NEW YORK--Cashmere buyers beware. What textile executives call "contaminated" cashmere is making its way into the domestic market and could cause unexpected shortages in retailers' stocks later this year, as stores are forced to send back subpar goods. Cashmere that has been contaminated generally contains wool and cashgora--a blending of the cashmere and mohair fibers, creating a very shiny, coarse yarn--and is passed off by disreputable yarn dealers as all cashmere. The anticipated outbreak of contaminated cashmere, executives said, is due to the rising costs of cashmere fiber, the first upswing in five years. Currently, Chinese cashmere is selling at about $85 per kilo, compared with $60 last year. In 1989, the price was about $175 per kilo, and prior to this year had been steadily declining ever since. Prices began to decline because of worldwide recession, coupled with an oversupply of the fiber. Executives added that with the global economy improving and a strong demand in fashion circles for natural luxury fibers, virtually all of the quality cashmere has been sold. "There is not a kilo of cashmere left in either China or Mongolia," said Richard Forte, president of Forte Cashmere, South Natick, Mass., an importer of raw cashmere and camel hair, and a distributor of cashmere sweaters. "To keep costs in line, many Hong Kong buyers, who do not have enough fiber to fill orders, have been purchasing the contaminated products. It will make for illegally labeled garments. Good Mongolian cashmere is being sold to the legitimate mills in Northern China, but Mongolians are also reporting that some of the lowest quality cashmere in their market has recently been sold into Hong Kong and there may be attempts to pass it off as high quality goods, said Forte, who returned from a trip there last week. To make matters worse, executives said, there also has been a large amount of cheaper Iranian cashmere imported into Hong Kong, selling for about $62 per kilo. It is primarily a weaving cashmere and is much coarser than Chinese cashmere, executives say, and tends to pill more easily. "It doesn't knit as well as the Chinese cashmere," said Boris Shlomm, president of Amicale Industries, a supplier of cashmere and camel hair yarns. "You don't get the true soft hand, and, overall, it's not as good a product as a 100 percent Chinese cashmere sweater, or cashmere scarf." Cashmere is the rarest of the commercially viable natural fibers. According to figures from the Northern Textile Association, about 4,500 tons of it is produced each year. Conversely, about 2 million tons of wool is produced, and a whopping 20.8 million pounds of cotton was harvested last year. The ones who will suffer initially from the low-quality cashmere, said executives, are retailers, many of whom may not discover the cashmere apparel they have ordered is made of the contaminated yarn until it arrives in their stores--or until consumers start complaining. "Most of the big retailers, I would hope, are aware of the problem," Forte said. "But because the products are coming from so far away, there may not be that much they can do about it. We've taken steps to help our customers by enlarging our in-stock delivery program." Karl Spilhaus, president of the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute in Boston, said his organization is offering free cashmere testing for retailers and apparel makers. The results of the test, which includes DNA sampling, takes about one week, said Spilhaus. "This is going to be an awful year," said Spilhaus. "A reputable manufacturer or retailer may get a shipment of contaminated cashmere and turn it down. However, the next guy comes along, buys it, puts it into the market and creates havoc." Amicale's Shlomm added, "There's no reason someone should be hoodwinked. We have told people there could be a problem. Some of them listen, some of them don't." Retailers, though, said they are girding themselves for a possible influx of contaminated, mislabeled products. Some retailers are particularly concerned about orders placed in-season, when shortages may force makers into the subpar yarns. Ralph Romberg, Neiman Marcus's divisional vice president, outerwear, added: "We have not run into that as of yet, but that doesn't mean it won't happen. We are in a good position because we deal with top suppliers. "We plan on being extra careful this year," Romberg added. A spokeswoman for Lord & Taylor said the retailer will also be sending certain apparel products to the CCMI for testing. She also noted that some buyers have already refused shipments because of mislabeling.
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