A skein of Mink Cashmere yarn
Great Northern Mink Cashmere knit up
click each image to enlarge

Yarn Profile: Great Northern Yarns Mink Cashmere

First Impressions
"Mink" is a charged word. It conjures up images of old black and white movies where women swish in and out of rooms wearing long flowing fur coats and sparkling diamonds. But it also evokes painful thoughts of animal cruelty.

Neither vision quite adequately prepares us for this yarn. For starters, the mink—a small water-loving carnivorous mammal related to the weasel and otter—isn't actually killed for this fiber. Instead, it is brushed, which is a feat in itself. We don't know what eventually happens to these animals, but nobody died to produce this yarn.

Equally surprising are the fibers themselves, which look nothing like the long, slick, and shiny fibers we see in mink coats. Why the difference? Because, as it turns out, the mink actually grows a double coat.

The double-coat concept is similar to that of the New Zealand possum and even the cashmere goat or arctic musk ox. The outer coat contains those long, slick, pointy guard hairs, while the dense undercoat is composed of shorter, finer fibers that are extraordinarily soft and insulating.

Your average mink coat contains both types of fibers and requires some 65 pelts to create. But this yarn contains the very finest undercoat fibers brushed from living animals, dehaired, and blended with 30% cashmere. Not only is it an animal-friendly mink alternative, but it's actually a much finer, softer, and warmer product.

I'm a little surprised that nobody thought to try this out sooner.

The person who finally did is Great Northern Yarns owner Craig Turner. While working in product development for athletic and apparel brands, he traveled to China and met the owner of a cashmere farm/mill in the Inner Mongolia region. They stayed in touch and later, with the help of a mink farm in Inner Mongolia, brought this yarn to fruition.

Turner is able to keep the yarn's price reasonable ($19.50 per 230-yard skein) because he works directly with the farm and mill. He is currently the sole global distributor of this yarn.

Great Northern Yarns is at the very beginning of its journey, which means things are still being figured out. Currently the Web site offers skeins in two yardages and two natural colors—the "natural" you see here and a jet black. Ten top-dyed colors are promised soon, and I'm curious to see how the dye process impacts the feel of the fibers.

Skeins come in a clear plastic bag without any label or tag. Turner does, however, include a sheet of paper that explains the properties of the yarn, how to wash it, and what size needles to use. No skein weight or yardage are listed. Since Turner is offering this product wholesale to stores as well, he needs to improve his labels so that they include all the standard handknitting yarn details.

Knitting Up
Mink Cashmere is currently available in only one weight, the DK-weight, four-ply yarn reviewed here. Knit at the suggested gauge, it produces a fairly open, fluid fabric that is gorgeous from a fashion perspective, perhaps a little too relaxed from a durability perspective.

I suggest trying a size smaller needle than recommended to tighten the fabric and give it a little more body. Used with restraint, cables could be gorgeous. Ribbing would be ornamental only since this yarn lacks enough bounce to keep those stitches snug. But moss and moss stitch variants perform beautifully and help fortify the fabric.

The spinning process can generate an extraordinary amount of static electricity, especially with flyaway fibers such as cashmere and other fine undercoats. To tame the static and keep the fibers manageable, mills normally spray on a very fine amount of oil—synthetic or vegetable-based, depending on how green the mill is. This yarn still has that oil in it.

While the oil doesn't actually make your hands feel greasy, it is there. You can smell it, as if you forgot to rinse the conditioner out of your hair. If this really bugs you, you could wash the skein before knitting, but I advise against this. Spinning oil makes the yarn much easier to manipulate. It's best to work with the yarn as-is, comforting yourself with dreams of just how beautiful that bloom will be with the first wash.

Knitting with this yarn was easy and snag-free, and by the fourth row I was knitting by touch alone. My stitches looked full and even, and I encountered no irregularities in my yarn.

Blocking / Washing
The minute I dropped my swatch in its warm soapy bath, the oil was released from the fibers and created a light brown coloring in the water, rather as if I'd added a tablespoon of milky coffee to the mix. One rinse was all it took for the water to run clear.

Immediately I could see a dramatic difference. Released of their oily burden, the fibers relaxed, nestled more comfortably with their neighbors, and produced a very inviting bloom across the fabric surface. (Unwashed at left, washed at right.)

This yarn is made of very short, delicate fibers with a small amount of crimp. While the four plies do help pull everything together remarkably well, the yarn has very little bounce or elasticity. It's really all about softness, halo, and drape.

From a touch perspective, this is an extremely soft yarn—the closest comparison would be with a 100% cashmere yarn. As with any yarn composed of fibers that had to be separated from guard hairs, I periodically came upon slightly thicker, pointier fibers in the mix. They could've come from the mink or the cashmere, your guess is as good as mine.

In terms of wear, you can only push this yarn so far before it will cry "uncle." I'd use it for anything tactile—a flowing sweater, scarf, shawl, hat, pillow, or mittens. But I'd feel cautious about using this yarn for truly high-wear things like socks.

Actually, no. If you really want a pair of mink/cashmere socks, who am I to deny you that pleasure? At $19.50 per skein, it's a reasonable gamble. Just knit the fabric as tight as you can, choose when and where to wear the socks, and enjoy every single minute of them.

This yarn does not look or behave at all like what most people think of when you say "mink." You won't get red paint thrown on a sweater made from this mink yarn because nobody will know it's mink unless you tell them. (Which reminds me of an ironic coincidence: Did you know that paintbrushes are often made from mink guard hairs?)

From a knitter's perspective, the real delight here is that mink could grow such an undercoat. I would love to see a sample of the unspun mink fiber, so I could study it more closely. The yarn looks and behaves for all the world like a cashmere, qiviut, or American bison yarn—it's not nearly "hairy" enough to resemble possum. And as an ardent fan of those kinds of fibers, I'm excited to see another alternative.

It turns out that high-end fabric mills have offered mink fiber in their fabrics already, but it's usually only one percent—a token gesture at best. Here, for the first time in the handknitting world anyway, we have a yarn whose majority fiber content is mink. It's a fascinating addition to the exotic fiber market.

The skeptic in me wonders if the mink are still eventually euthanized for their pelts, and if developments such as this yarn will only fuel the growth of mink farms whose animals are ultimately slated for the fur closet. But if we can buy the animal even one more season of happiness by using its fibers in yarn first, that's a good start, right?

 Reader comments