Know Your Yarn: Yak

Lineup of Tibetan Yaks

Photo © Enrico Dell'Angelo of mYak

I'm always curious about the story behind things. When I set out to investigate the yak yarn currently gracing our shelves, one of the first things I learned was how much the people around me enjoy the word "yak." My coworker Summer was really hoping I'd name this post "Yakkin' About Yaks" (Cait suggested "Just Yakkin'"), and I can't tell you how many times I've read or heard the words "yakety yak" in the past two weeks.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that in the animals' native Tibet, words for them have very different associations. Nor (ནོར་), a Tibetan word for "wealth," can also be understood to mean "yaks." Living in a condo in Portland, I certainly value products like ice cream and sturdy leather boots, but it took some reading before I began to grasp how riches could be truly equated with shaggy bovines.

Yaks hail from the Tibetan Plateau, just north of the Himalayas. This high-elevation region, which covers more land than the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California combined, is prone to bitter cold, drought, heavy winds and intense solar radiation. Overhunting has made the area even more perilous for wild yaks, but they do still live here. By all accounts, they are majestic creatures, standing up to 6 feet tall and 10 feet long, with proud curving horns and flowing black coats and tails. Their domestic neighbors—having lived among humans for at least 4,000 years—are a bit less imposing and vary more in color, but they are still extremely sturdy animals. Their thick coats provide crucial defense against the harsh climate. Descriptions of a yak's coat read like tags on technical apparel, with multiple protective layers each playing a role. The coarse, slick outer coat can stay on year-round, repelling moisture and ultraviolet rays, while an exceptionally fine, crimped undercoat of down provides insulation in winter. A midrange layer fills in the gaps and—like the outer coat—includes some fibers with insulating hollow cores. The coat's typically dark color absorbs precious warmth—light-colored domestic yaks grow extra-thick coats, quite possibly in compensation.

Tibetan yak and calf

 Photo © Jamin “Lobsang” York of thelandofsnows.com

Yaks are so exquisitely adapted to high-elevation life that they tend to languish in environments we'd consider more comfortable. At home on the plateau, they've managed not only to subsist but to support an entire culture of people. Though the nomads of Tibet also raise sheep, goats and horses, it is the yak that has made their way of life possible. As the American bison (a cousin of the yak) was to Plains Indians here in North America, the yak has been to nomads in Tibet. Nomads traditionally live in tents woven from rugged yak hair and tethered with yak-hair ropes. They weave softer parts of the coat into warm blankets and clothing. They carve yak bone into small implements. Nourishment comes from rich, sweet yak milk and products—like butter—derived from it. Yak meat and even yak hooves provide valuable protein. Yaks can be ridden—even raced—and they can carry heavy burdens. Their butter can be burned for light. Even their dried dung can be burned for heat (the Tibetan plateau, after all, is generally above the treeline).

A sidenote: It seems that many Americans are under the impression that yaks are unusually smelly! While travelers to Tibet often comment on the pungent and pervasive smell of yak dairy products fermenting or burning, people who work with yaks characterize them as having less of an odor than ordinary cows. Even their dung (I promise to stop talking about dung soon) is said to be surprisingly inoffensive. Perhaps there's been some confusion between yaks and muskoxen, whose scent is potent enough to be included in their name? It's my best guess.

You don't need to live in Tibet (or burn dung) to benefit from yaks. It's not that yak products are newly available in other parts of the world. Long, lustrous yak tail hair was once prized for fly-whisks in the Roman Empire and for Santa beards in this country. Recently, however, there has been renewed interest in the yak's downy undercoat, which can be combed from down-covered babies or from the bellies of mature yaks just before it would be naturally shed for the summer. Today, buying yak wool can make you feel warm and fuzzy in more ways than one. Modern processing produces more uniformly fine fiber, and companies like mYak strive to ensure the fiber they market is serving the people and animals it comes from. Although yak fiber can vary widely, the finest down rivals cashmere in softness while remaining uncommonly strong. It is, of course, exceptionally warm, yet breathable. It tends to be more lofty and bouncy—while being less slippery and prone to shedding—when compared with other warm fibers like alpaca. In a blend like Sublime Yak, yak wool can add plush softness, strength and delightful depth of color.

Tibetan boy holding baby yak

Photo © Paola Vanzo of mYak

Because Tibetan nomads rely on yaks in so many ways, much of the expert knowledge they have passed down for generations pertains to yaks. I don't want to over-romanticize a way of life that must have many challenges. Still, I can't help but admire efforts to preserve time-tested, extremely resourceful nomadic traditions, especially in the face of pressure from the Chinese government to settle down and change. I think knitters, with their inherent appreciation for both traditional knowledge and fine fiber, stand in a unique position to help these tenacious communities endure, along with the extraordinary animals they raise. Having convinced myself to purchase some mYak Worsted in Desert last weekend (I hope to make a version of Birch Bay), I can tell you from experience that it happens to be a very enjoyable cause to support.

Sources: The Yak, 2nd Edition, The Fleece & Fiber SourcebookThe World of Tibetan NomadsTibet's Irreplaceable Yak: A Beast of Burden and More

October 30, 2015 by Keli Hansen
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