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Places: Gangcha, Qinghai

May 26, 2016

The story of a machine:

Three years ago our big idea was to create a more advanced social enterprise on the Tibetan plateau. Efforts buying raw wool at a fair price help communities, but only when buying in volume, something a small venture finds hard to do, can a notable impact be made. One tonne of raw wool costs in the region of £3000, which is not a huge amount when spread across 35 families once a year. In simple terms it equates to roughly a 10% increase in the annual income for these families. Buying raw wool helps maintain traditions, but it doesn’t help herders move with the times.

It would be wrong to assume moving production to the plateau would be welcomed, so we asked herders how it would be perceived. Nomads are moving to towns and cities, a trend consistent with many other parts of the world, and herding doesn’t prepare them for urban life, so initiatives that maintain connections to their traditions, but bring new skills are usually welcomed. Local Tibetans are all too aware of these issues, and many wonder about their future in a changing world. Although skepticism exists, many are sanguine about new economic ideas.

Last summer this mentality was the catalyst behind a large de-hairing machine being loaded onto a truck in Qinghe, China’s forgettable capital of artisanal camel and yak de-hairing, and making its way to Gangcha town near Qinghai Lake. The journey marked the second tangible step (wool purchasing was the first) in Khunu’s partnership with herder communities living to the north of Qinghai Lake, and for much of this I have to thank Dorjee Tsering, an entrepreneurial, educated local Tibetan who’s own thinking about for-profit social enterprise is aligned with our own.

The machine now forms a very real role in our supply chain. De-hairing is the process through which fine down is removed from coarser fibres and forms the necessary first step towards making fine Khunu sweaters. To see this process in action check out our supply chain video, but the result (after some grinding and chopping) is a 20-25% yield of gorgeously soft down nicely packed in a bag.

By de-hairing at source herder communities make more money from their fibre. De-haired down sells for around £12-14 per/kg, and the waste can also be sold to make other products. Everything gets used eventually.

As I write this dispatch 140 kgs of de-haired wool is on route to our yarn spinners – a small initiative that we hope will be the start of something great. Every journey begins with a single step.