Behind the label - part 1: a journey from Mongolia to Scotland

Nancy Johnston, CEO and Founder of Tengri, spent 10 days in Mongolia in June sourcing this year’s supply of yak fibres, which will create ‘The Rider Collection’, due this autumn/winter 2015. 
Tengri aims to bring the unique qualities of Mongolian yak fibre to the forefront of the design, textile and fashion industries through fairshare business, creating garments and yarn to help improve Mongolian nomadic herders’ livelihoods and protect the country’s beautiful landscape.
Nancy talks about her latest journey and experiences in Mongolia.


When did the collaboration between Tengri and the herder families start?

My relationship with the herder cooperative started in March 2014.  I had a friend who was working as a vet in Mongolia and she invited me over. While staying with yak herder families in the Khangai Mountains, I spent a week in the country learning about the challenges facing the people and the land, and living in a yurt with a family. Their main challenge was earning enough money to educate their children. By the end of the trip, I had decided to set up a business that would hopefully help them preserve their way of life and also improve their children’s future.


How many families benefit from that collaboration?

The cooperative of herders involved 398 families when I first starting buying yak fibres direct.  Today, just over a year later, the collaboration involves more than 1,500 families. In a very short time, the collective action and cooperation from the families has been incredible.


When does the combing of the yaks happen?

Mongolian yaks shed their winter coats in the spring, so the combing of yaks happens over the spring and summer months to harvest the fibres from the animals. It takes roughly two to three strong individuals to lasso the semi-wild yak for handcombing. No yaks are harmed during this process and the fibres are just combed off the animal’s coat. Every yak produces about 100 grams of precious fibres. This year, we’ve managed to secure a substantial quantity of yak yarn from the cooperative, which will ensure we have enough to create new garments and also textiles that we can use in collaboration with other designers.


Did you have to face any challenges in Mongolia? Tell us about a typical day out there.

Doing business in a different country presents many and there was never a typical day. One of the main challenges is language and cultural differences. Finding a good translator who also doubles as a cultural advisor is invaluable in Mongolia. Other challenges include transport and logistics travelling in Mongolia is always an epic journey, but always a memorable adventure.


How do you get the yak yarn from Mongolia to the UK?

I’m really lucky to have the cooperation of the herders, who help to transport the fibres to the necessary processing agents in Mongolia, where the yak hairs get washed, processed to a variety of grades and packaged for export. From there, I have agents who ensure the fibres arrive safely in Scotland where our manufacturers are ready to create yarns and fabric, adding new value to the fibre through quality craftsmanship and technological innovation.


What’s next in the transformation of the yarn?

I formed Tengri as a collective movement, so we are working with a range of designers from different disciplines who are creating a range of pieces made from yak fibres. We will be exhibiting their work in partnership with 19 Greek Street Gallery this September during the London Design Festival. Before this, it’s in the hands of the Scottish craftsmen to transform the fibre into a beautiful, high-quality and unique fabric!


You’ve talked about the quality craftsmanship and technological innovation from Scotland. What is so special about the yak wool?  

The yak fibres we source come from a very specific breed of yak, only found in Mongolia and unique to the Khangai mountains. Their precious coat is handcombed and available just once a year, so it is truly an exclusive luxury because each yak only produces about 100g of soft down. Once combed, the fibres go through a cleaning process and are separated to a variety of grades of soft fibres before export to the UK.  From there, a range of technological innovations combined with centuries of heritage and quality craftsmanship from Scottish mills, spinners and weavers transform the fibres into premium yarns and fabrics suitable for a range of luxury goods.


What happens next?

Yak fibre has amazing inherent properties. It’s as soft as cashmere, warmer than merino, water- and odour-resistant and hypoallergenic. I’m excited to be sharing this fibre with London designers and artisanal makers who will be using their craft skills to transform it into amazing pieces as part of our collaboration with 19 Greek Street. We look forward to revealing all during the London Design Festival from 19-27 September.