Meet the new cashmere – wool from Himalayan yaks.
Yak down derives from the Himalayas of western China where these mountainous herd animals that belong to the cattle family dwell. Don’t be fooled by their shaggy appearance, as yaks have an extremely soft inner coat of hair that is comparable to cashmere in quality and luxurious texture, and can be spun into yarns and woven into fabrics for a high quality finish.
Read the latest installment of the Fiber Watch series to learn more about this wonderful wool!
Yaks live in the western Himalayan mountains in altitudes that reach over 10,000 feet, where their thick coats protect them from the harsh conditions and temperatures. Like cashmere, yak down can only be combed from the yaks once a year in the summer time. Yak hair is graded according to its texture – the rougher guard hair is used to make waterproof ropes and tents, while the soft inner hair is used for garments and blankets. Unlike cashmere, which is combed from the bellies of cashmere goats, the finest yak down is combed from the animals’ shoulders and neck. Yak herding communities also utilize their milk and use the animals for packing purposes in the rough Himalayan landscape.
Yak textiles and yarns have most recently been brought to our attention by U.S. based company and social enterprise SHOKAY who works directly with Tibetan communities to source the material and in turn offer community development and financial stability. SHOKAY, which means yak down in Tibetan, was founded by Carol Chyau and a team of Harvard students in 2006 when searching for a focus group for social enterprise. They found that local Tibetans of the western Himalayas have an annual income of $350, but their most valuable assets lie in the 30-40 yaks owned by each family. So the research team decided to help connect these communities with the larger global market.
The collaboration with yak herding communities in the Qinghai region has turned into a journey through the importance of tradition, hand crafting and animal health when it comes to the quality of a textile fiber. SHOKAY is committed to engaging in each step of the manufacturing process by knowing how the fibers are hand combed from the yak,how they are sorted and cleaned, spun into yarn and how they are woven or knit into finished items. The yarns and textiles made by the company are either 100 percent yak fiber, or blends that incorporate sheep’s wool, pima cotton or bamboo and turned into gorgeous shawls, mittens, hats, jewelry and throws.
SHOKAY partners with other brands and designers to offer these high quality yak fibers, yarns and textiles for use in their own collections, helping to ensure the opportunity of choice and global marketability for future yak herding communities. Traceability and social impact are at the forefront of SHOKAY’s, priorities which are passed on to other labels that use yak down sourced by SHOKAY. The company has even launched a Design Circle platform where pattern designers can share patterns, and knitters can find inspiration for knitting with yak down yarns. Check it out to find your next crafting project!
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