Standing two and a quarter meters at the shoulder and weighing as much as a midsize car, the yak is the buffalo of the Mongolian steppe. Shaggy and extremely hardy, these giants can survive thousands of meters above sea level in the freezing, remote peaks of Tibet and Nepal; to cope with life high in the sky, their heart and lungs are bigger than those of other bovines.
For the Tibetan and Nepalese people, yaks are true beasts of burden, lugging plows and carrying loads high into the mountains. The locals also drink their milk, eat their meat, and use their dung for fuel. For those of us who frequent the luxury boutiques of the world, however, there is little to top a yak’s wool. It is one of the few exotic fibers that tempts shoppers who have grown weary of ubiquitous cashmere.
This year the British luxury brand Alfred Dunhill has introduced a small collection made of yak wool blended in equal parts with merino. The company is using not the animal’s coarse outer hair but fibers from the soft, downy undercoat that offers seasonal protection from the winter cold, and which the yaks shed in summer if it’s not “harvested.” The wool produces a fabric that is extremely warm and luxurious, as well as exotic. And it is the evocative qualities of yak, as much as the physical ones, that attracted Dunhill. “Yak is found throughout the Himalayas, the Tibetan Plateau, and as far north as Mongolia and Russia, and this fit in perfectly with our autumn/winter theme, which included the Trans-Siberian Express route,” says CEO Christopher Colfer.
Yak is not the only fiber giving cashmere a run for its wads of money this season. Partly that’s due to cashmere’s unpredictability. “There is cashmere, and there is cashmere,” says Elisabetta Canali, of the eponymous Italian suit maker. With an annual global production of around 12,000 metric tons, variation in quality is inevitable. Canali says that cashmere made from fibers that are too short or improperly finished is liable to pill and lose its shape.
In fact, some of the finer wools created by modern spinning and milling techniques are much more exclusive than cashmere. Cervelt, for instance, is made from red-deer fiber and offered by Neapolitan tailor Mariano Rubinacci. “It is a soft fabric but with body, similar to camel hair,” says Rubinacci. In addition, Canali has noticed increased interest in what she calls “precious” fibers, such as blends of cashmere with chinchilla or ermine. Another favorite to blend with cashmere is ultra-exclusive vicuña, which makes an appreciable difference to the handle of cashmere, even in relatively small proportions.
Loro Piana is among the luxury brands that has embraced vicuña. Over the last 20 years or so, it has been an important member of a consortium of fabric makers devoted to bringing the fabled vicuña back from the brink of extinction. This small creature, similar to a hornless gazelle, lives in the Andes 4,000 meters above sea level and yields the world’s most expensive fiber—four to six times as pricey as cashmere—light, warm, and super-soft. During Incan times, vicuña lived in abundance, but in recent years numbers dropped so low that the species was protected and trading in it made illegal. Recently that changed. “In the early 1990s, when we were first awarded the right to legally distribute sheared vicuña, the number of heads of animal was 5,000,” says Sergio Loro Piana. “Two years ago when we bought a 2,200-hectare reserve, there were 180,000 [in Peru].”
But Loro Piana has not been developing vicuña in lieu of further refining cashmere. The company has trademarked a variety known as baby cashmere, the ounce or so of soft, downy fiber produced when Mongolian goatherds first comb the hair from their young animals; Loro Piana says it is about 20 percent softer than his regular cashmere.
The shift toward lighter, softer fabrics is changing the precious-wool market. In addition to improved milling techniques and an increased appetite for novelty, changing lifestyles have wrought a dramatic transformation in the fabrics that high-end consumers are looking for. Increased travel and the proliferation of climate-controlled environments have led to an upsurge in “trans-seasonal fabrics,” says Anna Zegna, granddaughter of the founder Ermenegildo and image director of the 100-year-old fabric and apparel brand, prompting her firm to rethink its approach to cashmere. So in addition to working with vicuña and superfine wools, it is coming out with worsted cashmere fabrics in light, summer weights of 230 grams, “which is really nothing; close your eyes and you feel like you have a shirt in hand,” she says.
With cashmere getting ever lighter, more colorful, and more advanced; yak giving up their winter hair; and the fabled vicuña now coming back in numbers not seen since the Incas, what are the new frontiers of fabric? Loro Piana has a few ideas. He recently announced the discovery of a raw material that was both new to the textile industry and “natural and antique”: Burmese lotus-flower fiber. For Loro Piana this is the vicuña of plant-based fabrics—“simply unbelievable, a gigantic truffle and the last discovered jewel of the world in terms of textile fiber.”
Well, perhaps not quite the last. One species that continues to elude makers of luxury fabrics: the Tibetan antelope. This high-altitude animal yields the fiber that makes the shahtoosh, the ultraluxurious shawls that are so fine they can allegedly be passed through a wedding ring. But the species is endangered, so legal trade in this fiber is banned and no responsible brand is weaving it. The situation is further complicated because the animal’s habitat is in both Tibet and India, meaning that a vicuña-style arrangement would require the coordination of two governments. However, should some sort of solution be reached, it would be fascinating to see what could be done with a fiber that has a diameter of about 10 microns—four to five times thinner than a human hair.