Have you wondered where that fluffy, lovely, warm cashmere scarf or mohair jumper really come from? Or just how ethically was it produced? Well, let’s explore together the ins and outs of hair-based fibres and their sustainable story.
We talked about types of wool a while ago and the sustainability and ethic aspects related to it. But not all that is warm, woolly and cosy is actually wool. There are a few other animal fibres that can be knitted or woven into lovely cloth that are not technically categorised as wool, but they are actually the hair various animals, from rabbits to goats, lamas and alpacas.
So just to recap, here is a list of common animal fibres (source Wikipedia):
So in this post, I wanted to talk about the hairy fibres, i.e not wool coming from sheep. A bit of a long one, but hoping you’ll enjoy my little foray into all things warm and fluffy.
What is it?
Angora is actually not wool, but hair. It is the coat of the Angora rabbit. Angora is known for its softness, thin fibres, and what knitters refer to as a halo (fluffiness). It is also known for its silky texture. It is much warmer and lighter than wool due to the hollow core of the angora fibre.
Harvesting occurs up to three times a year (about every 4 months) and is collected by plucking or shearing of the moulting fur. Plucking ensures a minimum of guard hair (the top layer consisting of longer, generally coarser, nearly straight shafts of hair that protrude through the down hair layer), is left on the animal and the fur is not as matted when plucked.
90% of Angora fur is produced in China, although Europe, Chile and the United States also produce small quantities. In China, there are more than 50 million Angora rabbits, producing 2,500–3,000 tonnes of hair per year.
The sustainability angle
As Angora rabbits are reared only for the fur, sometimes in huge farms, Angora yarn and fabrics raise more ethical rather than sustainability issues. In 2013, animal rights organisations published absolutely shocking images of rabbits being harmed while the plucking was taking place, having all their fur removed while being manhandled in terrible ways. As a result, major retailers have banned Angora products in response to welfare concerns.
Although rabbits naturally moult and, in fact, benefit from the hair being gently removed (they get hot and can ingest it, but unlike cats, cannot cough it out so easily), it has not yet been thoroughly demonstrated that is it possible to ethically mass produce Angora fibres. Here’s a Guardian article on this topic. There are small artisan producers who rear bunnies in cruelty-free conditions, but prices fit the rarity of the products. Of course, spinning from owner’s own pets is possible. A video demonstrating can be seen here.
What is it?
Cashmere is a luxury fibre from the hair of the Cashmere goat, which originates from the Kashmir region in South Asia. Cashmere goats produce a double fleece that consists of a fine, soft undercoat or underdown of hair mingled with a straighter and much coarser outer coating of hair called guard hair. For the fine underdown to be sold and processed further, it must be de-haired. De-hairing is a mechanical process that separates the coarse hairs from the fine hair. After de-hairing, the resulting “cashmere” is ready to be dyed and converted into textile yarn, fabrics and garments.
Cashmere can be harvested either by combing manually or through sheering. Combing produces better quality fibres, but it is more time-consuming. Sheering will result in a higher coarse hair content and lower pure cashmere.
China has become the largest producer of raw cashmere and their clip (amount of unprocessed hair) is estimated at 10,000 tonnes per year. Mongolia produces more than 3,000 tonnes, while Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, and other Central Asian Republics produce significant but lesser amounts. The annual world clip is estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000 tonnes. “Pure cashmere”, resulting from removing animal grease, dirt and coarse hairs from the fleece, is estimated at about 6,500 tonnes. It is estimated that on average yearly production per goat is 150 grams (from Wikipedia).
The sustainability angle
The luxury value of cashmere comes from its rarity, as an average goat only produces a small amount each year. Therefore, the increasing demand for cashmere products has led to increasing numbers of animals in very small regions (the cashmere goats require very specific climatic conditions and that is why there are only very few regions suitable for them). These areas tend to be quite barren anyway, but with hundreds or thousands of animals requiring food and water, the environmental impacts are even worse. Current grazing practices for cashmere goats, combined with global warming are putting the livelihoods of nomadic herders and the fragile ecosystem that support it at risk.
A very in-depth analysis on how cheap Chinese cashmere became widely available together with stories from the local herders in Mongolia can be found in this article from the Chicago Tribune.
The Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA) is a UK charity whose mission is to establish a Responsibly Sourced Cashmere Standard and work with communities, local government and brands to promote improving economic, social and environmental viability for those who work in the cashmere supply chain. As far as I know, the standard is not yet widely spread, so it will be difficult to find products that are certified at the moment.
However, you can still buy cashmere products, just make sure they are not made from virgin fibres. You can either choose vintage – cashmere is one of the most resilient fibres and some of the traditional cashmere producers, like Pringles of Scotland will repair any of their garments no matter how old. Or you can try to find regenerated cashmere – a fibre made from factory off-cuts or post-consumer garments, like Stella McCartney.
What is it?
Mohair is a fibre made out of the hair of the Angora goat, which is silky, durable and takes dye very well. It is also flame resistant, naturally elastic, does not felt and is crease resistant. Mohair fibre is approximately 25–45 microns in diameter. It increases in diameter with the age of the goat, growing along with the animal, at a rate of 2 cms/month.
Mohair is shorn from the goat twice a year, in the spring and in the fall. One goat will produce 11 to 17 pounds (5–8 kg) of mohair a year. The hair is then processed to remove natural grease, dirt and vegetable matter. Mohair grows in uniform locks. Angora is a single-coat breed, and unlike cashmere, there is no need to de-hair a mohair fleece to separate the coarse hair from the down hair. (Source: Wikipedia).
Author: Stanley Petrowski via Wikimedia
South Africa is the largest mohair producer in the world, followed by the United States, but since 1981, Angora goats have been introduced in the UK. Read more on the British Angora Goat Society site here.
The sustainability angle
Mohair is hailed as a more sustainable fibre than cashmere or Angora, however, there are concerns linked to it as well. In a policy document from Mohair South Africa (the governing industry body in SA), they are highlighting the potential risks of impacts to “thicket types within the Subtropical thicket vegetation”. We are talking goats after all… This is a very interesting document albeit very long (you can have a skim through yourself here). I’m not sure how much these policies apply in practice, but I was glad to see that at least there was concern over environmental, animal welfare and social issues and they are recommending to their producers to be part of a sustainable industry. In general, if sustainable farming practices and pasture rotation can make small grazing animal enterprises a sustainable option.
2018 EDIT: Following a campaign from PETA (contains very disturbing images), many high-street retailers have decided to immediately ban mohair. The reasons cited mostly revolve around the inability to effectively control their supply chains and audit the Angora farms, to ensure the right welfare conditions for the animals their fibres come from.
Alpaca, Vicuña & Guanaco
What are they?
They are all members of the Camelid family (related to camels) that live in the heights of the Andes in South America. Their wool has been used by the Incas and other local populations for hundreds of years, because it is fine, warm and light.
Alpacas are the most common, as they are being bred outside their native regions, especially in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, UK, and numerous other places. Alpacas were first brought into the New World by the Spanish, but early attempts to make cloth out of it were unsuccessful until a new method was discovered in Bradford in the 1800s. Bradford thus became the worldwide centre for alpaca cloth production.
Vicuna is the wild cousin of the alpaca and produces the finest wool in the world. However, only about 0.5 kg of it from one animal a year. Also, because of intensive hunting, vicunas populations were declining, so in the 70s, hunting and exports of wool were banned. However, since then, due to conservation efforts, the populations have increased significantly and since 1993, the ban on wool was lifted. The Peruvian government has a special labelling system that certifies that the wool comes from a vicuna that was caught, sheered and released through traditional methods, once every 4 years. The profits from the wool will go back to the local communities. But vicunas are still prone to poaching and loss of habitat. Because of this, some countries have banned the importation of the wool to save the animal.
Guanaco is a camelid native to South America, related to alpaca and vicuna. It can be found mostly in Argentina’s pampas and in Chile and is also considered threatened, especially because of loss of pasture and loss of habitat. Guanacos are the parent species of the domesticated llama. Guanaco fibre is particularly prized for its soft, warm feel and is found in luxury fabric. The guanaco’s soft wool is valued second only to that of the vicuña. Like their domestic descendant, the llama, the guanaco is double coated with a coarse guard hair and soft undercoat, which is about 16-18 microns in diameter and comparable to the best cashmere.
The sustainable angle
All of the above fibres are considered more sustainable than sheep wool, mainly because they do not contain lanolin (the greasy substance wool is covered in and which needs to be removed by chemical treatments). Also, being part of the camel family, alpacas, vicunas and guanacos do not have a split hoof, but padded feet and this is believed to be better for the pastures they graze on. Also, the fact that they cut the vegetation they eat, instead of pulling it from the root is more gentle on their food sources. Whether collected from farmed animals or gathered from the wild animals, the alpaca, vicuna and guanaco fibres very often provide incomes for local communities, who still process the wool using traditional methods and often making hand-made items that are sold through cooperatives to European and American markets. So they have a strong ethical and fair trade component. There are even alpacas being raised in the UK, read more on the British Alpaca society website. The only issues I could find with these fibres is the potential poached provenance for vicuna and guanaco.
Source: Deryck Chan via Wikimedia
I have seen British Alpaca at the Knit & Stitch Show at Olympia in March and it looked lovely. I only wish it came in brighter colours!
WHETHER YOU ARE A SEWER OR KNITTER, HAVE YOU EVER USED ANY OF THESE FIBRES? HAVE YOU ASKED ANY QUESTIONS ABOUT THEIR PROVENANCE? HAVE YOU GOT ANY ANSWERS? PLEASE SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS IN THE COMMENTS BELOW.
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