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The exotic yak down
Alpana Shrestha | 04 January 2018

Today yak down is perhaps the most sought after natural animal based fibre for use in the textile and apparel industry. It comes from the innermost coat of yaks found at high altitudes of 3000 meters or above and living in extreme cold temperatures nearing -50ºC. Yaks are native to Asia and can be found in Mongolia in the east, the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayan regions of Nepal, Bhutan, northern India, Pakistan and even as far west as Afghanistan. According to FAO estimates, the world population of domesticated yaks number around 14.2 million, of which 13.3 million are in Chinese territories.

In Nepal suitable down and fibre for apparel and accessories is collected from about 38,000 yaks. At the forefront of involvement in this sector is Occupational Agriculture Co-operative Ltd. (Byabasaik Krisi Sahakari Sangstha). The organization, established in 2013, has yak fibre harvested in Mustang and Dolpa regions, semi-processed material collected and sent to Kathmandu for further processing. The overall goal of the cooperative is “to improve livelihoods of the rural poor in hills and mountains of Nepal by preserving the local culture and knowledge of rearing mountain goats and yaks through a pilot project in the Karnail zone.” This means sourcing yak wool/down from the remotest districts of Nepal, having it hand crafted and processed in the country to make premium products for the international markets. The finished products, viz. shawls, scarves and hand-knitted sweaters are mainly exported to Europe. With exhibitor participation in IFF Magic sourcing shows in Tokyo, yak fibre products from Nepal have also received positive responses from the Japanese market. Below are photos of yak wool, hand spinning and handloom weaving from Kamala Quality Pashmina in Kathmandu.  

Meanwhile, international brands like Kora, mYak, Shokay supply excellent yak down base and mid-layer apparel, interesting accessories such as mittens, hats and scarves or designer shawls and wraps to consumers all over the world.

The reason for increasing popularity of yak down products in the international luxury fashion apparel and accessories markets is mainly due to a unique set of fibre properties and production process which include:

Fineness and softness: Measuring only 16-20 microns in diameter yak down is lightweight and extremely soft, comparable in quality to animal fibres like cashmere and merino. The finished products not only feel more luxurious but are less scratchy on the skin.

Warmth: Due to the hollow structure of the fibre and pockets of air created between fibres, as well as the presence of a certain type of hydrophobic acid, yak down have excellent heat insulation qualities. It is said to be 10-40% warmer than merino wool.

Breathability: The comfort factor of woolen material, including those made of yak down comes from their ability to absorb moisture and releasing it into the surrounding environment. In general, wool can absorb over 30% of its weight of moisture, greater than cotton, which can absorb about 25%. This is far greater than polyester, which can absorb only 1% of moisture.    

Odor resistance: Yak fibre has natural anti-microbial properties. Hence contrary to what a lot of people believe, it does not have any unpleasant animal odor.

Eco-friendly and sustainable production practices: Yaks naturally feed on grass, not grains. They also naturally shed the soft down from their inner coats in spring, which means they need not be sheared like sheep for wool. The fibres are simply combed off the animals in remote communities at an appropriate time. Subsequently the yarn and fabrics are hand spun and hand woven in the city by skilled workers. Other fashion items are hand knitted. Genuine yak down products often come in natural colours, mostly in black or grey, some in brown and very little in white. There is almost no chemical dyeing or processing involved. In addition, such collection and production processes greatly support the socio-economic systems of local communities. This is more in tune with what many of today’s knowledgeable consumers demand.