For most of the 20th century, Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union, belonging to its textile-producing region. State farms managed livestock production, including specially bred wool sheep and fiber-producing goats, and the fiber was transferred to state-owned textile mills, which in turn shipped finished yarn and clothing to a very large Soviet market for sales. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Kyrgyzstan’s animal fiber and textile-producing infrastructure also collapsed. Kyrgyzstan became independent but, external markets were lost, textile mills were privatized and then closed when all the equipment was sold off, and newly-privatized livestock owners were left without a state-run outlet for fiber from their own animals.
Although goats historically have been prevalent in Kyrgyzstan (mostly for personal meat consumption and local sales), cashmere wasn’t a fiber that Kyrgyz mills worked with. Cashmere is defined as the downy undercoat that specific goat breeds grow for extra winter warmth. Naturally molting off in spring, cashmere is a very short fiber that requires specialized mills for processing. In Soviet times, an effort was made to cross breed the native goat with different fiber breeds goats, such as the Angora goat. The result was a heavier harvest per animal but a longer mohair-like fiber that the mill machinery could process. This fiber is not recognized internationally as cashmere.
So how did Kyrgyzstan go from not having a cashmere harvesting tradition to potentially being able to use cashmere as a new source of fiber income for shepherds?
The answer originates with the work of Dr. Carol Kerven and Sabyr Toigonbaev, who together run the Kyrgyz NGO Tuvet Cashmere.
Meet the researchers
Carol Kerven is a British applied social researcher in agricultural and livestock development. In 2001, Carol was working with livestock-keepers in Kazakhstan, which borders Kyrgyzstan. She invited her colleague, Professor Angus Russell, (developer of the Scottish cashmere goat breed) to join her there. While at a local market admiring the camels, Angus spied some scruffy little goats. It was springtime. He asked the older gentleman – an ‘aqsaqal’ in Kyrgyz – a ‘white beard’ (a term referring to a wise, older person of substance) if he could look at the goat. Angus parted the hair on the back of the little goat and turned to Carol, inquiring if she knew that these were cashmere goats. Carol had been working with livestock in the area for 5 years and had no idea. They gathered a bit of the molting cashmere and Angus took it back to the cashmere lab in Scotland. Results were that it was very fine cashmere indeed!
Sabyr Toigonbaev is a Kyrgyz livestock specialist and university instructor on the topic. In 2003, a German development project hired Sabyr for his animal expertise. The project’s plan was to bring cashmere goats to Kyrgyzstan from Mongolia. Sabyr began learning about cashmere. Of course, he was familiar with the local Kyrgyz goats (referred in Kyrgyz to as ‘jaidari’, meaning simply ‘local animal’). However, this was the first that Sabyr was exposed to the concept of cashmere as we know it. In Kyrgyz, cashmere would be termed 'tuvet' which means ‘down’ – or ‘soft fiber’.
Carol was already working with livestock-keepers in Kyrgyzstan and, back in Kazakhstan, had begun working with native cashmere goats. Carol and Sabyr’s paths crossed because of their individual endeavors. Carol invited Sabyr to join a small group to visit Mongolia in 2005, to learn about the Mongolian cashmere supply chain. By 2008, they actively began conducting the research that would bring about their work with shepherds and native goat breeding in Kyrgyzstan toward cashmere production. It was clear to both researchers that this endeavor was not about bringing in goats from elsewhere, which, as Carol described, would be like “bringing coal to West Virginia in the USA or Newcastle in Great Britain”. Rather, it was about developing the native resources at hand and preserving a native goat to the benefit of the shepherds.
High altitude Kyrgyz village all-black goat flock. Photo by Carol Kerven
Carol and Sabyr’s research established that the best cashmere-producing goats were found in southern Kyrgyzstan where high mountains separate shepherd villages from the rest of the country. The more remote the village, the more likely it was to find native cashmere-producing goats that hadn’t been cross-bred with Angora and other breeds, and who produced excellent quality fiber. Once the road of access ended to reach shepherds, it became too difficult for the Soviets to expand their systematic cross-breeding program. It was literally the mountains that saved the native goats.
From research to a cashmere program
As a result of their research, Carol and Sabyr sought to establish a native goat breeding program that would include shepherd training on best goat husbandry and collection practices, as well as education on the characteristics of high-quality cashmere. As researchers and livestock specialists, they could contribute in this way toward a plan that could provide shepherds with a sustainable income through cashmere, one that might supplement their income which was much reduced from Soviet days. For such a program to be of benefit to the shepherds, however, it needed cashmere buyers who would value the quality of fiber coming from the native goats and who would be willing to pay a premium to shepherds for the fiber.
This is where Sy Belohlavek, founder of June Cashmere, comes into the picture. In Part II, we’ll continue the story with how Carol and Sabyr met Sy, the establishment of Tuvet Cashmere and June Cashmere, as well as insight into shepherds’ thoughts about the programs and what is needed for this endeavor to continue.
Kerven et al. nitial Evaluation of the productivity and physical properties of a selection Kyrgyz cashmere goat breeding flock. Conference : IV. INTERNATIONAL EURASIAN AGRICULTUREANDNATURAL SCIENCESCONGRESS ONLINE, October 2020