June Cashmere – Supporting the Nomadic Kyrgyz Lifestyle
In Kyrgyzstan, cashmere goat-keeping goes back many centuries. June Cashmere is a company whose aim is to help local nomadic shepherds maintain their way of life – and at the same time produce yarn milled to last.
When knitting, how often do you stop to think about the journey that the yarn at your hands has made? What kind of animal did the fibre first keep warm? Who has collected, scoured and cleaned the fibre? Where has it been spun? What methods have been used to dye it to create the colour you fell in love with in the yarn shop?
One of the yarn brands that tries to make its production chain more transparent is June Cashmere. Founded in the USA, it produces yarn from the cashmere fibre of Kyrgyz goats. By doing this, it helps the nomadic shepherds maintain their livelihood, which has a long local tradition.
For both Sy Belohlavek, the company’s executive director in Kyrgyzstan, and
Amy Swanson, its director in the USA, June Cashmere is more than just a business.
“Our goal is to strengthen the local community and make the people proud of their own work. We want to honour the Kyrgyz traditions and increase the appreciation for this special resource,” Sy and Amy summarise.
Sy moved to Kyrgyzstan with his wife and children in 2010 and started to make connections with the nomadic shepherds. He established a team and first began to collect cashmere in 2013. In the following years, they began to produce yarn and started the June Cashmere brand in 2016. Currently, June Cashmere works with around 1,200 nomadic shepherd families in Kyrgyzstan. The yarns are sold to knitters all around the world.
Creative life in rough conditions
Kyrgyzstan is a small country in the mountains of Central Asia, through which
runs the ancient Silk Road connecting East and West. Kyrgyz cashmere is not as well-known as Chinese or Mongolian cashmere, because historically it has been exported and mixed in with other countries’ fibres. From the start, it has been important for June Cashmere to highlight the Kyrgyz identity of the yarn. The word “june” means animal fibre in the Kyrgyz language, and in English, it marks the month that ends each annual cashmere collection season.
Use of animal wool, meat and milk is an integral part of the Kyrgyz way of life. Traditionally, nomadic shepherds have lived in yurts and moved from one pasture to the next according to their flock’s needs. In the Soviet times, collectivised living was established and shepherds were settled into newly formed villages. However, the shepherds kept their nomadic way of life as part of the yearly cycle. When the snow melts in the spring, the shepherds move to the mountains and spend the summer there. When all the grass has been eaten in the autumn and it starts to snow, they return to the villages to winter.
“It is amazing how people have turned living in such rough conditions into something functional and creative. To survive in the mountains, people have refined a very efficient and minimalistic lifestyle, carrying with them precisely what they need,” Sy describes.
Since the Soviet collapse, many people have moved away from Kyrgyzstan in search of work, and around 40 per cent of the gross domestic product comes from remittances from abroad. Possibilities for a livelihood, particularly in the countryside, are limited, and this is where June Cashmere hopes to be able to contribute.
“We want to help those who want to maintain their nomadic lifestyle,” Sy says.
Soft yarn and values
For June Cashmere, sustainability and ethics are their keywords. For nomadic shepherds, this means, among other things, that they are paid a fair price for their cashmere fibre, without intermediaries. For animals, it means that their cashmere is combed during moulting, not sheared. This way, the goats keep their outer hair to protect them in unstable weather conditions.
Cashmere is defined as the goat’s fine and downy undercoat. It grows in the winter to protect the animal from cold and is shed in the spring. That’s when Sy and his team travel from village to village buying cashmere from families who own on average 10–15 goats. As goats are economical animals– they are cheap to buy and reproduce quickly–keeping them is especially important for poorer families.
“Cashmere is a good livelihood for shepherds because they receive most of their other income in the autumn at harvest time. In the spring, when the cashmere fibre is collected, shepherds are often short of money,” Sy explains.
After the cashmere has been collected, it is cleaned, and before spinning, the coarse guard hair is removed. After the dehairing, the cashmere is spun into yarn and dyed in the UK, where the environmental effects of the process are kept minimal. The yarns are not bleached but dyed on top of the blended, natural shades of the cashmere.
June Cashmere fibre is collected from the goats by combing, which keeps the fibres long. This in turn enhances the quality of the yarn. Good-quality cashmere drapes nicely and hardly pills. Cashmere is soft, light and very warm, and it
“The final bloom of the cashmere yarn is achieved after washing the finished garment, making the cashmere feel even softer than before and enhancing its stitch definition and drape,” Amy says.
Empowering the knitters
To Sy and Amy, June Cashmere is both a commercial and social activity. Sy talks about it as a symbiosis. If the business side didn’t work, they wouldn’t be able to contribute. And if it was just about buying and selling, the work would seem meaningless.
“The fine line between faith and foolishness is sometimes difficult to draw in business. One cannot be unrealistic and the decisions need to be sound. At the same time, it is motivating to know that these people have gone through a lot and now they have faith in our company. That’s why I keep working to maintain and grow the business’ profitability,” Sy says.
June Cashmere follows the principles of slow fashion. The company wants to help knitters find the perfect patterns that fit their purpose and are just
right for them. This would make the knitted garments become long-lasting heirloom pieces.
Cashmere yarn is inevitably expensive because goats produce only a small amount of fibre, and nearly 60 percent of that is lost before spinning. The fibre from 3–4 goats is needed to get 300 grams of cashmere yarn, which might only be enough for one sweater. It may be intimidating to buy cashmere because of the big investment, which is why it is good to support and empower knitters.
“I often hear people worry that they are not skilled enough to knit with cashmere. Our cashmere is a good workhorse. You can knit, un-knit and reknit with our yarn, and it keeps its integrity. This yarn really is milled to last and age beautifully,” Amy says.
Text: Maija Kangasluoma
Photos: Erica Manning and June Cashmere
The full-length version of this feature was first published in Laine issue 13.