Sharing my experience knitting with yak yarn and everything you need to know about its properties and how to care for it.
Have you seen a luxurious skein of yak yarn? And now you are wondering what it’s like knitting with it? How soft is it? And what about the stitch definition of the rare Central Asian wool? Is worth it? Well, in this little guide I’ll show you everything you need to know about yak knitting yarn!
The bovine wool may be only a recent addition to the cornucopia of yarn choices available to modern western knitters (make sure to check out my list of over 100+ indie dyers) but nomads on the Tibetan Plateau, Mongolia, and the Himalayas have been harvesting the precious fibers for millennia. The milk, leather, and meat of the yak are also highly-priced among the locals, while they also serve as beasts of burden.
I was lucky enough to experience these gentle giants on my recent trip through Bhutan. You see, due to their warm coat, yaks typically cannot be found below 3,000 meters of altitude (9,800ft). They prefer the alpine tundra as their habitat and mainly eat grasses and sedges. During the short summers in that area, you will often find them retreating to pastures on 5,5000 meters. In winter, they are able to weather temperatures as low as -40° Celsius.
So far, all efforts to keep them penned up (thankfully) failed. This, however, makes it quite hard to produce large quantities of yarn in a species-appropriate way. But this is actually one of the big strengths of the yak. They are very sustainable livestock.
Unlike the native goats of that area, their hooves are not as hard on the ground, and their grazing method does not rip out the whole plant by the roots. This is a big problem. Especially in Mongolia, the incredibly high demand for cheap cashmere has sped up the desertification in certain areas tremendously.
While there are still some wild yaks to be found in Tibet (which are almost twice as large; bulls sometimes weighing up to a ton) commercially available knitting yarn is harvested from their domesticated brethren and sisters.
Only the soft undercoat (called down) is used for clothing. The animals lose their undercoat naturally with the onset of the much warmer summer months. A couple of weeks before, the herders will start combing (a very time-consuming process) the yak to harvest the down before shearing them for the rest of the wool.
The characteristic long and much coarser hairs you can see on most pictures are used for felting (mainly tent insulation), while the medium-thick fibers in between are often used for heavy-use items such as sturdy blankets or ropes. These fibers cannot be spun.
In recent years, and with burgeoning demand in key markets, efforts have been made to cross-breed the domesticated yak with the wild ones (which increases the down yield). An adult yak will produce between 300 to 700 grams of down per year.
Just for reference: A single sheep will produce between 3 to 6 kilograms of wool per year despite being considerably smaller. Because of the rarity and its softness, yak down is classified as a luxury fiber.
Yak yarn properties
The fine down of the yaks is typically around 15-19 micros thick. This puts the fibers en par with cashmere, which can vary between 14 and 21 microns. The incredibly soft hair retains a lot of warmth. Yet, yak wool is quite light, remarkably breathable, and has a decent elasticity. It can also absorb quite a bit of moisture (up to 30% of its weight) and does so extremely fast.
Natural colors range from a very dark brown to a reddish-brown. While grey and white colors, though much rarer, are also available. Due to this fact, most yak knitting yarn is often over-dyed and doesn’t come too often in pastel and other light-colors. In recent years, a lot of breeders started focusing on the white yak for that very reason.
It’s said that yak yarn is hypoallergenic. On the downside, it’s a short-staple fiber. It’s possible to spin the pure wool, but lace weights are a bit rarer. You’ll often find blends with other fibers. This makes the resulting yarn more resilient (and I guess a lot cheaper as well).
I do have to mention that clothing made from yak yarn will have a lovely drape while still being remarkably resilient. A lot of other luxury yarns are notorious for being very fragile. Cashmere will seemingly pill if you only look at it the wrong way.
Yak yarn, on the other hand, will not fluff up a lot. Of course, like any sweater knit with a natural fiber, there will be eventually some pilling (especially below the armpits, etc) but I’d say it’s rather comparable to the average new wool. The threads also won’t come apart too easily when force is applied, though a hard yank will tear even DK yarn apart.
In terms of lightness, I’d say it’s somewhere in between cashmere and the typical cameloid yarn (alpaca or camel hair yarn). So, not super light (like you wearing a cloud of nothing) but also not sheep wool kind of heavy. Because it does not have a halo, it will also feel a bit denser (Note: This is a nice reminder that scientific softness is often different from perceived softness).
I do want to greatly emphasize, however, that you absolutely need to make sure you are buying your yak yarn from a reputable source. The down isn’t the longest fiber to begin with. Most mills will sort the fibers before spinning. The longest and thinnest will catch the highest price (and will often be reserved for international luxury brands).
The scraps are still sold and these cheaper qualities will shed like crazy while with a high-quality yarn you won’t experience it at all. So, just like with other luxury yarns you have to be careful. If it’s too cheap to be true there’s usually a reason, and you might be better off with a nice merino yarn.
Oh, and one last thing. The natural yarn is remarkably odorless. So, even if it’s wet or unwashed yet, I wouldn’t say it smells of anything.
Knitting with yak yarn
Now let’s talk about the knitting properties. This will arguably depend a lot on your personal preferences and the quality of the yarn you are buying but I can give you some more general pointers.
Personally speaking, I find knitting with yak yarn very pleasant. It’s not as fuzzy as other luxury yarns. As a result, even complicated repeats, frogging, or picking up stitches don’t require extra care (yes, I’m looking at you, dear mohair yarn).
Obviously, because of its sheer softness, it’s a pleasure to hold in your hand. And since it’s so light, it’s not very abrasive either (experienced knitters will know the kind of furrows some yarns can dig into your fingers).
In terms of stitch definition, I’d give it a B+. I wouldn’t say it’s the very best yarn for cables or a crystal clear lace shawl but for all other purposes, it works remarkably well. Not sure if this is any help but I’d say it’s somewhere in between a superwash merino yarn and shetland wool.
So, all in all, it’s a very versatile yarn. 100% pure yak hair is usually spun in a way that it will retain a mildly recognizable handknit character. So, while an experienced knitter will be able to produce a swatch in stockinette stitch with superwash merino that’s almost inseparable from a machine-knit counterpart, you probably won’t be able to achieve this with yak yarn.
You do have to consider its warmth as well. I’m not sure it’s the perfect choice for a summer t-shirt or a light shawl. But for winter garments it’s just perfect. And I wouldn’t say it’s oppressively warm either (you know, the kind of sweaters you can only wear when it’s below -10° Celsius). For me, my sweaters are just perfect to wear on a sunny autumn day (without a jacket).
Difference between regular yak and baby yak yarn
If you look around online or in a specialized yarn shop, you will find quite a couple of different qualities. And now you might be wondering what “Super Yak” means, and if baby yak yarn is really so much softer. And I guess the answer is: It depends.
As I said before, yak down can be as fine as 14 microns and will go up as far as 19. The fineness will depend on the age of the animal, the breed, and the altitude of its pastures. So, the label baby yak by and in itself doesn’t say a lot. Only experience and touching it yourself will be able to give you the right answer.
So, if you plan to order sweater quantities, I’d recommend you to buy a sample first and see how it knits up.
How to wash yak yarn
Compared to other handknit items, yak yarn doesn’t require any special attention: handwash it in lukewarm water with a very mild wool detergent. Then wring it out gently and let it dry flat. Don’t put it in the dryer or expose it to high heat (the fibers will get brittle as the natural oils will evaporate).
Yak yarn does felt and it actually felts well (though it can shrink quite a bit! up 40 to 50% and due to the short & fine fibers it’s certainly no heavy-duty felt). So, you really shouldn’t put it into the washing machine or use hot water and too much stirring around.
While washing, you will also notice that it soaks up water really fast. It’s thirsty almost like a sponge. You know how some fibers are a bit reluctant to submerge in water and you need to push them down? Yak yarn will “jump” into the water like it was desperate to take a dive.
Interestingly enough, it will also release the water just as fast. So, when you press a project between two towel layers gently, it will emerge almost feeling as if dry.
Summary: Is it worth it?
So, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Is buying yak yarn for knitting worth it? After all, the luxurious yarn can typically cost between 25 and 40 US-Dollar per 100 grams. Not exactly cheap.
Now, this is entirely my personal opinion but I think it is well worth it. It’s just so soft and a nice alternative for so many winter knitting patterns. Plus, while expensive, it’s not as outrageously expensive as other luxury yarn (like cashmere or Quivit which can cost up to 200 US-Dollar per 100 grams).
I really love the mixture between being durable/relatively easy to care and it’s light softness.
On a more critical note, you really shouldn’t expect the kind of instant fluffy wow experience. It’s a denser more subtle softness because there is not much of a halo. Then again, those fluffy luxury yarns are often very difficult to care for and don’t work for a lot of knitting patterns either. So, you can see this as a pro argument as well.
I think you get a good bang for your buck. Plus, there’s no real hype around this yarn (yet?). So, those brands that are currently available are almost all offering lovely quality and no eyewash products yet.