Frances Austen's cashmere sweaters are built to last a lifetime

Frances Austen sweaters
© Frances Austen

Longevity is precisely what we should be looking for in clothing, even if it means an upfront investment.

When Margaret Coblentz left the fast fashion industry in 2016, she was totally burnt out. She didn't know what to do next, but she was sure of one thing – there was no way she'd go back to working for any corporate retailer. It was time for a new path.

That's how the Frances Austen brand was born, based in San Francisco. This collection of conscious cashmere sweaters is the antithesis of Coblentz's former world – an impressive effort to use top-notch natural fabrics to create a product that will last a lifetime.

The sweaters are made from Mongolian cashmere (where nearly all cashmere comes from) and spun in Italy by renowned cashmere producer Cariaggi, which holds ISO 14001 certifications for wool sustainability and is a founding member of CCMI, a group that stands for accountability and sustainability in the production of cashmere clothing. From there, the fabric goes to Scotland and is sewn into garments by Johnstons of Elgin.

Margaret Coblentz© Frances Austen (used with permission) – Brand founder Margaret Coblentz

As you can imagine, having such a supply chain does not make these pieces cheap. They range from $395 for the Reversible V sweater to $595 for a mid-thigh-length cardigan. TreeHugger's obvious question for Coblentz was how she justifies such a high price point – specifically, why would a customer choose a Frances Austen sweater over, say, a $100 cashmere top? It turns out, not all cashmere is created equally.

"Frances Austen’s yarn has more 16 micron hairs (longer is better) than most other cashmere yarn, and certainly far more than what would be used to produce a $100 sweater. The higher the yarn quality, the softer the finished product. You also consider the weight of the knit. Brands literally buy cashmere by the pound, so a heavier or larger sweater with more yarn consumption will cost more than something knitted in a lighter weight. Companies typically have to go light to hit a super sharp price."

Frances Austen sweaters 2© Frances Austen

Are shoppers willing to fork out that much money for a sweater? The short answer is yes, but Coblentz adds some interesting observations.

"We have all been fed a lot of products throughout our lives that we know we are paying far beyond the true cost for, but this isn’t the case with our clothing. This is a product that does not take any shortcuts in terms of the environment or labor and consumers respect that. When you produce a truly high quality product and there is a clear reason to charge a certain price for the item, the consumer understands."

Curiously, the word 'sustainable' never appears on the Frances Austen website. This is due to Coblentz's frustration with its vagueness. ("What does it actually mean?" she told me.) Instead, she prefers to be specific about the practices and certifications to which the brand is committed, one of which is 100 percent biodegradability. While this is not commonly referenced in the fashion world, it's something I suspect will become a hotter topic as awareness of microplastic pollution spreads.

Frances Austen's tagline is "We makes clothes with forever in mind," which I respect greatly. If we want to improve our fashion habits, then we must wear things over and over again – and the longer we do that, the smaller an item's overall footprint and its price-per-wear. So, the more durable (and beautiful) an item is, the better the investment. The same logic applies to labor conditions. If we want to know that our clothing was not made under slavelike conditions, we must be willing to pay more for it, which works out over time if we can wear the piece for many years.

Not everyone can afford a Frances Austen sweater, but it's a worthwhile exercise to ask oneself how many $25 sweaters have been purchased in the past 10 years or longer, and whether those could have been replaced by a single one of these.

Frances Austen's cashmere sweaters are built to last a lifetime
Longevity is precisely what we should be looking for in clothing, even if it means an upfront investment.

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