China has brought us many exciting fiber innovations over the last decade, from bamboo to crab shells, jade, milk, and soy. Today, thanks to an enterprising ex-reindeer-herder in the Evenk Autonomous Banner of Inner Mongolia, we have an extraordinary new fiber on the horizon.
The Evenk Autonomous Banner is an autonomous region of Northeast China between Mongolia and Siberia. This inland plateau has a particularly harsh climate that has kept out most modern industry while long supporting a primarily subsistence agrarian Evenki people, one of China’s 55 registered minorities.
Once nomadic, most Evenki have now been moved to settled communities—but their tradition of herding reindeer continues. In fact, according to one source, the word “Evenki” means, “He who runs swifter than a reindeer.”
Our story begins with one Evenki man named Loh Yan Le Yang. Once a reindeer herder, he and his family now raise a special breed of reclusive ducks on the shores of Hulun Lake, one of China’s five largest freshwater lakes.
While the notoriously shy ducks were raised primarily for their eggs and meat, Loh Yan Le Yang also collected their feathers and used them to stuff pillows and coats that his wife Lan designed, sewed, and sold.
One day, an Italian cashmere broker named Luigi Anatra was traveling through the region and purchased one of Lan’s coats, having inadvertently left his on the train the previous day.
That afternoon he then went to visit a nearby family of cashmere goat herders. Passing through a doorway, he snagged the arm of his coat on a nail, tearing open the fabric and revealing tufts of white, extraordinarily delicate feathers. He touched them and was instantly intrigued, his fingers having never felt any fibers so fine or soft.
On a whim, he returned home to Milan and sent the feathers to a lab for testing. The lab called him the next morning, unable to believe the results: The mean diameter of each feather was only four microns, or 4.0 × 10¯6 meters, making it the finest known fiber produced by any animal on earth. (To put this in context, cashmere averages only 16 microns.)
Anatra promptly returned to Loh Yan Le Yang’s farm and spent several weeks with the family, studying the ducks and taking more feather samples. Further tests validated his discovery: These aquatic birds produced the finest known animal fiber on earth.
Anatra struck an exclusive deal with Loh Yan Le Yang in which Anatra would purchase all fibers produced by the magical ducks. While most of those fibers are slated for the high-end Italian fashion industry, Anatra happens to be married to a passionate handknitter.
This single stroke of luck means that some of Loh Yan Le Yang’s precious duck feathers shall soon be available to the handknitting world under the Quackmere Yarn label.
Two plies are twisted clockwise, another two are twisted counter-clockwise, and then those four are woven together and bound by the final two plies, each twisted in the opposite direction. The resulting yarn has a smooth hand with an irregular texture that provides bounce while offering no elasticity whatsoever. The six-ply construction helps give much-needed reinforcement to the fibers whose average staple length is 1/2 inch (or 1.27cm).
Its extraordinary softness, warmth, and fineness, combined with an angelic halo, make Quackmere Classic ideally suited for lace projects such as Evelyn Clark’s Swallowtail Shawl. Quackmere Classic will ship in 25-yard (23m) skeins with a suggested retail price of $193. You’ll need 437 yards to complete the Swallowtail Shawl, which translates to 18 skeins, bringing the price tag to $3,474.
Pure Quackmere yarns tend to cost more than your average luxury fiber because of the manually intensive process required to convert the duck feathers into spinnable fiber. First, each fiber must be plucked off the feather by hand, and each feather has an average of 4,000 fibers. It takes a skilled fiber-plucker between six and seven hours to remove all the fibers from one feather; and it takes approximately 212 feathers (or 1,484 hours) to obtain enough fibers to create one skein of Quackmere Classic.
Then there’s the process itself. To prevent fiber breakage, each of these fibers must be plucked when the variable humidity is no greater than 12 percent; and to prevent damage to the microscopic scales covering each fiber, the plucking must be done with tweezers made from ivory—a fact that has already raised objections from many animal rights groups.
Once plucked, each fiber is then placed between two sheets of tissue paper and allowed to rest in a quiet room for 48 hours before being individually washed, rinsed, dried, coated with a pH-neutral coloring agent, and finally fed by hand into a special spinning frame.
Still, not all knitters may welcome the $193/skein price tag, which is why Anatra and his team are hard at work creating new innovative blends. Not only will they reduce the cost by up to $5 per skein, but they will also give greater loft, elasticity, sheen, and durability to the finished garment.
Among the planned blends include Wack (wool/duck), Squack (silk/duck), Yack (yak/duck), Quiquack (qiviut/duck), and Aflack (acrylic, falcon, lemur, and duck).
To see pictures of Loh Yan Le Yang and his elusive ducks, to see the yarn for yourself, to obtain a free sample of Pure Quackmere, and to find out everything else you need to know about Quackmere, simply click here.