A skein of Shokay yak down
Shokay knit up
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Yarn Profile:
Shokay

First Impressions
Shokay is the Tibetan word for "yak." It's also the name of a new startup begun by a group of recent Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government grads. Their plans for this company even won the social enterprise track of the Harvard Business School Business Plan Contest.

Originally both the company and the yarn itself were called Yashmere, suggesting a close resemblance to cashmere. I'm guessing that a name change came once they discovered that the FTC has strict labeling requirements that don't permit companies to make up random names for their animal-grown fiber. So Shokay is the company, and yak is the fiber.

Shokay represents a new breed of social entrepreneurship. Nobody on the Shokay executive team actually had a textiles background. The idea came to two of its founders after traveling in the western Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Gansu. They spent time with the yak herders, witnessed their extreme poverty, noticed the abundance of yaks, and envisioned a viable business that could bring these people a sustainable income. Fortunately for us, someone figured out that yak fiber also makes marvelous yarn—which they now produce for handknitters and also in finished scarves and shawls for high-end boutiques.

China has actually been exporting yak fiber for years, both raw and in spun yarn. Two years ago I reviewed an Italian-spun yak blend from Karabella, Super Yak. The difference here is that Shokay aims to source its fiber directly from Tibetan yak herders in remote regions, bypassing third-party brokers and more directly helping these people earn a steady income. While Shokay is a for-profit venture, the founders are quick to define themselves as "a profit-making but not profit-maximizing enterprise."

The company specifically says that it "aims" to source all its fiber directly from the yak herders—I do not know if it has yet achieved this goal in 100% of its yarn. After the fibers are purchased from the herders, they are dehaired, cleaned, spun, and dyed in China before being sent to the U.S., where they are currently distributed by Himalaya Yarns.

Tibetans have raised yaks for centuries in the high altitudes of the Himalayas, using their fiber for warmth and their milk for sustenance. To stay warm through the rugged winters, the yak grows an insulating undercoat similar to the one cashmere goats grow. The fiber is harvested in the spring when the yak naturally sheds its coat. Once the fibers are cleaned and the rough guard hairs removed, it's possible to have fibers that are almost as soft as cashmere. (The thickness is measured in microns ranging from 15 to 22—by point of comparison, cashmere averages 16 microns.)

Shokay yarn is currently available in 12 colors, all of which follow generally muted tones. Yak fiber does not easily bleach and, in its natural state, comes in varying shades of brown to black. Skeins hold 164 yards and have an SRP of $32 per hank, although I've seen it vary from $31.85 to $34 depending on the store. For this review I chose Himalayan Sunset, a creamy pumpkin color.

Knitting Up
Shokay is composed of six two-ply strands that are then plied together to form a plush, thick yarn. Yak down has a small amount of crimp but no real elasticity like merino. But the multiple-ply construction helps add a little bounce. Overall the yarn still has the dry, somewhat firm feel of a good cotton—only much, much warmer.

About three yards into my hank I discovered a strange flaw that had severed all but a few strands holding the yarn together. Instead of trying to re-ply all the plies, I just snipped the yarn and started over. The yarn was also fairly compressed and lifeless on the hank. As I rewound it into a ball, I could feel it springing back to life a bit.

Knitting with Shokay is relatively easy and straightforward, although you'll want to keep an eye on your stitches to avoid the occasional snag. I used moderate-tipped bamboo needles for my swatches and only encountered two or three snags in spots where the individual plies had come un-twisted. For this reason you may want to avoid using any unusually sharp-tipped needles—or, if using them, you'll want to keep a closer eye on your work.

Shokay knits up at a generous 4 stitches per inch on US 9 (5.5mm) needles, which means speedy progress with large, clear stitches. My only complaint would be that, at $32 per hank, you want the knitting experience to last longer.

Blocking / Washing
I knew we'd have fun here because yak down has a shorter fiber length and tends to bloom beautifully with wash. But first I had to get past the label: "dry clean only." Oh dear! Remember, these folks aren't knitters. The first thing I did was totally disregard that advice and submerge my swatches in sudsy lukewarm water.

They quickly absorbed the water and relaxed in their bath. They released a hint of orange into the first wash, but one rinse and the water ran clear again.

After a brief blotting that removed most of the moisture, my swatches quickly blocked into perfect shape. Once dry, they had softened and relaxed ever so slightly into soft and cohesive pieces of fabric with a delicate bloom along the surface. There was no change in gauge.

Wearing
The short and relatively delicate yak fibers in this yarn benefit from the added reinforcement of multiple plies. But even this tight degree of twist didn't protect my Shokay swatches from abrasion.

After just a moderate amount of friction, large pills rose to the fabric's surface. The more the friction, the more numerous the pills. The pills weren't even completely attached to the fabric—they were self-contained little puff-balls of fiber that I could brush off with my hand.

This yarn seems to have sufficient twist, so I can only suggest that the fiber blend itself includes some exceptionally short or damaged fibers that should have been left out. Such short fibers—even if they're soft and beautiful—simply don't stand a chance of remaining held in the fabric and will work their way out as quickly as possible.

Conclusion
This is not a "knitter's" yarn—by this I mean that it wasn't developed by knitters for knitters to serve an immediate and unmet need. It was developed by a very smart group of students who saw a social problem—extreme poverty among Tibetan yak herders—and thought of a possible way to bring a sustainable economy directly to these people, and to do so in a way that would foster their traditional lifestyle. When you plunk down $32 for a skein of Shokay, it's a little different than most yarn purchases.

The immediate degree of pilling tells me I would not use this yarn for a sweater. A medium-sized women's pullover would require approximately 1100 yards, or 7 skeins—bringing the tab to almost $225. Likewise, although I've been known to make socks out of cashmere and even angora, I wouldn't make socks with this yarn.

Instead, I'd invest in one skein and use it for a simple high-visibility, low-wear item that lets me tell the yarn's story wherever I go—for example a ribbed hat or pair of fingerless mitts. Or even better, I'd make a simple keepsake baby hat and booty set for an expecting friend.

 

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