Merino, cashmere, vicuña, yak… no, yak is not the odd one out; in fact, knitwear brand Khunu has been making yak-wool men’s jumpers since 2009. The company first took shape over cups of yak tea, in a tent, in a bitter midwinter in Tibet, when cofounders Julian Wilson and Aaron Pattillo were travelling. It dawned on them just how integral the Tibetan ox was to life on the freezing plateau of the region – from skins to meat and everything in between.
Wilson and Pattillo wondered if it was possible to start working yak wool into fine yarn – the Tibetans are adept at creating rope and blankets from the rougher fibres of the animal’s coat, so why not work the softer hair into knits? The result is remarkably soft, with admirable thermal qualities – and as the fibre is a byproduct of an animal bred primarily for milk and meat, and yaks tend to graze less intensively than goats, the fabric is environmentally friendly too.
After working on an early collection of men’s jumpers, hats and accessories in China – including the Amundsen bubble-knit sweater (£180), blended with 10 per cent silk and finished with corozo-nut buttons and slim jersey sleeves – manufacturing moved to the UK, where all Khunu’s designs are now made. The collection of classics currently includes the Balto crewneck sweater (£145, both pictures) – which, with its smart, semi-fitted cut in black, grey, navy or maroon, teams perfectly with summer chinos and a cotton-drill jacket – and the Nansen shawl-collar jumper (£225) in grey.
The range will be significantly expanded over the next couple of years. “We’re currently developing an Essentials collection of socks and base layers based on the great technical properties of yak,” says Wilson. “The end products will be made in England, but we are working in partnership with a great spinner in Biella, Italy, on a two new types of yarn. I am surprised that yak is not more widely used, as it’s a great alternative to cashmere – it’s soft and warm, but more durable, and less destructive to the environment.”