I love yaks (and their fiber)

Yesterday I had the great good fortune of visiting Carl and Eileen Koop (and their yaks) at Bijou Basin Ranch. It was a 263.5-mile round trip and worth every bit of the journey. Here's part of why:

01-nose_0703 - Version 2

The yaks charmed me completely.

Backing up just a bit, here's a sign along the last bit of paved road (state highway, in this case) on my trip to the ranch.


And here's what that sign said:


West Bijou Creek. It's important in the story of this year on the Colorado plains to note that I didn't see any water in the creek. We've had a drought that's been affecting all sorts of livestock, including the fiber-producing types, like sheep and goats and yaks. I'll touch lightly on this again later.

Here's a view of the type of landscape in that part of the world.


And here's the type of wide county road I turned onto from the highway.


A number of miles later, I took the second right onto this narrower type of county road.


Over the years, there's obviously been enough water along that line running perpendicular to the road (likely a currently dry creek) to support the growth of those trees. It's good that they're well-enough established to withstand some dry times.

A few more miles, a driveway, and a turn into the yard brought me to this view.


Closer up, even before I said hello to Carl and Eileen, here they were:


I was at this point just under nine miles from pavement and twenty-nine miles from the nearest grocery store (which was a Safeway, but a rather limited one; I wanted, but couldn't get, unsweetened black tea, either cold or hot; they do normally stock it). The roads, however, were clear and well maintained. As long as there wasn't a storm of any sort making it impossible to see where the edges were (which there wasn't yesterday, but there was last Saturday, when I'd planned to make this trip), it was a smooth and easy drive.

There are nine yaks currently in residence. There were quite a few more, but a number needed to be sold to other ranchers because of the drought. The Koops see themselves as stewards of the land as well as of the animals, and even though they use a lot of supplemental feed they need to watch the condition of the pastures, which have diminished in capacity with the recent lack of water.

These yaks are the spirit behind Bijou Basin Ranch yarns. They provide the motivation for the Koops' business, and token amounts of fiber. The Koops want to do more to get yak fiber into our yarns than they could manage by growing it all themselves. So they work with other people who have yak herds, both in North America and in Asia, to make that happen in pretty magical ways.

I'll talk more about yarn (and spinning fiber) at the end of this post, but let's get back to the yaks I met.

This is Napoleon, the Big Guy.


He's especially fond of treats, and thinks he should have them all. (That's his YUM tongue-move.) The Koops make sure that their animals are well socialized, and put a lot of effort into establishing trust between animals and humans (and, consequently, vice versa).

These are Tibetan yaks. There are two types in this group, Imperials and what are called either gray-noses or Blacks. Napoleon is an Imperial yak. He's solidly black, including his nose.

So are this year's two babies (that's Napoleon's comparatively massive flank in the foreground).


The babies start out fuzzy, and as they mature their coats develop the mix of hair and down that will keep them warm. The down is also what makes luxurious yarns. (The hair is also a useful spinning fiber, but Tibetans know more about what to do with it, or with a mix of the two fibers, than North Americans do. We don't make many yurts here.)

Here's a baby face.


The yaks tolerate, and sometimes harass, the barn cat. Even the little guys chase the cat now and then. The cat goes with the flow.

Here's a this-year baby snuggled next to one of last year's calves.


Last year's complement consists of Knit and Purl, and aren't they fine-looking beings?


They're a little hard to tell apart. One is slightly larger than the other; I think it's Knit who is a little bigger than Purl. One of them was slightly lame when first born, possibly because of a lack of room to stretch out before they were born, but is fine now.

My photos of Ruby, Onyx, and Jade all ended up fairly backlit. But let's see what I can do for them and Doc. They're all grey-noses (Blacks).

Here's one of the ladies: I need a bit more help to tell the three of them apart, although they have distinctive appearances and personalities. I was just trying to learn all nine at once while engaged in fascinating conversation and taking pictures! (The first photo at the top of this post is another of the ladies, the one with a crooked right horn. The one with the crooked horn is not Ruby. Ruby is one of the two adult females with regularly angled horns. She is the least interested in being patted or given an ear-stratch, but I think she warmed up with time, and treats.)


And Doc is in front here, with Knit and Purl.


I tried to get a good photo of each of them, but I may need to go back and try again. That would be fun!

Recently I completed a pair of fingerless mitts using the laceweight, natural brown yak yarn that I got for the KDTV segment on yak fiber that I did last year (it's on YouTube). I made swatches for the show, and am now slowly (between other samples, research, and deadlines) using the leftover yarn to make teaching samples.


The pattern is Miriam Felton's Gable Mitts, from her book, Twist and Knit. I was a little concerned about how well the pattern would show up in such a dark yarn, but I'm pleased. I put the thumb gusset on the side of the hand (one of the pattern's options), and would probably use the palm-placement alternative next time, although I'm perfectly content with these.  (I modified the thumb finish and cast-off slightly; the modification wasn't necessary, but I felt like it.)


The yarns. Ah, the yarns. That natural laceweight is, for me, the iconic yak-down yarn, but it's far from all there is to the inspiring and alluring array of Bijou Spun possibilities. When we went inside for more talk and a cup of tea, I almost disappeared into the yarns on the table. So much so that I forgot to take pictures. But let me tell you about some of what I saw there—and there are good photos at the link at the beginning of this paragraph.

There are both natural colors (brown and creamy-white) and dyed shades by Lorna's Laces. Weights range from ultrafine (a yak/silk 50/50 that Eileen is experimenting with but isn't satisfied with yet: it was absolutely delicious, and all I can do is trust that she has something even more exquisite in her mind) to light worsted (the yak/Cormo blend). There are also pure yak, natural and in dyed colors and in several weights; yak/bamboo; yak/Merino; yak with a tiny touch of nylon; and even more.

While any of these would make me happy at any time, my favorites are the yak/Cormo blend, the new yak/silk (a test run), and the sportweight pure yak (some in dyed colors). The yak/silk blend (Shangri-La) is a very slender yarn with enough twist to make it durable. It combines the shine and drape of silk with the warmth and body of yak. Note to the knitter who doesn't mind fine needles and has been looking for something extraordinary: check it out. In the right light, that gray is really silver. The other colors, not as intense as Eileen requested, are knock-me-down beautiful anyway.

Bijou Basin also has, for spinners, "clouds" of down, which are a far cry from the fiber I encountered in the course of a freelance spinning-and-knitting job I did about thirty years ago. An Ivy League professor brought back mixed hair and down from "the Himalaya" (his term: I was never sure exactly where). He wanted it made into yarn and then into a sweater. I tried to talk him into shifting his goal to a welcoming rug for his office, but he would not be convinced, even by my most compelling arguments about the potential disadvantages of a hairy garment. (I was, and still am, convinced that the people who sold him the fiber could not imagine that anyone in North America could or would be spinning the stuff, and so sold him what they didn't want. Yes, they do often use the fibers mixed. But the condition of these several pounds of fiber was beyond the line of simply alternative preferences.) I did make him a sweater, as he firmly requested (he was paying the bill! and I needed groceries), although I purchased color-matched Lopi yarn for the ribbings (cuffs, neck finish, and lower edge), in order to give the sweater a chance of being wearable. I still wonder if he ever put it on for more than a few minutes. I never met the man, and I doubt that I will ever know what became of the sweater.

We fiber folk—yarnies and spinners alike—have come a long way from those days, in large part because of Bijou Basin Ranch. Their down ranges from 15 to 18 microns; in fineness, that's excellent cashmere territory.

What a wonderful day. Thanks to Eileen and Carl! And to their irresistible yaks.



Why did I happen to take a trip to Bijou Basin Ranch at this time? I'm gathering materials for the second Explore 4 Retreat, to be held in Friday Harbor, Washington, March 10–15, 2013. Each day will focus on a different fiber. One of last year's participants requested that 2013 include yak, so yaks we shall have! If the retreat were closer to Bijou Basin Ranch, we'd be taking a field trip. As it is, I picked up information—and fiber!—to share with the group. (The event is full, with a short waiting list.)

Napoleon says I need to end with another photo of him.


He's very handsome. Also basically humble, if just a touch at-the-front-of-the-line-please.


8 thoughts on “I love yaks (and their fiber)”

  1. Thanks for the field trip, Deb! What fun to meet the yaks and learn about their fiber and the yarns coming from it. That Yak/silk combo sounds wonderful. Your fingerless mitts are lovely too. And congrats on filling Explore 4 (v.2) beforehand–the participants are lucky to be working with you….

  2. I love yaks too.

    I visited a ranch in Steamboat a few years ago… and Hubba always cautions me not to come home with any yaks when I go to the Estes Park Wool Festival. 😉

  3. That looks like too much fun, Deb! I always like going up to visit our friends who raise bison here for the same reason. While some of the calves have been bottle-raised and have little fear of humans bearing treats, Peter and Judy work hard to keep them from being too domesticated.

    It makes it harder to get fibre from them, but I think I like them more wild. 😉

  4. I am breathing in, imagining I can smell them. I grew up out in the country, and some of my favorite scents are related to livestock (not pigs particularly but sheep and bovines.) I might buy some raw yak fiber just to experience that scent, too. I used to walk a mile out of my way in Japan so I could pass by some closed gates that hid cows, so I could breath the scent of home.

  5. Susan, yak fiber might work for you. Some time when we have the leisure (ha?), I can bring you a swatch and we’ll see whether you might want to try it.

    Kathryn, the yaks would match your dogs.

    Yaks are domesticated, Linda–at least, this type is. I’m fascinated by the relationships between yaks, cattle, and bison.

    You and me, Diana: the scents of bovines and sheep speak of home (and not so much the pigs, although pigs are amazing). Carl Koop and I were talking about that (what types of barnyard aromas are comfort smells, which aren’t, and why) while we visited with the yaks. I never found a place in Japan where I smelled cows!

  6. Adorable huge fuzzballs, yes? I have no fondness for dirt roads or animal smells, but I love gentle beings. I also love your photos and your stories.

    The yarns sound luscious. Silver is a gorgeous color with which to knit. I’ll be interested to see what the dyed colors look like, as well. I’m guessing teal and eggplant might be possible. Crossing fingers.

  7. Lynn, there's a whole lot more color than you might imagine. Yaks don't just come in brown, although that's the color that most frequently ends up in yarns because it's what most of the blends end up as. They also come in natural white, and all of Bijou Basin's whites are natural. So you could get the bright colors you like, including turquoise!

    Interestingly, yak is one of the few protein fibers that can be bleached without causing it serious damage. But the natural white is the way to go, for both textile and environmental reasons.

Comments are closed.