As I mentioned in my previous post, my article on June Cashmere is published in the current issue of Selvedge magazine. Here is more about this story–a background on the state of cashmere in general, how June Cashmere came to be, and why I find this venture to be particularly worthy.
I discovered June Cashmere at a small fiber festival last year where Sy, his wife, and their new baby were showcasing the yarn. I was taken by how beautiful and soft the yarn is–it IS cashmere. Then I began to talk to Sy and realized that the story of making this yarn is as world class as the yarn itself.
The state of cashmere
A few years back, Judith MacKenzie, a national heritage of a spinner and weaver, spoke to my guild and shared that artisans would have a difficult time sourcing cashmere, be it in the form of fibers for spinning or manufactured yarn for knitting and weaving. Articles in the Chicago Tribune in 2006 by Evan Osnos and the Huffington Post in 2010 by Susan Gibbs (network news producer turned shepherd and owner of the yarn company, Juniper Moon Yarns) explained why.
Cashmere is the fine, downy, winter undercoat of goats that is harvested during the spring molt by combing, a labor-intensive process. On average, a goat produces less than half a pound of cashmere fibers that go through a sorting, cleaning, and milling process to become yarn. Roughly sixty percent of the fiber is lost through the process, requiring the fiber from two or three goats to make one sweater. Inherently, then, cashmere is a limited resource. It should be expensive. However, with the market potential to sell cheap cashmere sweaters (think big box stores), demand for cashmere has increased. To meet that demand, herding and harvesting practices have been compromised. Shearing is encouraged and the outercoat has been combined with the cashmere undercoat to create a product that no longer is pure cashmere. Additionally, goats have not been managed in their foraging habits leading to desertification, dust storms, and diminished air quality. A recent NPR report describes a dire situation in Mongolia.
Why, then, cashmere?
About five years ago, a group of Kyrgyz textile artisans touring the US asked to see a small-scale fiber mill, Morning Star Fiber, then located in Northeastern Ohio. These artisans explained that such a fiber mill was exactly what was needed in Kyrgyzstan. As part of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan was the fiber producing region and had access to collective farms and sales markets through the Soviet Union. With Kyrgyzstan’s independence in 1991, collectives fell apart and locals turned to individual small livestock farms. Being a landlocked nation, access to markets also was lost.
Kyrgyzstan’s need for a fiber mill enticed Morning Star’s owner J.C. Christensen to contact Sy Belohlavek and research began to see if a fiber mill could indeed be established in-country. Although such a pursuit was not feasible, another possibility emerged for Sy: to see if Kyrgyzstan’s identity could be established as a world-class cashmere producer. Research by Carol Kerven of the Odessa Centre in England indicated that the goats from the Southern mountains of Kyrgyzstan genetically have the potential to produce superior quality cashmere.
Armed with all this knowledge, Sy began the work of learning the language, forming a company, securing investments, establishing relationships with locals, becoming versed in best practices for harvesting cashmere, developing tools, training shepherds, and locating the best infrastructure around the world to process the Kyrgyz commodity.
The word june in Kyrgyz means fiber. Because of the shared word form with English (and June being a month of renewal, spring, harvest), the name seemed apt for the goals of this new company–to establish Kyrgyz cashmere as world class, to provide a market for sales, to fairly pay shepherds for the quality of their fiber, and to grow a business that can put capital back into Kyrgyzstan. As its buying power grows, June Cashmere hopes to have a stronger voice locally in how shepherds are compensated and how land is managed. And as a long-term goal, just maybe Kyrgyzstan can get that small fiber mill those artisans originally hoped for.
In the meantime, I have come to admire Sy’s stamina and energy. It is a grueling ride. His family (including five children aged 9 to 9 months) have just returned to Kyrgyzstan to live. They usually spend two years there before trekking back home to reconnect with family. They arrived this trip without any of their 18 pieces of luggage and to find malfunctioning heat in their apartment (it’s midwinter there). This ad(venture) is not for the faint of heart!
Even knowing what I do about textiles and fiber, I wouldn’t have known where to begin to find the processors of cashmere. But Sy found them–the respected scourer in Belgium, the sorter in England, the mills in England and Scotland, the organic dyer in Maine. The yarn finally arrives in Ohio (Sy’s home state) to be packaged and sold.
A friend of ours said to me about the route this fiber takes to become yarn–“Wasteful, shepherds probably get nothing, why isn’t the processing done in Kyrgyzstan?” Things I would probably say, too, except they underestimate what is at work in this case. And that is this: we can trace this yarn to individual shepherd families who are being paid a fair wage. A desired goal is to get as much of the processing to happen in-country, but that takes capital and can only happen as the endeavor grows. Small businesses are processing the fiber, a global economic support to the limited fiber-processing infrastructure that exists. And this venture is helping on another front–toward the preservation of a species. By educating on local shepherding and harvesting practices, we can hope that careful practices will save this amazing natural resource from being lost to cross-breeding practices found in recent years.
A few years back, working in a local yarn shop. I discovered that it’s difficult to find yarn lines that I can trace from fiber to finished product (although more are emerging and note to self: a feature on those companies is another blog post). But this is why I am heartened by the work of June Cashmere.
So, I’ll leave you with June Cashmere’s promotional video (narrated by Sy) to give you a taste of Kyrgyzstan and the processing of Kyrgyz cashmere from harvest to yarn. In my next post, I’ll tell about my inspiring visit to Hania by Anya Cole, a small company in NYC that uses June Cashmere in a line of its hand knit sweaters.
ALPF: Cashmere World: Fiber quality aided by genetic research in goat breeding, FNA | 09 July 2012
New Agriculturist: Kyrgyzstan – cashing in on cashmere
Kerven, Carol & Sabyr Toigonbaev. Cashmere from the Pamirs: Helping mountain farmers in Kyrgyzstan. In FAO publication: PART 1: Wool and cashmere.
Toigonbaev, Sabyr. OpEd for D+C Development and Cooperation
Report on the first Asian conference on cashmere
Kyrgyz cashmere learning its way to international markets
Interviews with Sy Belohlavek