Why Yak Wool? – A Chat with Kora Founder Michael Kleinwort, Part 1

Why yak wool - Kora interview 1

In the world of outdoor clothing, thousands of products from hundreds of vendors circle the retail landscape enticing customers with what appear to be similar products. One of the differentiators is style. Another is material. From that latter group has emerged a company called Kora, the first company to use yak wool for its clothing. The landscape is dotted with merino wool, so why yak wool?

It’s a good question, one of many I asked during my meeting with Kora at Outdoor Retailer – Winter Market in January. It’s also just one of several that Kora founder Michael Kleinwort addresses in this first in an exclusive two-part interview. This first section focused on materials and products, tackling the “why yak wool” question and a few others. The second part of our Q&A will focus on some bigger picture aspects of life in the outdoor industry, in a company dedicated to sustainability and fair trade, and in the Himalayas.

Wool seems to be an undeniable winner when it comes to insulation and warmth from a natural fiber. There’s lots of talk about merino wool, yet Kora’s gone in a very different direction. Why yak wool?

Yaks have evolved to thrive in some of the harshest conditions on the planet – the high altitude Himalayas. Whereas merino sheep live at 1000ms altitude; yaks live at 4000ms to 6000ms altitude. As a result of this evolution – a natural R&D process that has taken place over 10,000 years – they have developed a fine wool with superior performance properties. The fiber is hollow, allowing it to trap air inside and providing incredible warmth for its weight. It is also very soft, it wicks efficiently, and it is naturally anti-microbial, so no stink.

Why do you suppose more companies haven’t broadened their wool selection to include yak wool? Not that you necessarily want them to, of course.

There are several reasons for this, the key ones appear to be availability, accessibility and knowledge. Yak wool is a rare wool among rare wools; it is very hard to get hold of it given where yaks live; and the techniques required to make performance fabrics from yak wool were unknown until we developed them. Of course all these factors make it a huge challenge not to mention expensive too, so the question if it was ever asked, was likely “why should we go to all the effort?”

What changes has Kora seen in the yak wool “industry” during its time working with the material (social, vendor diversity, etc.)?

Yak wool’s primary use remains as an alternative to cashmere. Whereas its use outside of China, Mongolia and the Himalayas has been intermittent historically, there appears to be more interest in yak wool now – its properties are becoming more well-known. We’re working hard to do our part: educating customers about yak wool, but also developing fabrics that make full use of its unique performance properties.

How do you get the wool from yaks? Is it the same as sheep (shearing)? 

The yak molts once a year in the spring or summer months depending on altitude, so there is no need to shear the animal.  The nomad herder will secure the yak – to protect the yak and the herder – then collect the fine under-layer of wool by hand. Since the wool has already become detached from the yak, the wool comes off easily.  It is a painless process for the animal. We have a YouTube video that shows this in action (2:05mins).

How many yaks does it take to get a kilo of wool? It is comparable to sheep?

The yield is not the same as sheep: it is much lower. Each animal provides between 500g to 1kg of wool.

Considering the insulation-per-weight aspects when compared to sheep, do you need to get as much wool from yaks as you do from sheep to create the same amount of material?

Our tests using an independent laboratory have shown that yak wool is warmer weight for weight than merino wool. So yes in theory you need less yak wool to provide the same warmth as you would from merino. But it’s not quite that simple… You need to first collect lots of yak wool, then once you have cleaned it, you need separate it out into different grades of wool. Only the finest yak wool is suitable for our Shola base layers. It’s a long process which requires a lot of raw yak wool.

There’s a segment of the population – people who suffer from Raynaud’s syndrome – for whom the cold isn’t just an inconvenience, but a literal pain. Does Kora ever have specific groups like this in mind, or do you design for more of a broad swath of people who want to venture into extreme cold climates?

Given that we are new brand and yak wool as a performance fiber remains little known, at this time we design our products for communities of users most likely to need the performance benefits that yak wool offers: climbers, skiers, trekkers and runners. But we hope that given the warmth and comfort of our wool that the product can also benefit sufferers of Raynaud’s syndrome.

Where does one find Kora products?

Currently we offer our products online. We are in discussions with potential partners to be stocked in local and regional retailers. We are picky though and not in a rush, so we recommend purchasing from the website in the meantime.

Read Part 2 of our interview with Michael, which focuses on balancing growth with sustainability.

Image from TrekWorld.com

Jonas Allen

Jonas spent 17 years covering travel, technology and entertainment for regional and international media. He now writes about gear, clothes and tips to stay warm. He hopes his lessons will help other people who get cold (re)discover the great outdoors.

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