: “A ton of cashmere is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. It can be hidden behind a travelling seat, or in amid sacks of potatoes – when you see Made in Britain, it can mean made in China, with the finishing touches done in the UK or in Scotland.”  

During a lecture held at the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, in Victoria, London, on 4 October, Dr Kerven said that goat herders of Central Asia’s Pamir mountain ranges had little awareness that the cashmere produced by their local jodori goats could have much in the way value and accept roughly $2.30 a kilo from buyers, while combed cashmere sells for more than 20 times that at processing plants in China and Mongolia.    

Dr Kerven said: “There’s a lack of awareness that it is a luxury item, a belief that goats are for poor people.”

The social anthropologist and pastoral peoples specialist, who has been visiting Central Asia since the mid-1990s, explained that each goat yields between 100-300 grams of cashmere per year, so it takes about five goats and a year for a cashmere sweater.

There is no tradition of using cashmere as it was considered too thin, Dr Kerven said, while a jodori goat’s thicker outer hair was used for making ropes for yurts, the famous Central Asian tents. Using shears on the goats loses precious length, instantly reducing quality, while combing is much more efficient – yet there remains little understanding of this among the herders. 

Parts of the Pamirs known for producing cashmere are the Tajikistan and Uzbekistan-straddling Zarafshan range of the Pamir-Alay mountains; Gorno-Badakshan province in Tajikistan; and Alay mountains between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Herders live in valley settlements during winter, then take their sheep and goats up to high pastures in summer. 

A major centre of the Central Asian cashmere business is Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan and the country’s second biggest city. Trucks are hired, mainly by women, and driven from village to village buying up cashmere house to house, which is then taken to Osh and sold in bulk to Uighur buyers, some of whom are Kyrgyz Republic citizens, while some come from Xinjiang in western China. 

Dr Kerven told the audience that from there it crosses the border, often illegally, and ends up thousands of miles away in eastern China in an area of high-tech processing plants that make up a ‘cashmere city’ near Beijing, before being made into clothes for export.

She said that Central Asia had been a contributor to the Soviet Union’s wool industry, with herders’ produce being taken for processing in Ukraine and Russia. Cross-breeding was a feature of the Soviet drive for greater efficiency, with variable effects. Dr Kerven recounted how a survey in recent years had highlighted a particularly high quality gene-pool in a village, but upon arrival it was discovered that the local elder had tried to further improve this quality this quality by cross-breeding the goats, unknowingly achieving the reverse.  

There is also concern that efforts to better harness the economic potential of cashmere-producing goats could have environmental consequences – because goats eat everything in their path, including roots, leaving a waste of rocks and soil only in their wake.

The event was hosted by the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, which was founded in 1901 and is a charity promoting greater knowledge and understanding of Central Asia and countries from the Middle East to Japan. The Society hosts lectures and encourages debate on a wide variety of topics, from literature and the arts, exploration and the environment, to cultural, military and political history and current affairs.

Dr Kerven is co-editor-in-chief of the Pastoralism journal, which is available to read here: http://www.pastoralismjournal.com/

For more information on the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, visit www.rsaa.org.uk

First published in The Times of Central Asia, in October, 2013 http://www.timesca.com

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About James Willsher

Newspaper and magazine reporter since 2004, has freelanced in Russia and Central Asia, and does local government PR. Likes green tea and interviewing people / places. Phil Garrett was a pen name. @JGWillsher jamesgwillsher@hotmail.co.uk
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