Did you know that there are 15 million yaks all over the world?
Over 90% of these live in the Tibetan Plateau or in the Himalayas, and they serve a vast array of purposes to the local community. Butter produced from their milk fuels the lamps illuminating Tibetan Monasteries, while their coarse tail hair is utilised in the creation of fake beards worn by actors in Chinese opera. Their bones are frequently used to create exquisite combs, buttons, ornaments, and various other beautiful homeware products. Their dried dung meanwhile, serves as a source of fuel across the treeless Tibetan Plateaus. But what makes these majestic creatures truly resilient?
In the winter, the yak has been known to survive through freezing cold temperatures of up to -40 degrees Celsius. They’re so acclimatised to these icy conditions that in the coldest of winters, they’ve been spotted bathing in lakes and rivers, despite the frozen temperature.
It was these traits and more that drew the eye of Julian Wilson and Aaron Pattillo, founders of British sweater brand, Khunu. Over many a cup of yak milk tea, the two entrepreneurs learnt of the Yak’s many uses, its resilience to the cold in particular. Although a fantastic fibre, it became clear to the ex-British army officer and his American associate that it was no longer used as much as it could be, with herders paying low prices for its unrivalled qualities.
With this in mind, the two began their journey of discovery into the world of the Yak, realising that it was warmer than wool, and more durable than other luxury materials on the market such as fine cashmere. In the years that followed, Khunu have noticed more and more firms at the premium end of the textile industry embrace the yak, allowing fair prices to be sustained for the material. Ever moving forward as a business, the handful of high quality manufacturing partners Khunu proudly work alongside across China, Italy, and Great Britain, learning more and more about their choice of material all the time.
Centuries of evolution has allowed the yak to survive the freezing cold winters of Tibet and the Himalayas, with qualities such as a warm coat featuring three types of fibre – guard hair, mid-layer and down.
Guard hair is the most visible hair on the animal, which leads people to believe their hair is extremely coarse – it’s often used to make ropes and tents, exceeding 50 microns. Although strong, it’s not recommended for wear due to its uncomfortable yarn and fabrics.
The mid-layer shares many of the qualities of the guard hair – its strength of between 25 and 50 microns means that it would be suitable to be spun into yarn, yet would still be uncomfortable to wear. However, it’s often utilised in the production of woven outerwear fabrics.
Last but by no means least, the down. This is the softest of all fibres, and is often finer than 20 microns in diameter. However, Khunu uses fibres of between 17.5 and 19 microns for maximum softness and warmth while offering the perfect balance of comfort and durability. It may be expensive to source, but this cost is invaluable given the down’s unrivaled warmth and comfort, so much so that it’s often confused for cashmere.
So what sets yak apart from the competition?
First and foremost, it doesn’t need saying that it’s warm – between 10 and 15% warmer than merino fabrics, to be as exact as possible. It’s also anti-microbial, fighting off small microbes living off sweat so it doesn’t smell – simply air it out and you’re good to go. Yak wool also doesn’t spark or stick to the body, meaning it’s much less static than a number of cashmere fibres available in today’s market. Yak wool is also surprisingly breathable, is luxuriously soft, and with its high levels of sulphur based proteins and amino acids, embodies superior strength.
In operating their business, Khunu believe in giving back to the communities from which they source their yak wool. To keep them thriving, Aaron and Julian invest two percent of their revenue back into the communities, which contribute to the success stories of Tibetan entrepreneurs, who aspire to make a positive difference within their community. These ventures are often directly linked to Khunu’s own path. A partnership established with a community in the remote province of Qinghai, China has seen an increase in jobs, new and extensive skills, while allowing yak herders to maintain their traditional trade.
In the closing weeks of October 2016, Khunu proudly announced their latest product, the Hemingway Sweater, which has been over a year in development and builds on the brand’s history working with yak fibre. The Hemingway Sweater was conceived with one goal in mind; to get one product absolutely right through every step of the process, from its early life as fibre through to yarn and finished product.
With yarn never offered as a stock thread, the whole process requires starting from scratch – on one hand, this adds a large amount of time to the piece’s development, but on the other, Khunu have the ability to create the exact garment they want, and it goes without saying that it’s completely unique to the British brand.
The Hemingway was the result of a collaboration with one of the best spinners in the business, one of the few who’s well versed in working with yak. To create the perfect yarn, a small percentage of long staple wool was added to fine yak down to create luxurious feel and warmth often found only in cashmere. Obvious features include a high neck, snug enough to keep out the cold without being intrusive, and wide ribbing at the hem. The wide hem’s aesthetic takes inspiration from old submariners and sailors of days past, while the functionality came as the result of advice taken from a nomadic Tibetan lady, experienced in the ways of the frost, who advised that tight fitting wool around the kidneys in sub-zero conditions was the key to keeping warm.
The Hemingway Sweater will be available in traditional shades of navy, black, and ‘hunter’ green.
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