Having a Moment With: Yak

Having a Moment: a little occasional ode to a thing that’s been piquing my curiosity or grabbing my attention lately. Usually, but not always, with some relationship to knitting.

Lombard Street is made in mYak’s Baby Yak Medium, in “Canyon,” the undyed natural colorway.

Lombard Street is made in mYak’s Baby Yak Medium, in “Canyon,” the undyed natural colorway.

As I’ve said a few times, we are insanely fortunate as knitters right now: we are working in absolute golden age of yarn. We have so many fibers and yarn construction methodologies and dye types available to us, which is amazing, and as a result, we can get almost as specific as we want to about matching yarns and projects (there are always tradeoffs, but boy howdy are there fewer of them than there used to be). One of my favorite parts of my design work is getting to try new kinds of yarns and think about what they’re best at, and every now and then, one of those experiments really sticks with me.

I’m having one of those “can’t stop thinking about it” feelings now about a somewhat unlikely (BUT AWESOME) fiber: Yak down. Down is the soft undercoat of the yak, and it’s a fiber that’s shed naturally. When yaks are raised for fiber purposes, that down is combed and harvested before it would fall naturally off the animal. The down is then sorted, de-haired, and eventually, spun into yarn, kind of like cashmere and Quiviut. It’s not exactly easy stuff to obtain (yak are not as nearly as prevalent as, say, the fiber sheep that dominate the human population of places like New Zealand), but it makes for miraculous yarn.

Yak has about the same micron count (a measure of fiber diameter and, conceptually, softness) as pure cashmere, and it has a similar overall texture. It lacks the elasticity of wool, but it has loft and incredible warmth for its weight. Most yarns I’ve used with a significant percentage of yak in them are also spun with a great deal of air in the yarn as its constructed, so they feel cool on the hands, and they have incredible drape once you block them and some of that air gets compressed out (and whatever stitch patterning you’ve used flattens out some). This makes them really great garment yarns, where they have a kind of ultra-drapey, ready-to-wear, sometimes almost sweatshirt-like feel to them, but on the flip side, means we need to think carefully about how we use them in things like hats or mitts, where their relatively lack of elasticity can be a limitation. Fortunately, there’s a relatively easy fix for this: use stitch patterns that tend to pull the fabric in, and be somewhat elastic (ribbing and cables are great for this). That helps build a little resilience into the finished object, even when it wouldn’t be provided by the yarn itself.

100% Yak is amazing to work with, and mYak’s Baby Yak yarns, which I used in Presidio and Lombard Street, are beautifully, thoughtfully made yarns that are sourced responsibly, ethically, and with great care. Yak also makes great friends with other fibers, and there are a number of yak-wool or yak-wool-silk blends out there that are lovely to work with, and combine yak’s drape, warmth, and intriguing texture with wool’s inherent resilience and stretch (with or without the added shine and drape of silk). I’m partial to Canon Hand Dyes’ Naked Bruce (not just because of its church-giggles-inducing name), which shows off the beautiful smokey grey-brown color that is the signature of this special fiber. Bruce is a merino-silk-yak blend, and a number of hand-dyers have similar offerings. These yarns have incredible drape and sheen and and ultra-luxurious hand to them, and the brown-grey undertones of the yak fiber give the overdyed colors a beautiful, complex depth that I really love. Bijou Basin makes a lovely yak merino blend, dyed in an array of satisfyingly saturated colorways (along with a number of other exotic-fiber blends), and I’ve been a longtime fan of the Yarn Collective’s Hudson Worsted, an 85% merino, 15% yak blend that I used in my Cold Spring and Terrapin Tunic sweaters. I really love the way the airy structure of that particular yarn gives you a balance between great stitch definition (because it’s a 3-ply) and the nice flat fabric you want in a garment; it’s not quite as good at this particular balance as the mYak yarns, but it’s aiming for the same target.

Have you ever worked with yak fibers? What did you think? What new yarns and tools have caught your eye lately?