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For years, the ads urged us to "feel the cottony softness." But now that cashmere is suddenly as cheap and ubiquitous as toilet paper, the makers of Canada's best-selling brand have dropped the familiar jingle and rebranded Cottonelle as Cashmere.

"In consumer research, we asked Canadian women a very simple question: What could be softer than cotton?" explains Scott Paper's website. "Virtually all of the women we spoke to mentioned cashmere."

No wonder. This holiday season, from department store displays to the shelves of mass-market fast fashion retailers, there is enough cashmere out there to choke an entire herd of Himalayan goats. And for the most part, this "100 per cent pure cashmere" is being offered at prices that are so astoundingly affordable that this icon of luxury, once reserved for emperors, is now looking as democratic as cotton.

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In the J. Crew holiday catalogue, there are cashmere shells, cardigans, V-necks and turtlenecks, jackets, caps, scarves and gloves -- in every hue of the rainbow. And just in time for the gift-buying rush, its cashmere sweaters are just $149 (U.S.).

At Club Monaco, cashmere scarves are a mere $89. On its website, Banana Republic offers cashmere socks for $18.50, a baby knit cap of cashmere for $44, and an entire travel slumber set of 'shmere for only $250. While at the likes of Winners and Costco, they are making a killing on cashmere sweaters for $79. Could this be for real?

I put a call in to Karl Spilhaus, president of the Boston-based Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute (CCMI), for the lowdown.

"Well, first off there's China, which is doing its best to meet our growing demand for cashmere at the kind of prices that we got used to during the Asian recession and glut of product in the 1990s," Spilhaus says. "But also there's also a lot of poor-quality stuff out there and a lot of entrepreneurs and hustlers trying to get in on the game."

High-quality cashmere -- the kind that still costs hundreds of dollars and is typically woven at mills in Scotland and Italy -- is made from the long, soft hairs from the fine undercoat of the Kashmir goat, which is raised and bred on the high plateaus of Asia. Herding and breeding these rare goats is difficult work, which is why there are only 20,000 tons of haute cashmere being produced each year.

So what the Chinese are doing to meet our demand, according to Spilhaus, is often using cashmere of poorer quality from the coarse outer coat of the goat (called "guard hair"), or bits of scrap cashmere, the fibres of which tend to be thicker and shorter. Forget ply, Spilhaus says. That's only a question of weight. When it comes to quality in cashmere, it's all about the length of the fibres.

"Short fibres tend to ball up and pull apart, so you get a sweater with pills and holes," Spilhaus says. "Guard hair can be itchy. And cashmere that's loosely or cheaply woven, which is another way these manufacturers keep costs down, will stretch and lose its shape."

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Sumptuous feel aside, cashmere's luxury status derives in part from its reputation as an heirloom-quality fashion purchase that can be handed down through generations. Sadly, as those of us who have sprung for the cheap private-label "cashmere" that is now pilled and stretched can testify, the majority of the product on today's market is cashmere in name only.

Yet even its name can be misrepresented. According to Spilhaus, some of the "100 per cent cashmere" out there is actually a blend of cashmere and other wools, or made from wools that have never been anywhere near the Himalayas but have been chemically stripped of their coarser fibres to resemble cashmere. In an effort to put a halt to this fraudulent practice, CCMI goes out and buys up samples of impossibly cheap cashmere and tests them under a microscope.

In past years, they have busted the likes of Lord & Taylor and Land's End for offering blends that were virtually cashmere-free. But as our demand for cashmere at the price of cotton grows ever more insistent, the artful dodgers are so motivated that it's getting harder and harder to detect the real deal.

The glut of cheap cashmere is a tip-off that luxury goods for all is as well-intentioned yet impossible a concept as universal health care. It seems that the only thing that's getting hard for us to swallow here in the overindulged West is the now old-fashioned notion that you do actually get what you pay for.

Jim Coleman, a consultant with CCMI, may love cashmere so much that he's in the business. But in his words, "If all you've got to spend on a sweater is $79, go out and get a good one in lamb's wool." Otherwise, amazing deal or not, what you've got is something that's called cashmere that might as well be toilet paper.

kvonhahn@globeandmail.ca

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