Downy undercoat of a goat that is cashmere. Photo: Erica Manning
It's June and we are at the end of the annual cashmere fiber collection season. Cashmere, defined as the downy undercoat that grows on goats to offer extra warmth for the animals living in harsh, mountain winters, naturally molts off during the spring months. In Kyrgyzstan, in villages of lower altitudes, the native goat, referred to as jaidiri, begins molting in March, since warmer and longer days arrive here first. Molting progresses throughout the region's villages as thawing temperatures make their way up the altitudes, with the process ending completely sometime in June.
Combing cashmere fiber, Kyrgyzstan. Photo: Erica Manning
Fiber collection occurs when shepherd families receive word that the June Cashmere truck is heading their way to purchase fiber. Communication is important during this time as semi-nomadic shepherds are anxious to head up the mountains with their animals to spend the summer in the Jailoo, or high mountain pastures. The fresh grasses uncovered by the melting snow await them. Our purchasing truck needs to time its arrival to the villages just as molting occurs and collection can take place and before families leave for yurt living.
Cashmere fiber. Photo: Erica Manning.
Shepherds collect cashmere by combing the molting fiber. Combing (not shearing) is essential to the well-being of the goats as their long, outer coats are needed for warmth and protection in the high mountains. It takes a shepherd about a half hour to comb a single goat, whose fiber is then placed in its own bag. Shepherds gather their fiber bags to meet the June Cashmere purchasing truck for weighing and assessing. To incentivize best husbandry and collection practices, June Cashmere pays shepherds with a 3-tiered system. Middle grade fiber receives the current market price. Higher quality fiber (in length, fineness, and cleanliness) receives pricing above market value.
Grading fiber for purchase. Photo: Erica Manning
The secondary income for shepherds that comes from cashmere fiber sales arrives at a time when cash flow is at a low. In early fall, shepherds arrive back from the Jailoo with fattened animals for selling. Those families who stayed in the villages to farm have crops to sell. As activity gears up outside again, a spring income is welcome. Incidentally, a goat is the least expensive animal for a shepherd family to own. Our cashmere fiber purchases can help the poorest of families add to their income.
Once purchased by June Cashmere, this precious commodity of cashmere fiber, with only 4 ounces produced per goat annually, will begin its course of processing: sorting to keep only the finest and longest, most uniform fibers; scouring to clean the fiber; de-hairing (passing the fiber through specialized equipment to remove anything that is not cashmere), and finally milling and dyeing to become yarn. Along the way, 60% of a goat's original 4 ounces of fiber will be lost in weight. Ultimately, it takes 4-6 goats to yield enough yarn to knit a single sweater. Compare that to a turn-around in numbers: a single sheep can produce enough wool annually for one to knit 4-6 sweaters! Cashmere is a precious commodity indeed.
Bags of fiber purchased by June Cashmere. Photo: Erica Manning
Fun fact: Did you ever wonder how our company got its name? The word June in English sounds the same as a word in Kyrgyz, but the words have different meanings. In Kyrgyz, june means animal fiber. In English, June can be a woman's name (I've been called June instead of Amy a multitude of times) and also refers to the 6th month, the month that wraps up cashmere fiber collection time each year in Kyrgyzstan. It was fitting within the goals of our company to utilize the dual-language relevant and symbolic meanings of june in a way that highlights the Kyrgyz people and this fiber and connects them meaningfully to a world market.