All Photos: Khunu.
The other day we mentioned outdoor clothing company Icebreaker. They started out as a small New Zealand company, but almost single-handedly created the burgeoning international market for fine merino wool sports clothing. Might Khunu achieve the same success with their collection of Himalayan yak wool garments for active use?
Based in Beijing, China, but run by American Aaron Pattillo, an ex-Clinton Foundation staffer and Julian Wilson, former British Army officer, this fledgling business recently picked up some headlines for sponsoring Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, (aka "Snow Leopard") Ghana's first skier to compete in the Winter Olympics. They kitted him out with pieces from their modest line of yak fibre men's tops. A product they feel has several distinct performance and environmental advantages over even merino wool.
Benefits for Wearer
For those wearing Khunu get a product that independent laboratory test apparently indicate is up to 15% warmer than merino wool. Another bonus is said to be it's softness, which the guys at Khunu suggest can be likened to cashmere. And like merino, while it readily absorbs and releases moisture (ie, 'breathes'), yak wool does not retain body odour. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports that in some tests Yak wool is considered stronger than sheep wool, (though this is is not a point Khunu are pushing themselves).
The brown used in the Khunu garments is the most common of Yak wool's natural colours, so no dyes are employed to achieve this colouring. (Yaks do also have natural hues of white, grey, and taupe, so maybe we'll see other non-dyed colourways become available sometime down the track). Yak wool hair has a different scale structure, such that it feels smooth and non-prickly. Plus it is possible to get Yak wool down to about 18 micron which is equal to some of the finest merino wool.
Not that Khunu are anti merino wool. Indeed they use it for the stretchy ribbed side panels of their lightest weight top, the Chimera.
Benefits for Yaks
For the Yak itself, it can avoid the indignity of being shorn like sheep, a process that can often rile animal rights activists. For in the Spring Yaks shed their heavy winter coat, allowing the hair to be simply combed off the animal. Yaks have been domesticated over thousands of years by mountain peoples, but the FAO note that currently income derived from yaks is mostly for milk and meat. But expanding a market for yak wool potentially changes that dynamic and the prospects for individual yaks. Yaks bred for their downy wool can yield up to 25kg (55lbs). And the same research suggests that yields increases with the maturity of the animal.
Benefits for Himalayan People
One of the reasons Khunu came into being was a vehicle to provide more than a subsistence living for the nomadic people of the Tibetan Plateau and Mongolian steppes, where yaks also live. They are fairly paid for hand combing the yak wool. Additionally Khunu donates 2% of their sales directly back into these communities. Funds that will provde education for children, vegetables in the wintertime or medicines for the elderly. "We're working with local community leaders and NGO partners to leverage these contributions for the greatest benefit," say Khunu.
Read more about the company, which only started up in 2009 (and who took their name from an ancient Mongolian dynasty and river) in an recent article in the Financial Times, or the ::Khunu website and online store.
NB: Some updates made to text on 3 March 2010