Sunday, 27 January 2013

And You Thought Cashmere Yarn Was an Indulgence

Have you ever wondered what the most expensive yarn in the world is? I did, and googled it, and I believe it's vicuña yarn, which is pictured above, and which costs $300(USD) for a single ounce/28 grams. It doesn't look all that special, does it?

The high price is determined by the scarcity of the yarn and by the difficulty of its procurement and production. The vicuña is a South American animal that lives in the Andes. It's a relative of the llama, and possibly also related to the alpaca. The vicuña can only be sheared every three years, those who want to shear it have to capture it first (it's difficult to domesticate the vicuña because they are very good escapists), and then they only get about a pound of wool from each animal for their efforts. Vicuña wool is the finest in the world with a 12 micrometre diameter, and valued for its exceptional warmth. It's very sensitive to chemical dyes and so usually remains its natural cinnamon colour.

According to Incan legend, the vicuña was the reincarnation of a beautiful young woman who received a beautiful coat of gold in order to disguise and protect her from the advances of an ugly old king. Because of this it was against Incan law to kill a vicuña, and only Incan royalty could wear its fleece.

The vicuña is still a protected animal, having been an endangered animal during the early seventies with an estimated population of 6,000. Now that the vicuña population has increased to approximately 300,000, this danger seems past, but the Peruvian government is still working to protect vicuñas from poaching, loss of natural habitat, and other threats, and also controls the production of its yarn to reserve its profits for the local people. About 50,000 pounds of vicuña yarn is illegally smuggled out of Peru annually. All this is to say... I wouldn't recommend that you buy any cut-rate vicuña yarn if you get a chance.

I'm not about to rush out and buy any at the going rate, either. An economic concept called "the law of diminishing returns" comes into play here, by which it is meant that the benefits of spending more money for a greater quality and quantity of material goods level off after a certain point. There's no denying that cashmere yarn is better quality than acrylic, that it's warmer, softer, more attractive, and more pleasurable to wear. But at some point in buying luxury items, a cost-benefit ceiling is reached. Once you are reasonably protected from the elements by your garments and have more beautiful sweaters and scarves and other items than you can wear regularly, you're really paying for things like the rarity value of an item and the cachet of their ownership. Not to say that you're wrong in that, especially when by buying vicuña wool you're helping to support industry in the none too economically advantaged Andes villages, but for most of us cashmere is luxurious enough.


  1. I still will covet this fiber, even if I'll never be able to afford it. It maybe I wouldn't like it if I ever got a hold of some. Best to admire from afar.


  2. Vicuna is extraordinary! I was lucky enough to see a wild vicuna round-up (chaccu) in the Andes when I was researching my book, The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat. ( The coat was made of pure vicuna cloth--fabulous! The villagers do benefit from the increased interest in and market for vicuna--and it gives them a reason to protect them. A win-win.

    13 November 2013 11:09