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The Critical Role Of Marco Polo In Cashmere History

If you want to find cashmere jumpers in London, it is not hard to locate quality products that you will look great in. 

These are, of course, just one of the many ways this kind of wool can be worn, from pashminas to hats, from scarves to skirts. And all this because the goat’s wool that produces this fine fibre on the high plateau of the steppes and the Himalayan foothills was to find its way to Europe over time.

Nowadays, we take it for granted that various styles of clothing and materials from across the world should have found their way to Europe in the days of empires, with the combination of novelty, quality and scarcity making cashmere one of those materials that could never fail to be fashionable.

However, cashmere did not really take off in a big way in European fashion until the 18th century. Yet it first came to the attention of Europeans in the 13th century thanks to the famous explorer Marco Polo.

Marco Polo was a Venetian trader and explorer who travelled extensively in the Far East between 1271 and 1295, spending 17 of those years in China. He also travelled through lands that are now Pakistan, Afghanistan and Mongolia, the last of which being where he learned about the use of cashmere wool.

What made Polo’s travels and discoveries so significant was that he did not just explore, but wrote extensively about what he had found, ensuring many more would follow in his footsteps, especially for mercantile reasons but also on a military and political level once the opportunities of empire and colonialism became evident.

Much of the trading opportunities included spices, a trade previously dominated by the Arabs, while silk was also an increasingly popular import. Cashmere was now a known entity, but it was still centuries away from becoming a big thing in the west.

Arguably, therefore, the real role Marco Polo played in the popularisation of cashmere was indirect; by widening the horizons of Europeans, he created awareness of a mass of possibilities. One of those was eventually to be the use of cashmere as one of the most sought-after fashion items.

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