Fiber Watch: Camel Hair For Sustainable Luxury From The Steppes

Textiles from camel hair are some of the finest, humanely harvested animal fibers in the world.   

Camels, those two-humped, desert animals that have played a hardy form of transportation in many historical adventures, also provide us with some of the most amazing fiber for fabrics. Today’s luxury apparel market vies for camel hair yarns and textiles, as the slow and humane process of obtaining the fiber makes it one of the scarcest in the world.

Camel hair is most often obtained from the two-humped Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) that originated from the steppes of Central and Eastern Asia, adapting to survival in the extremely cold climates of the Gobi Desert. One reason for the exclusivity of camel fiber is a small herd estimated to hit somewhere around the 1.4 million mark.

Harvesting camel hair is done by hand, and the best quality is said to come from the nomadic households of Mongolia and China’s Inner Mongolia. The fiber is also collected from camels in Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, New Zealand and Tibet but is considered inferior in quality and softness. Camel hair is also often blended with extravagant cashmere, obtained from the fine-haired cashmere goats, for a highly luxurious material sought after by high-end apparel manufactures and designers.

The inner down is the hair used for textiles, and is combed or shorn away during the 6-8 week long molting season every Spring. The hair readily falls off the camel and was typically harvested by “trailers” that were assigned to follow camels during molting season and collect the fallen hair along the trails. With humane values in mind, the humps on the camel backs are not shorn as they protect the animal through temperature regulation during the summer months. Adult camels produce only 10 to 20 lbs of fine inner fleece annually, varying in color from light brown to red, while the finest and softest white camel hair is obtained from baby camels.

Camel hair is graded according to the color and fineness of the fiber, with about 30% making up the finest, apparel grade raw fiber. Usually light tan in color, (explaining the term for shade we call “camel”) it is typically only blended with other fine quality fibers for an extremely supple material with excellent drape.  The material also takes well to dyeing, with common colors in navy blue, black or red showing up in the collections of designers. German label edelziege has some of the most beautiful and wearable camel wool creations that are often a blend of cashmere, camel and yak wool for an exquisite wearing experience.

The slightly coarser and longer second grade hair is typically blended with sheep’s wool and used for upholstery or apparel applications such as coats and slippers. Zakhs is a slipper label completely focused on supporting artisan cooperatives in the Asian Steppes, feeding proceeds back to the income, taxes and operating infrastructure of the cooperative unions.  The lowest grade fiber is a much darker brown, often used as a stiffener in tailored garments, or for carpeting and backing purposes.

Because of its natural temperature regulating properties, camel hair (sometimes also called camel wool) is the ideal material for any type of apparel application. There is a hollow space in the center of the fiber that acts as a vacuum, insulating cold or hot air depending on the temperature. The coarse fiber is also extremely waterproof, which is why the Mongolian herdsmen use it for coats and the outer layers of their yurts.

Although camel hair is costly, well-made camel hair apparel is definitely an intelligent investment. It is said to last a life-time, with no pillage or loss of shape because of the length of the fibers, double the warmth of other wool textiles, moisture managing properties, and even becomes softer with use.

A multi-purpose fiber? Doesn’t get much better.

Images: John Hill, J. Patrick Fisher, edelziege, Zakhs