The Fibre Exchange: Yak Wool

This post is the third in a series on the properties of different types of natural fibres used in knitting. You can find the post on merino wool here, and a short snippet on possum fibre here.

After my recent trip to Nepal, I found it fitting to focus on the properties of yak wool, due to its huge popularity in that area. On our 15 day trek through the Annapurna Circuit, we passed through many fields of grazing yaks (although I’m told that Everest Base Camp, due to its remoteness and lack of roads, has even more yaks than the Annapurna).

Before we get into the nitty gritty of the properties of yak wool, let’s go through some basics.

Where do yaks come from?

Domesticated yaks originate from the Tibetan Plateau thousands of years ago. They were (and still are) primarily used for their milk, fibre and meat, as well as for trekking expeditions and to haul supplies through the treacherous footpaths of the Himalayas. They thrive at higher altitudes in colder temperatures, and are said to begin to suffer from heat exhaustion at as low as 15 degrees Celsius! There is a growing awareness and appreciation of this hardy species in the developed world, and there are estimates of at least 7,500 domesticated yaks being raised in North America today.

And out of that 7,500, 750 in Canada! I can definitely see the Canadian Rockies as being a perfect environment for breeding hardy yaks. Do I see a yak ranching career in my future? 😉

How does yak wool compare to other fibres, such as merino and cashmere?

When researching the properties of yak wool, I found many comparisons with merino wool and cashmere. Feeling a bit curious, I checked out Google Trends to see how the three fibres stack up next to each other in the popularity scale.

Here’s what I found:

Side note: The spikes represent the ‘seasonal interest’ of the product, aligning with the northern part of the hemisphere’s winter months.

When look at over the last 10 years, the number of people searching for yak wool appears negligible compared to those searching for merino wool, and even more so compared to cashmere. Even so, I have a hunch that the popularity of yak wool is going to explode in the coming years, due to its impressive properties.

Did you know? Yak hair was actually used to make wigs for the dwarves in the Hobbit movies!

What kind of fibre does yak wool produce?

Yak fibre is generally categorized into two main types:

  • Down (<30 microns*): Down fiber is the one we normally associate with yaks when we purchase luxurious yak wool such as this one. It’s softness is comparable to cashmere. Both the down and mid-type fibers begin to shed as the weather warms in spring and early summer. Because of it’s valuable properties, most of the down collected is exported to international markets.
  • Coarse (>30 microns): Coarse fiber is extremely strong, and is generally used by nomadic populations in Tibetan plateau for weaving tents, rugs, bags and slings. While in Nepal, I also found the coarse wool to be used extensively to knit hats and mittens and lined with fleece, before being sold in touristy areas.

*Note: A micron is one millionth of a metre! For comparison, a single human hair is about 75 microns in diameter.

And where do baby yaks fall into all of this? Well, baby yaks have a much higher percentage of down compared to their adult counterparts, which is why it’s so common to find mounds of shawls throughout Nepal supposedly made of “100% baby yak”. But more on that later.

How many kilograms of wool does a yak produce each year?

The kilograms of wool produced by a yak each year varies widely depending on many factors (breed, age, sex, harvesting method, season). To give you an idea, some yaks can produce as much as 25 kg of fiber per year (of which 50% is down), compared to just 1 kg for other breeds.

Example of a yak seen along the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal
Example of a yak seen along the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal

 Did you know? Despite the highly recognized value of the yak fiber from the international community, herders in the Himalayas of Nepal receive relatively less income from the down fiber as compared to yak meat and milk.

Searching for yak wool in Nepal

Previously, I had written two posts about my search to find yak wool while roaming through the streets of Nepal (here and here). Besides wool, almost every second store in the backpacker district of Thamel also proclaims to sell multiple scarves and shawls of “baby yak” for ridiculously cheap prices. I decided to take advantage of this mega deal and bought several, for the equivalent of only about $3 USD! It was too good a deal to pass up.

But was it truly 100% baby yak wool?

The answer is, probably not. While doing some research for this very blog post, I stumbled upon this article. Unbeknownst to me at the time, there exists a very soft acrylic which goes by the name of cashmilon, which is unfortunately often relabeled and sold as “100% baby yak” to tourists. You have been warned!

Up and coming

Although yak wool has been flying relatively ‘under the radar’ for the last few decades, slowly companies are realizing its potential. Among these is the newly formed, Peak to Plateau, which is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to fund their soon to be released yak wool outdoor activewear.

Another outdoor activewear specializing in yak fiber is Kora, a company that is working hard to prove the superiority of yak wool over the more commonly seen merino wool in baselayers.

Image credit: Kora

Kora’s studies claim that compared to merino, yak wool is:

  • 40% warmer than merino
  • 66% more breathable;
  • 17% better at transporting water vapour away from the skin.

Although we’ve seen that the breeds of yak (and as such, properties of yak fibre) can vary widely, these numbers still highlight the enormous potential for further developing the yak fibre industry, still in its infancy compared to the better known fibres of merino and cashmere.

Next challenge on my list will be finding the right type of yak wool to knit my next sweater! Have you ever knit anything using yak wool? Share your stories in the comments below!