Mongolian cashmere

There are many fascinating parts about living in Mongolia. Sure, Mongolian food may not be a highlight (except for the delicious buuz…..but that’s a story for another post) but the landscapes, people, and local handicraft more than make up for that. And especially the cashmere … ah, never underestimate Mongolian cashmere.

I’ve been told over and over by local friends that Mongolian cashmere is the key to staying warm in the terrible cold of winter. And now, I can confirm, that this is very much true. When my co-worker brought me to her friend’s little cashmere factory in November, I bought the most amazing cashmere hat that one could imagine. I wear it every day and it keeps me nice and warm even when the temperatures go below -35C. So, of course I needed to go back and shop some more.

Our super CLO team at the Embassy (that’s “community liaison office” for my non-State Department readers) gladly took my recommendation of visiting the little factory and then took the whole outing to another level: our tour last weekend was called “from goat to coat” and we learned every step of the way of how goat wool gets transformed into the heavenly soft cashmere we all love.

Our trip started at the “Sunshiro” factory, a Japanese-Mongolian company and one of the few to own all the necessary equipment  to process raw cashmere wool. The machines they use are quite old – and very loud – and perhaps the entire operation wouldn’t quite pass safety standards in other countries (we kept a careful eye for each other to make sure we didn’t accidentally run into any of the working gears or step in something we shouldn’t….).

Our Sunshine tour guides patiently explained the procedures and proudly showed their factory, specifying they much prefer working with the older machines because they produce a better final product than modern ones.

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Yes, that is a huge bucket full of spun cashmere – don’t you just want to roll around in that?

Aside from cashmere, Sunshine also processes yak wool, the cheaper alternative in Mongolian yarn. I own a fantastic pair of yak wool leg warmers (thigh high for extra warmth). I can’t quite tell yak wool is as warm as cashmere (opinions diverge on this topic among the locals) but the texture is a bit rougher and not as smooth or cozy as the cashmere products I own.

Little did I know that there are varying degrees of yak wool so that if you process it correctly and pay close attention to which parts of the wool to keep, the final product can be almost indistinguishable from cashmere.

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A bucket full of raw yak wool on the left … and the processed final yak yarn product on the right. So.soft.

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So what do you need to produce all that softness? Simple, just add lots of machinery and many gears. And, it turns out, lots of plastic. You don’t see the plastic? Take a close look at the walls and ceilings around the machinery – they’re all lined with plastic.

I have to admit when we first entered the dark factory warehouse, the plastic lining added a bit of a spooky character to the whole operation. And it wasn’t until we learned that the plastic is essential for creating a vacuum to control the humidity for the wool that I finally realised its importance.

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After our visit to Sunshiro, we headed to the little factory I had previously visited and I was busy shopping for lovely shawls and hats. We finished our outing at Gobi, one the biggest cashmere factories in Mongolia, but by then I was shopped out (I know, shocking).

I will leave you with some pictures of all the amazing Mongolian cashmere products you can get here. And, if you come to visit, you can bet your bottom dollar we’ll be going cashmere shopping here. And yes, you’ll need your bottom dollar because cashmere is not cheap. Well, it’s cheaper here than in other parts of the world, sure, but it’s still not cheap. But you know you need want it, so you might as well give in right now … you know, so you can adequately prepare for any type of cold weather ahead.

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Middle picture is a dress I bought on another outing – yes, it’s short, I know, but trust me it’s the Mongolian appropriate length for a dress. And if you add thermal leggings plus knee-high boots (with sheep fur for warmth), it’s a pretty good look!
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