As consumers flock to more natural fibers and brands look for a way to distinguish themselves, merino sheep are being passed over for the more exotic llama, bison, and now yak. Active wear company Kora creates apparel made from yak wool sourced directly from nomadic herders in the Himalayas.
According to the company, yak wool is soft and naturally odor-resistant like merino wool but is 40% warmer weight for weight, 66% more breathable, and 17% better at transporting water vapor away from your skin. These unique properties can be contributed to yaks living at much higher altitudes than merino sheep and often enduring harsher conditions.
A study by Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Sport & Exercise Science showed that when running in low temperatures, base layers made with yak wool maintain core body temperature better than synthetic or merino base layers. During the test, researchers measured the surface temperature of the test subjects’ skin to see how much heat they were losing. The test subjects who wore yak wool lost an average of just -3.5˚C, compared to a -6˚C drop when wearing merino and -8˚C when wearing polyester.
At Outdoor Retailer, I had the chance to talk with founder Michael Kleinwort who came up with the idea during a winter trek into a remote corner of the Eastern Himalayas. Passionate about supporting the nomadic yak herders he encountered, Kleinwort teamed up with the Kegawa Herders’ Cooperative to fairly source his wool–92 families have signed up to the collective so far. Kora offers the herders a guaranteed premium price for the season, and even gives them a stipend or bonus at the end of the season to incentivize the herders to keep collecting yak wool.
The yak wool is all collected by hand–each spring, the yaks begin to shed their soft wool underlayer for the summer. The herders collect the loose wool (a painless process for the yaks) and bring it to market. From the Himalayas, the raw yak wool makes a tour of China, where it is cleaned, sorted, de-haired, spun into yarn, turned into fabric, and finally made into Kora base layers.
Kora’s first fabric creation is the Hima-Layer Original 230, used in a handful of products including the Shola 230 Crew ($145)–a pure yak wool base layer with temperature-regulating properties. The piece offers warmth in extremely cold weather, yet breathes and wicks moisture during intense activity. The yak wool is naturally odor resistant and offers UPF 40+ sun protection. The yak wool base layer is even machine washable.