First things first: mYak is pronounced “my yak.” I learned this only after an embarrassing volley where I kept saying “em-yak” and the other person kept staring at me blankly until she got it, looked at me pityingly, and gently corrected me.
If you aren’t familiar with yak, the fibers fall in the general category of “downy undercoat” that also includes cashmere, qiviut, and camel. The fiber is extremely warm and fine, with an average staple of about two inches. It has similar qualities to other protein fibers in that it is insulating, has elasticity, and can absorb a good amount of moisture before it begins to feel wet. That said, there’s yak and then there’s yak—and mYak falls in the italicized category for its use of baby yak fiber. Those are the finest, most tender and luxurious of the bunch. If you want something against your skin, this is it.
For knitters, yak fiber isn’t new. Colorado’s Bijou Basin Ranch began raising yaks in 2005 and making yarn with their fibers soon thereafter. When demand outpaced supply, they began purchasing from other U.S. ranchers and the global market. Since then, yak has been creeping into luxury blends as a lower-cost, more environmentally friendly alternative to cashmere.
Nomads in the high Tibetan plateau have been raising yaks for centuries. They burn yak dung to stay warm, they nourish themselves with yak meat and milk, and they even use yak skin and fiber in the construction of their yurts. With the help of Paola Vanzo and veterinarian and fiber expert Andrea Dominici, they are now earning a viable income from those fibers, which helps them preserve a culture that their government is pressuring them to abandon.
Vanzo and Dominici’s project is called mYak. They currently produce two yarns for hand knitters, all made from certified, sustainable, traceable fibers from the Tibetan Plateau. On the fine end of the spectrum is fingering-weight 50/50 blend of baby yak and silk, spectacular for all things lace. On the bulkier end of the spectrum is Medium, a pure baby yak yarn. Both have been processed and spun in Italy. This review is of Baby Yak Medium.
All too often “exotic” fibers like cashmere and qiviut and yak are presented in two-ply laceweight form. Which is fantastic when you want your money to go as far as possible and you don’t want a garment that will give you heat stroke. But you can only do so much with two-ply lace.
mYak gets extra gold stars for offering a wonderfully plush and well-balanced worsted-weight three-ply pure baby yak yarn. Now we can do something substantial with these fibers, like thick textured stitchwork or colorwork in garments you’ll never want to take off. Toward this end, mYak has partnered with leading designers Julie Hoover, Kirsten Kapur, Michele Wang, and Sarah Solomon for pattern support.
While the twist in this yarn falls on the loose side of medium, it didn’t split, even when I gave it a try on my pencil-tipped Indian Lake Artisans needles. Knitting was easy peasy, and my stitches looked balanced and even. A few rows in, I was knitting and purling by touch alone.
As with other yarns made from pure down fibers, mYak Medium has a somewhat dry, cottony feel. While the yarn doesn’t exude bounce or elasticity, it’s not firm or unyielding either. My sense is that when you get down to the 17-micron range that extremely fine diameter lessens any “oomph” from the fiber’s natural crimp. The yarn still hugged my hands, but the fabric was more powdery than doughy.
Structurally speaking, this is a beautiful, balanced, and even yarn. Italy knows how to make a good yarn.
With the exception of the rare albino yak, most yak produce brown fiber that is best left as-is and not bleached. mYak blends the natural browns into three “base” colors over which other shades are dyed to produce 22 rich, earthy colors total. I swatched a natural shade (Desert) that hadn’t been dyed, so I can’t speak to color bleeding. But I can confirm that the fibers did release a gentle “poof” of beige as if someone had poured a tiny bit of milky coffee into the wash. It only happened once, and from then on, the water rinsed clear.
Out of the wash, my swatch felt like a wet wad of tissue. I very gently prodded it back into shape, blotted out the excess moisture, and let it dry. This flat and lifeless swatch plumped back into full three-dimensionality as it dried. While not dramatic, there was a faint bloom of cohesion along the fabric surface.
Despite their fine diameter (averaging 17 millionths of a meter), yak fibers have a respectable length (averaging 2 inches) and strength that make this fabric a wearable luxury. While abrasion raised the nap along the swatch surface, it took quite a bit of friction before the pills began to form. They were tiny and easy to pluck off.
From a touch perspective, there’s really no prickle to be found here. All I felt was warmth with volume but very little weight.
Down fibers always require more work to process correctly because they grow among other fibers on the animal. Here, they’re hand-combed in the spring when the yaks are naturally shedding their winter insulation. The fibers are then cleaned and manually separated (mostly plucking out any long hairs) before being sent to a local lab for proper dehairing. Waste fibers are returned to the nomads for their tents, or used to make mattresses for monasteries. Also in the works is a project to make insulation panels out of the dehairing waste. (The deeper you dig into the mYak story, the more you’ll find.) Only then are the fibers purchased (from cooperatives mYak helped create) and sent to Biella, Italy for spinning.
I first eyed mYak with a healthy dose of skepticism, as I generally do with anything that claims to “do good” in the world. But the more I read, and the more Paola tells me about more projects underway, the more I see that this is the real deal.
For example, once the baby yaks are no longer babies and their fibers can no longer go into this yarn, they aren’t just dumped on the bonfire for dinner. Other projects are being launched that will allow the animals—and the nomads—to keep thriving long after the skeins have been spun.
And what lovely skeins they are.