Ethical fibre choices make ALL the difference
Did you know that our love of Cashmere is creating huge environmental problems in Asia, which is in turn negatively affecting the global climate? Our desire for soft and softer has stripped the land bare creating huge sandstorms and leaving animals starved and the resulting fleece coarse and very unlike the idea of luxury we associate with this fibre. This has lead to the value of Cashmere falling and farmers taking over yet more vital grazing land for larger herds to keep up…striping more land bare. It is a vicious cycle.
My Beyul blend is my response to this problem – a yarn with many of the same luxurious properties as Cashmere but none of the nasty consequences.
Clockwise from top left: Shrub, Black Quartz, Yurt, Bronze, Steppe, Sacred Saffron, Monk’s Robe, Sangre, Balsam, Electric Amaranth, Orchid, Temple, Delft (new), Turquoise Tarn, Iceberg.
I wrote the post below some time ago when I first released Beyul but hesitated to press send on it for fear of impacting other companies who continue to use Cashmere. In hindsight I feel it is a bit wimpy of me not to take a public stand on the issue and Slow Fashion October has inspired me to join the conversation.
This week’s topic is KNOWN ORIGIN. This topic has become more and more important to me as a small business owner as I’ve learned about how yarn is farmed and produced. Over the last 3 years I’ve managed to move into getting my own, locally sourced yarns developed and spun so that I can be even more sure of the origin of my blends and cut down on the huge carbon footprint most yarns have as they get shipped back and forth across the world for various processing.
My choice in starting to use the Beyul yak/silk/merino blend was influenced by the research below and before I could afford to get my own local blends spun. It is spun in Peru by the mill that suports the Mirasol project charity, uses ethically farmed Peruvian Merino (the herds aren’t mulesed and much, much smaller that typically massive antipodean herds of 1000+ animals), baby Yak down and silk. The silk in this blend is the one aspect that is not entirely to my pleasing as it is sourced in China and therefore not as ethical as I’d like but a compromise had to be made as this was the only option for the blend.
The Yak down is where the magic happens. In huge contrast to Cashmere goats, Yaks have a minimal impact on sparse grassland and every single facet of the animal is used for survival by the people’s farming them, making the animal and their fleece extremely environmental.
A single Yak produces a mere 100g of down a year…one average skein of fingering weight yarn, making it a rare and precious fibre. Hand-combed or plucked, this short fibre sits between the most luxurious fine Cashmere and softest baby Camel in micron thickness and has a similar butter-soft handle and gloriously gentle halo… however – it has the added benefit of pilling less than either fibre.
Yak is durable, breathable, lightweight and its incredible thermal properties keeps you cool in summer and warm in winter. In addition it takes colour beautifully and this blend is a yarn dyer’s dream!
My recent research into Yak fibre for BEYUL has me thinking more deeply about the fibres I use in my yarn blends and the impact my choices can have on the environment. While I have always believed in using natural fibres that are ethically produced and help to support local economies, the implications of how the production of the fibre impacts the biodiversity of the landscape itself hadn’t really crossed my mind until I started reading about yaks and the stark environments in which they are reared. Thinking about how precious the natural resources are in this area, how rare simple things we take for granted are at these altitudes (like vegetation) made me realise how amazing it is that these huge beasts have a light environmental footprint.
Then a few weeks ago I came across this article by Jenni Avins on cashmere production in the same area, the Himalayan plateau, and starting seriously thinking about the luxury-driven obsession with this fibre and the huge cost this is having on the environment in Central Asia, where the overgrazing by these unnaturally large goat herds is causing desertification that is affecting climate worldwide.
From an article in the Chicago Tribune:
“The country’s enormous herds of cashmere-producing goats have slashed the price of sweaters. But they also have helped graze Chinese grasslands down to a moonscape, unleashing some of the worst dust storms on record. This in turn fuels a plume of pollution heavy enough to reach the skies over North America. ” (my emphasis)
image source Fashionbi
With 90% of the world’s cashmere coming from China and Mongolia a study supported by the Snow Leopard Trust, Trust for Mutual Understanding, National Geographic Society, Whitley Fund for Nature, and the British Broadcasting Company Wildlife Fund in this area found the following:
“Using data collected from India, Mongolia and China’s Tibetan plateau, a team of international researchers have found a disturbing link between the global cashmere trade and declining native wildlife species occurring there. Several endangered large mammals, such as the kiang, Tibetan gazelle, Przewalski gazelle, chiru and saiga, as well as the iconic snow leopard, which co-exist with cashmere producing goats in the deserts and grasslands of Central Asia, are being driven to the edge of survival.” (article)
healthy cashmere goats image via The Times
Sadly, even the poor goats themselves are suffering. Starved and hungry the quality of their fleece suffers along with the poor animal as it struggles to survive in a landscape with no grass. Herders buy cut grass and corn by the truckload to try and feed the animals which in turn strips other areas, creating more barren wasteland.
The production of cashmere in these regions will never be 100% sustainable as it uses precious and very limited natural resources in this area. However, quality cashmere is being produced elsewhere in the world like Scotland and Italy, where these environmental issues are not a problem. Another solution is to switch from cashmere and cashmere blends completely and use more eco-friendly luxury fibres like fine camel and yak, which in turn will influence asian herders to carry more of these low impact animals and less goats.
Having worked most of my life in an office environment sending emails and pushing papers around a desk, the only labour I knew was from my art practice – making furniture and canvases, welding and mold making. I never had to rely on hard labour for my livelihood – or my pathetically wimpy body to do said labour – until now. Dyeing large amounts of yarn can be VERY physical. Shifting kilos of wet yarn in and out of water for more than 6 hours a day is gruelling! I find myself thinking a lot about my father who supported a family of four by doing construction work in -30C conditions in Northern Canada. I remember his bleeding cracked hands and how exhausted he would be at the end of the day and for once truly understand the smallest amount of what he must have gone through.
I am lucky. I have my health and choose to do this work. I actually revel in being able to do something which uses my body’s strength and shows me a measurable outcome at the end of the day. I have piles of gorgeous yarn to show for my work and my muscles ache with the pain of a job well done. Even luckier – I have a choice. I have other skills and if I need or choose to can go back to an office job if I get injured or if my illness returns. More than ever I am aware that this is a luxury most people around the world don’t have.
Most fibre animal herders rely on the income they make from their animals and therefore the more animals they have, the better they live.
“Herders are doing what we would do—just trying to improve their livelihoods, and who can blame them? (article)
We’ve all seen the ‘Uniqlo phenomenon’ of the past few years with cashmere sweaters costing as little as £60 and this sort of devaluing of something so precious causing a corresponding increase in the amount of cashmere goats being reared for their fibre in Asia.
So fast forward to two years after I wrote the above and this is what I think…
We SHOULD have to pay more for something this rare and resource consuming…shouldn’t we? And isn’t it important to encourage less harmful and more sustainable choices in the people providing us with raw materials?
I know that I, as a small business owner, am completely driven to sell what my customers will buy. Luckily I have customers who also think the way I do in the value they place on my blends. But as a consumer and business owner shaping my own products I now realise that I need to be more conscious about purchasing items which support the values of what I believe in. No more cheap Cashmere sweaters because they are on sale (yup, I was terrible for this before I started knitting). No more scrumptiously soft Merino unless I know the animal wasn’t mutilated at the farm.
These things are worth taking a stand for and if it means I have less in my closet as a result, I also know the items I DO have will mean more to me.