A Nepalese mountain yak. Photo by Toomas Tartes
Of all the creatures who roam the freezing Tibetan Plateau, the goat is much better known to the fashion industry than the yak. Goat cashmere, a prize export from the Central Asian steppe since the 18th century, is well established as first a premium product, and now a mass-market product.
Recent increased demand for cheaper cashmere has pushed specialist goat farming in China and Mongolia (the two biggest global producers) towards rearing bigger herds and overgrazing grasslands, diminishing the quality of the resultant fiber. This drives down prices and intensifies economic pressure on farmers to expand their herds, entrenching a negative cycle of degradation.
More Sustainable Than Cashmere and More Artisanal Than Sheep’s Wool
Enter the brawnier, hunch-backed alternative: the yak.
The rarer yak has something valuable to offer: a downy undercoat fiber that is just as warm as cashmere, and far more sustainable to manufacture.
“Mongolia harvests nearly 10,000 tons of cashmere, but only about 100 tons of yak down every year,” explains Betina Infante, who co-founded Hangai Mountain Textiles with her husband Bill. The brand designs and sources high-end yak, cashmere, and camel blankets straight from Mongolia.
Though yaks are heavy beasts and can weigh up to 1,000 lbs, they are delicate eaters, Betina explains, meaning they do not uproot the natural steppe grasses. “A well-managed, diverse herd that includes yak will tend to be more sustainable.”
In terms of production, yak is generally small-scale and less reliant on fossil-fuel processes. The nomadic Mongolian herders who rear yak comb out the down by hand, and are also more likely to weave by hand, too.
The Infantes moved to Mongolia in 2006 to work for The Asia Foundation, an NGO focused on economic and social development, traveling extensively with their children to some of the remotest parts of the country. A decade later, the family returned to the US and settled in Basalt in the Roaring Fork Valley, where they kept warm on chilly evenings with Mongolian yak blankets. This warmth eventually germinated into a business idea.
By making a market for Mongolia’s “extraordinary textiles” the Infantes also aspired to “help preserve rural livelihoods. By focusing our efforts on yak down, we ultimately hoped to inspire more herders to raise yak and thereby encourage more sustainable herding practices.”
Warmer Than Cashmere
Like mountain goats, the bovine yak can survive on grass, mosses, and ice melt through earth’s most inhospitable winters, thanks to its thick, shaggy coat of ‘guard hair’ that grows to knee-level over a finer layer of ‘down hair’, insulating against the altitudes where it roams, typically higher on the mountain than the goat. Little surprise, then, that yaks provide some of the warmest natural fibers harvestable anywhere.
I own one item of yak fashion: a thick winter scarf gifted by a friend who went trekking in the Nepalese mountains. By some distance, it is the warmest accessory in my entire wardrobe. In terms of fashion’s warmth-to-cost ratios, it’s better value than a mountain-grade fleece or a Donegal wool jumper.
Longer Lasting Than Cashmere
I’ve found that yak does not require frequent detergent washes, and it can withstand inconsistent fabric care much more readily than cashmere. My scarf has also lasted for years without mottling or pilling.
Filippa K, the upscale staples brand based in Stockholm, has used yak since 2015. Jodi Everding, vice president of sustainability, says the brand’s customers “appreciate the longevity of our yak wool quality. It’s soft yet keeps its structure, it doesn’t pill, and it’s very warm while maintaining breathability.” This aligns, she says, with Filippa K’s mission of “mindful consumption: giving our customers the opportunity to wear and love their garments for a long time rather than buying new each season.”
Finer Than Sheeps’ Wool
“Yak down can be comparable to cashmere in terms of length and fineness. It is naturally hypoallergenic, and when well-processed, yields a superbly soft product,” Betina says. It’s naturally anti-bacterial, too.
Goat cashmere fibers are between 14.5 and 17 microns thick, whereas yak fiber is about 19 to 20 microns, a difference that can make yak feel thicker than cashmere traders’ ‘soft gold’, even though yak is the more breathable fabric.
If you struggle with the scratchiness of untreated sheep’s wool, yak compares well for softness, particularly when blended with wool or cashmere. (Sheeps’ wool varies in thickness. Merino, for example, can be as fine as 12-13 microns, but most breeds produce thicker fibers.) Yak is ideal for layering over other pieces without introducing a perspiration hazard.
Only Natural, Dark Colors
Yaks have darker coats than cashmere-producing goat breeds, and the deep brown or dark fawn fibers are more difficult to treat with artificial color dyes as a result. This means you’re more likely to find it in natural, deeper colors with flecks in the woven fabric, instead of the rainbow of sweaters available in cashmere.
Where to Buy It
Where cashmere is a commonplace luxury, available at fast-fashion prices, pure yak and yak-blended pieces are only just starting to trickle into the affordable mainstream. Raising awareness is part of Hangai’s business challenge. “Most customers have never heard of yak down,” Betina says. “Without touching yak down, many, particularly online shoppers, can be circumspect.”
To date, Hangai Mountain Textiles has focused growth on collaborations with US interior designers and boutique hotels, including Jeremiah Brent’s lifestyle store Atrio, WRJ Design and JanGeorge Interiors, all of whom have used HMT’s yak down throws in showcase and client projects. Goop selected Hangai’s fisherman’s knit yak down throw and other yak throws for their holiday catalog, Betina adds. “Slowly but surely we’re building awareness.”
Today, with a broad spectrum of brands from H&M’s Arket to Muji, The Row and Parisian boutique designer LouLou Studio starting to offer yak in their collections, you no longer need to be an explorer to wear it.
Everding, Filippa K’s vice president of sustainability, says, “We source yak hair from Tibet, and the breed of yak we use is called Bos Grunniens which are domestic. The yarn is spun in Italy where it’s blended with Responsible Wool Standard certified wool and recycled nylon, and the knitting takes place in Romania.”
For the cold, wet months of the year, pieces suitable for layering such as Toast’s loose knitwear, Norhla snoods and large wrap scarves are good yak buys, capable of withstanding more wear and tear than cashmere. Yak accessories are great for travel too, with British brand Tengri offering luxe options; they’re light enough to pack and fold down neatly.
Don’t buy yak clothing expecting the status semaphore of a cashmere jumper, however. In its pure form it doesn’t drape with quite the same ease as cashmere.
Yak wool is a quiet luxury with staying power. As the nights draw in and temperatures drop, my yak wool scarf has come back into circulation. And it’s just as dependable as it was when I first took off the gift wrap all those years ago. If only the same could be said for my tired-looking cashmere jumpers.