The Yak was domesticated approximately 3,000 years ago by the Tibetans to be used for the transport of goods, but also in order to exploit the fibre, meat, skin, milk and other derivatives. It has always colonised particularly inhospitable Alpine environments characterised by tundra and rocks.
Cloaked in layers of long shaggy hair, and protected by a soft down, the yaks live at high altitudes in groups of between 10 and 30 individuals, more rarely in groups of up to 200, in the most remote areas of the Himalayan plateau in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Ladakh, China and Western Mongolia.
This large bovid possesses a thick, shaggy coat that is essential for its survival in the freezing temperatures of the high altitudes of Tibet. The coat is characterised by long coarse hairs and a thick, soft underlying down. The colouring ranges from black to dark brown with paler patches, sometimes whitish, around the muzzle. The animals that live at higher altitudes develop a thicker and longer coat, which often reaches to the ground.
Each spring the dense hairy coat of the yak is carefully combed to gather the fibre, and is then trimmed. Only the stomach and the lower part of the animal is combed, while the neck, the back and the entire upper part is left as it is. Each animal produces annually approximately 100 grams of hair, and the sale of this fibre represents the only resource of the nomad family for earning money.
The fibre is stored in big sacks and sent to the collection centres where it is sold to the purchasers and enters the production cycle which will transform it into fibre that can be spun.
The first phase is the selection, during which the coarser fibres are eliminated by hand and the material is classified in terms of colour and fineness. This is a slow and laborious task, performed by qualified workers, leading to the production of a daily quantity of approximately 10 kg of selected fibre.
Once it has been classified by colour, resulting in approximately 60% dark brown, 30% light brown and just 10%White, the fibre is then beaten to eliminate any earthy parts and then washed.
After this, the fine soft undercoat has to be separated from the shaggy coarse hairs that form the outer coat of the animal. This procedure, which is the same as that used for cashmere fibre, takes place in the dehairing plant, with the help of machinery which, exploiting the weight difference, separates the coarse fibres (heavier) from those which are softer and finer (lighter).
The dehaired fibre deriving from adult animals, ready to be used in the manufacturing industry, is of a length of 32-34 mm with a fineness ranging from 17 to 18.5 microns, while that originating from animals in the first two years of life is of a fineness that can vary from 16 to 17 micron, and is hence classified as "Super Yak" or "Baby Yak".
The province of Qinghai is the world leader in the collection of Yak fibre, with an annual production of 500 tons a year, while the overall total is around 1,000-1,200 tons.