By promoting traditional crafts that utilize luxurious animal fibres of the Tibetan Plateau, a handful of entrepreneurs are helping support the nomadic way of life there.
Most textile geeks know that there is nothing softer or warmer than the fluffy undercoat of down shed each Spring by mountain animals in high-altitude regions. Ironically, the animals’ adaptation to the adverse conditions of these areas yield the finest fibres –think of the alpacas and vicuñas of Peru, and the Arctic musk ox. Likewise, the Pashmina goats, baby yaks and mountain sheep found on the high Tibetan pastures produce some of the lowest micron fibres in the world.
For centuries, the nomadic lifestyle of herders, who closely follow the rhythm of the seasons, has been a constant in this fabled area, and continues today–despite political unrest, technological advancement, and climate change. The abundant natural resources and cultural richness of the region–which includes some of the world’s highest mountains, precious mineral deposits, lush grasslands, and pristine lakes, and whose valleys host the sources of Asia’s major rivers–made it highly desirable to its neighbour to the north and east, China, who annexed Tibet in 1950. Although the Chinese often refer to the area as Xizang or ‘Western Treasure House’, population influx and development threaten both the region’s indigenous culture and rich textile heritage.
Historically divided into agricultural (growing) areas at lower elevations and nomadic (herding) at higher altitudes, the two ecosystems coexisted symbiotically for centuries, with the nomads annually moving their animals into higher pastures during the Spring and Summer and returning with their herds to lower ground both for trade purposes and protection from the harsh mountain winters. Today this often idealised nomadic ritual has both benefitted and suffered from modernisation and technology. It’s not uncommon to see solar panels on top of the traditional weather-resistant yak-hair felt tents. Cell phones are ubiquitous, even in remote areas, and the internet has made international commerce feasible. Horses are still used for herding, but Jeeps and four-by-fours make traversing vast expanses much easier. While the traditional techniques for working with the yak, goat, and sheep fibre–hand spinning, natural dyeing, weaving, and felting–are still practiced, urbanisation endangers the future of these crafts...
Written by Karin Strom.
Excerpt from the article Yackety-Yak: High Fibre from the Roof of the World, featured in Selvedge Issue 104 Keeping Warm.
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