In this post we take a look at the unparalleled down fiber that yak naturally shed each spring. Yak wool, AKA “khullu” is not only a cashmere alternative because it’s similarly soft and comfy to wear...
Khullu is also considered an alternative because it’s more sustainable, breathable, durable, and warmer than cashmere. To understand why khullu is the world's best alternative to cashmere, we need to investigate where the materials come from…
Where is cashmere found?
Cashmere is luxurious, soft, and the fibers contain all the many amazing properties of wool. Some consider their quality cashmere garments to be heirlooms or timeless staples in their closet.
However, cashmere, once a luxury, is now everywhere: from fast fashion brands to premium luxury labels. What’s not so far-reaching, however, is the knowledge of the supply chain behind cashmere.
Cashmere fiber comes from goats that provide a small amount of usable fiber each year… It takes up to 3 goats to produce a sweater and 6 produce a jacket.
Due to the global rising demand, fiber from cashmere goats has continued to be more lucrative than other wools, which has resulted in a shocking increase in the number of cashmere goats herded throughout China and Mongolia.
With cashmere garments selling for anywhere between $30 to >$1,000, and with herd numbers growing by nearly 5 million a year, the real “scarce” resource isn’t goats or their wool, but instead, it’s grasslands for grazing.
Overgrazing of cashmere goats is responsible for transforming 70% of Mongolia's grasslands into deserts.
Cashmere goats are cute, but bad for the environment
When we first started working on Oliver Charles, we built a massive curation of articles, scientific journals, and passages all around materials.
We were set on making our sweaters out of soft, long-lasting, high-performing natural fibers from animals or plants that are gentle on the earth.
Cashmere was a top contender, but after learning about it’s negative impact on the environment, we decided to search for an alternative… here’s a small window into the furry friend that inspired the creation of our crew neck sweater.
Drum roll 🥁… Ranging from 3 to 5 feet at the shoulder, 7 feet tall and upwards of 2000 pounds, the mighty yak is a large bovine with a tan to grayish brown fur coat. Its long oxlike face has bands of contrasting color, and although it can be shaggy, its hair is not as wooly as that of sheep. One long pair of horns grows atop its head, curving forward and downward.
Where is yak wool found?
Yaks live high up in mountainous regions of Central Asia. They have a long history dating back to the Pleistocene period, which means that yak shared the land with woolly mammoth, giant sloths, and short-faced bear! Over the last 10,000 years, the vast population of wild yak have turned domesticated.
Though domesticated, yak still roam semi-wild with nomadic herders throughout the high passes of the Himalayas, the Tibetan Plateau, and the interior of Mongolia. There is even a growing population of domesticated yak in the United States… like A Yak Or 2 Ranch!
Are yak sustainable for the ecosystem?
Yak play a key ecological role within the regions they inhabit. Besides recycling nutrients through their gentile manner of grazing and fertilizing dung, yak also are central to human life. Yak have partnered with nomadic herders for centuries.
Yaks live at the highest altitude of any mammal, and to survive, they’ve evolved to have 3 times the lung capacity and a greater number of oxygen rich red blood cells than their cattle cousin.
How high in elevation do yak live?
Yak can live between 10 and 15 thousand feet above sea level.
Because yak can thrive at high elevations, they are essential for humans who’ve maintained a lifestyle in the mountains.
Not only can yak help plow fields or carry essential supplies to remote communities, but they also shed both strong, coarse guard fibers and soft insulating down fibers in the spring.
Our focus is on down fibers AKA “khullu” to make our crew neck sweaters. However, guard fibers are equally important because they provide a durable material that can be woven into rope and canvas shelter.
Is yak wool softer than cashmere?
One of the most important factors that affects the way wool feels is the fiber fineness. While a human hair has an average diameter of 75 microns (µm), the yak wool we use in our sweaters is ultra-fine at 17.5µm.
Wools that are generally considered "soft" have a fineness <20µm. Fibers considered for use in cashmere clothing fall somewhere in the range of 14-19µm... so it depends, but generally, khullu is as soft as cashmere.
What's softer than cashmere?
The softest (and also rarest) wools in the world can even get as low as 11μm in the case of Vicuña. Similarly Qiviut fiber from a muskox is considered softer than cashmere coming in as fine as 13μm.
Is yak wool warm and breathable?
As the highest-dwelling mammals in the world, yak live through a considerable range of temperatures. Their ability to both survive in -40° F winters and thrive in 90° F summers is highly dependent on the evolutionary abilities of their luxurious khullu fiber.
Over the centuries, yak have developed enhanced lung and red blood cell capacity. They’ve also developed crimps in their fibers.
Crimps are natural "waves" in yak wool that trap air. These dynamic air pockets insulate yak in extreme colds and wick vapor, cooling in extreme heat.
The thermoregulating properties of their fiber is important because yak have few sweat glands...
This means that their wool has to do a lot of the heavy lifting in keeping their body temperature at a comfortable equilibrium... Khullu allows for even lightweight sweaters to be surprisingly warm.
Is yak wool durable?
The crimps in yak wool are akin to a molecular coil spring. The fibers naturally expand and contract according to their environment. The crimps allow yak wool fibers to be stretched up to 50% of their length when wet / 30% when dry and still bounce back to their original shape when stress is released.
The flexibility gained from wool crimps makes yak wool fiber more durable. For instance, yak wool can be bent back on itself more than 30,000 times without breaking, compared to about 3,000 times for cotton and 2,000 times for silk (American Wool)
Because yak wool clothing is warm, breathable, and durable, it’s often considered the best materials for sweaters.
Is yak wool odor resistant?
Yak wool is antimicrobial, which starts with the materials wicking properties. Wool has a number of unique moisture management properties that allow it to resist bacterial build up - the leading cause of odor.
Sweaters made from odor resistant natural fibers are ideal for daily wear and starting a minimalist or capsule wardrobe.
Is yak wool warmer than cashmere?
Khullu is some of the highest performing wool… we go as far as saying it’s the world's best wool. This is largely due to the evolution of the fibers that help yak survive dark cold winters and sunny hot summers. The more intense the environment of the wooly mammal, the more versatile and high performing the fibers will be.
Yak live at elevations of up to 15-20,000 ft while cashmere goats live at elevations of up to 10-15,000 ft. The environments yak roam are colder and more rugged than their goat peer, so it’s likely that the fiber is warmer.
What we do know from research is that yak wool is 30% warmer than sheep wool and nearly 2x more breathable than cashmere.
PROPERTIES OF KHULLU VS CASHMERE
🏆 = Winner
🥈 = 2nd place
Compared to yak, why is cashmere so bad for the environment?
To answer this question, we need to look at the grazing impact of yak and cashmere goats. Cashmere goats have sharp hooves which cause them to trample grasslands and long tongues, which allow them to rip plants from their roots when snacking.
Consider the amount of cashmere that a single goat can shed each spring. Earlier we pointed out that it can take up to 6 goats to produce 1 jacket.
Due to their relatively low wool yield, for herders to collect competitive volumes, they need to have many goats, usually grazing within a small area.
Overgrazing stresses the natural ecological role goats play in the region, and as a result, 90% of Mongolia is currently at risk of turning to barren desert (already linked to a 4° F rise in regional temperature).
The degradation of grasslands immediately impacts more than half of the population of Mongolia who rely on and have deep ties to the land. Indirectly, the effect of overgrazing on climate change will create significant long term consequences globally (dust storms, temperature increased, drought, etc.)
Is yak wool more sustainable than cashmere?
For every 5 cashmere goats, there is 1 yak, and unlike cashmere goats, yak are gentle grazing animals. Yak have footsteps soft as their khullu and short tongues.
Yak live nomadically throughout the mountains grazing by only removing the top of plants instead of their whole root. Gentle grazing, nomadic lifestyle, and ecological contribution make yak a sustainable alternative to cashmere.
SUSTAINABILITY OF Khullu vs. cashmere
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the best cashmere alternative
Many materials used in the fashion industry have gained a mixed reputation over the last decade. It’s true that synthetic plastic fibers are the worst polluters. It’s also true that plant fibers like cotton are mass consumers of both land and water resources - also commonly requiring chemical pesticides to grow. And as you read above, it’s true that cashmere goats are over-herded to meet a fast fashion level of demand and overgraze.
However, unlike synthetics, plant and wool-based materials aren’t inherently bad. In both categories there are sustainable alternatives. For example, when looking at plant materials, Tencel is far more sustainable than Viscose and Modal. When looking at wool, khullu is a sustainable alternative to cashmere.
When looking at the materials in the clothes you order and wear, consider where they come from, how they material is produced, the impact of the materials on the Earth, and what is currently being done to allow the global demand for a material to exist without compromising sustainability.
In the case of yak wool, organizations are working with herders to scale their herds in a healthy manner.
Yak wool is soft like cashmere, easy to care for unlike cashmere, plus it’s far more sustainable.Read more