Humankind’s fascination with the rare and beautiful is one that transcends time and culture. Since ancient times, people around the world have used fiber and skins from local animals to create garments and blankets rich with warmth and comfort. Then, when European explorers visited faraway lands, they returned home with treasures: luxurious fabrics and yarns were piled into chests along with jewels, butterfly specimens, and spices. As transportation improved and international trade increased, more and more unusual fibers became available in Europe and North America.
Fascination with exotic fibers persists today. Perhaps modern handknitters, like the early explorers, are drawn in by the mystique of the faraway and rare—not to mention the sumptuous knitting experience these fibers provide. A few luxury fibers like cashmere, silk, mohair, and alpaca, which are highly prized for their fine, rich feel and histories in distant lands—are commonly found on local yarn-shop shelves. Other fibers are seen less frequently, and some are downright rare. Their limited availability, unique qualities, and unlikely sources – camel, yak, musk ox, vicuña, and guanaco earn them the moniker exotic.
DOWN FIBERS PROVIDE WARMTH AND LUXURY
A seemingly unrelated assortment of animals—some of which you may never have heard about, and whose origins span the globe—share one common trait: all grow a double coat of hair to protect them from harsh conditions in their habitats. The outer coat of coarse guard hairs acts as a barrier to keep out debris and moisture. The undercoat, or down, insulates the animals from extreme heat and cold. Because down evolved as a protection against harsh environments, the fibers from many species living in different parts of the world have similar properties: they are lightweight, warm, soft, slightly crimped, and generally not lustrous. As yarns, these fibers are irresistibly soft, splendidly silky, and dreamy to work with—like knitting clouds or spinning warm air. Like cashmere, the yarns made from the down of two-coated animals are among the most luxurious available.
Mongolian herdsmen have used the camel’s long, thick winter fleece in yurts (tents) and coats for many centuries, today’s hand knitting world prizes the camel’s down. When spun into yarn, camel down rivals fine wool and cashmere in softness—and it’s readily available, typically in blends, from commercial yarn sources.
Both the one-humped dromedary (of the Middle East, northern India, and the Sahara Desert) and the two-humped Bactrian camel (found in northern China and Mongolia) produce down, but the double-humped Bactrian camel is, by far, the main source of fiber. Camel fiber is harvested in three different ways: by handcombing the animal, shearing it, or collecting the hair during the molting season, which begins in late spring. Camel fiber ranges in color from the typical reddish-brown to brown, gray, and even white. The fineness of the fiber varies from 15 to 24 microns in diameter (a micron equals 1/1000 of a meter); cashmere, in comparison, measures 14 to 19 microns—about a third the thickness of a human hair.
Yak fur, another fairly common fiber, has traditionally been woven into coverings for huts, blankets, mats, and sacks by people of Asia; today, it often appears in the United States in Santa Claus beards. For handknitters, the yak’s down spins up into a soft, lofty, slightly lustrous yarn that felts beautifully.
Members of the cattle family, and seemingly unlikely candidates for a fine fiber (20 to 22 microns), these huge, shaggy beasts exist in large domestic and small wild populations in Central Asia and India. The wild yak, once widespread on the Tibetan plateau north of the Himalayas, is endangered today, its range vastly reduced, and its numbers diminished to a few hundred. The fiber used in knitting yarns comes from domestic yak, which number about 12 million in the high plateaus and mountains of Central Asia.
Living above the snowline in harsh highlands, the yak has developed a thick coat of long hair that reaches almost to the ground. Most wild yaks have black or very dark brown hair, but domestic yaks may also be golden-colored and have white markings from crossbreeding with cattle. While yak yarn and fiber are available from several sources, garments made from yak fiber are not readily available through retail stores.
Qiviut, preferred over cashmere by certain knitters, and increasingly available in the United States, is the downy underhair of the arctic musk ox. Known as “oomingmak” (the bearded one) to the Alaskan Yupiit peoples, the musk ox lives in remote areas of Greenland, Alaska, and Canada, where it grows an underwool that is incredibly soft and fine (11 to 13 microns) and eight times warmer than sheep’s wool. This layer of qiviut protects the animals in -100°F weather; in fact, captive herds must be protected from overheating when temperatures rise to just 70°F.
Historically, the Inuit used not the down but the hide of the muskox for moccasins, trousers, bedding, and robes. In 1708, a French trader collected qiviut and made a pair of stockings “finer than silk.” Most European visitors to Alaska, however, favored robes made from musk ox skins, and by the 1860s, the musk ox was hunted almost to extinction there. In the twentieth century, several herds were reintroduced on Nunivak Island in Alaska; today, large wild populations still inhabit Canada, and domestic herds are being raised there as well.
Qiviut is combed and collected during the spring molt from a few domestic and wild herds. In Canada, most qiviut is harvested from wild animals taken in Inuit hunts. The natural color of the fiber is dark taupe; it can be dyed into other colors, but it must be bleached first. With each animal producing just five to seven pounds of qiviut every year, the fiber remains rare and expensive.
At the southern extreme of the Americas, a small, delicate creature provides fiber that has graced ancient Incan throne rooms, Paris runways, and the closets of Hollywood stars. Garments made from vicuna—a South American cousin of the camel, closely related to the alpaca, llama, and guanaco—have long been trademarks of the fashion elite.
Through adaptation to high altitudes, where drought and freezing nights are common, the dainty, cinnamon-colored vicuna has evolved a soft, fine down (10 to 14 microns)—a “golden fleece” treasured by the Inca. After the Spanish conquest in 1532, the number of vicuna declined dramatically through overhunting and competition for pasture with European livestock. In 1975, the vicuna was declared an endangered species, and all trade in its fiber was outlawed. Just last year, its status was raised to threatened, and the ban on importing vicuna fiber lifted. As a result, vicuna yarn is once again available in the United States, but still extremely difficult to find.
In the time of the Incas, vicuna fiber was collected in a chacu, a festival in which wild vicunas were corralled, sheared, and released. Today, Andean people are renewing this ancient tradition.
Featured in finely woven shawls, fine suits, and $11,000 overcoats, guanaco is a coveted fiber favorite of the fashion-conscious, prized for its warmth (it’s three times warmer than wool); its silky, smooth hand (14 to 18 microns); and its pale, honey-beige color. A larger cousin of the vicuna, the guanaco is South America’s largest land mammal.
As with the vicuna, the Incas treasured the down of the guanaco. Unfortunately, the guanaco also shared the vicunas’ fate: As a result of hunting and habitat encroachment, guanaco populations dropped from nearly 35 million in the 1500s to a few hundred thousand by the 1970s. During recent decades, conservation organizations have achieved protection for the species; still, many wild herds fall victim to poachers who find it easier to collect the down by killing the animals than by capturing them. Guanaco fiber, too, has only recently become available in the United States.
Currently, three ranches in the United Kingdom and South America raise guanacos for commercial fiber processing. At the Chacay ranch in Argentina, ranchers capture a limited number of chulengos (young guanacos) from the wild and raise them in semicaptivity. Workers round up the animals for shearing during the spring, which allows their slow-growing coat to renew itself over the summer. In Britain, guanacos are housed in barns to protect them from the wet and chilly weather.
SELECTING YARNS FROM EXOTIC SOURCES
Several criteria determine the quality of down fibers and yams, including fiber diameter, average fiber length, and coarse hair content. Just because a fiber has a very small micron count does not mean that the yams made from it are the softest or the best available.
To make sure you have a wonderful experience using these pricey yarns and end up with a garment you will treasure, take the time to select your yarns carefully. The following criteria apply to all down yarns:
• Consider handspun as well as mill-spun yarns. Handspun yarns sometimes retain more of the fiber’s character, and some exotic fibers are available only in handspun form.
• Feel the yarn to make sure you like it. Some yarns contain a lower percentage of guard hairs than others; hence, they are softer.
• While these softer, “purer” down yarns are scrumptious, they are also more expensive than slightly coarser ones. Weigh softness against price when you are choosing yarn.
• Consider the amount of twist in the yarn you’re drawn to. While the short, fine nature of the fibers in these yarns makes them rather prone to pilling, yarns that are softly or loosely spun pill more.
• Buy one skein for swatching first.