From Desktop to Hilltop, My Journey to the Mongolian Cashmere Industry.

From desktop to hilltop, my journey to the Mongolian cashmere industry.

Did you know that 90% of the people employed by the Mongolian cashmere industry are women? Or that it takes four cashmere goats one year to produce enough cashmere for one ladies’ single ply cashmere jumper? No? Well neither did I, until a year ago...

At the time of writing this I have just finished a one year Masters at Heriot-Watt University studying ethicsand sustainability in the fashion industry. At the beginning of the year I was a layperson in respect to thecashmere industry. I knew how lovely the fibre was and that it was from a particular breed of goat, but thefact that it mainly came from China, Mongolia and Afghanistan, was news to me...

After a year spent exploring the industry and picking up bits and pieces along the way (mainly pockets of fibre samples, yarns and so much information!), I traveled to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, to attend the Sustainable Fibre Alliance’s (SFA) bi-annual Sustainability in the Cashmere Sector Conference. I found myself immersed in Mongolia’s thriving cashmere industry, meeting people from all over the world and the fashion industry. Seeing, hearing and speaking with people from all parts of the Mongolian and international supply chain, about the future of the industry was both amazing and thought provoking.

From herding and farming to processing, spinning, knitting and weaving, Mongolia’s cashmere industry is made up of an intricate web of daily routines, with a supply chain that stretches across the country’s dramatic landscapes. To set the tone for this feature, let me tell you a little more about Mongolia as a country, through the eyes of a very over-eager tourist/student.

About the Trip

Mongolia is a vast and totally unique country. Landlocked between China and Russia, its thousands of kilometers of grasslands makes it the perfect place to herd cashmere goats (and sheep… and cattle... and horses...). Cashmere herding itself is ingrained in the daily lives of nomadic communities and provides a solid income for people all over the country. The fibre provides a stable livelihood to those who rely on it and is very much the lifeblood of much of Mongolia’s rural culture.

The Countryside

I headed out into the countryside a couple of times during my stay, one time with the conference, and one time to visit a nearby tourist magnet with a family who’d been working in the cashmere industry for generations. Driving out of the city, little white gers dotted about in the distance, while herds of animals were ushered round their pastures. It was such a contrast to life at home and while I’d spent plenty of time swooning over dramatic landscape photography online, it was nothing like I’d ever seen before.

During our trip with the conference, we met with a small community who welcomed us to experiencesome aspects of their nomadic life. The village that we visited was set against a backdrop of mountains and vast dusty planes, while twisters of sand and groups of elegant wild horses chomped on grass in the distance. The community showed us first how to comb cashmere, before welcoming us into their ger, where we shared traditional Mongolian food and played music. Although this was just a brief glimpse of the traditions of nomadic Mongolian life, it was great to witness a little bit of the supply chain for myself, after reading about it for so long...

The City

In total I spent two weeks in Mongolia, with most of my time in Ulaanbaatar. The contrast between Mongolia’s mellow grasslands and the capital was stark. Ulaanbaatar is a bustling, densely populated city, full of pollution and full of life. The city’s rapid growth over the past few decades made for a really unique mix of architecture, including a roman-esque, hot pink opera house, Soviet-style blocks and squares titled with the Cyrillic alphabet.

Cashmere was all over the place, from screaming shop signs, to chic boutiques dotted on Seoul Street and Sükhbaatar Square in the city’s centre. Before I went to Ulaanbaatar, it didn’t even cross my mind that the fibre would feature so heavily in the country itself, because my focus had been on cashmere’s value as an export commodity. Everywhere we traveled in the bustling city centre was a fascinating mix of budget knitwear stores, processing factories and cashmere malls - so as a researcher it was great to see the industry through Mongolia’s unique and captivating lens.

During my time in Ulaanbaatar, I visited several processing factories in the industrial outskirts - a far cry from the capital’s centre. I visited some factories with the SFA, while others I visited with a friend who was traveling with me. After all the desk research I’d done on the process of how cashmere goes from a messy clump of fibres to the soft, fluffy cloud it is before spinning, it was an amazing experience to see the Mongolian processing industry in action.

So, if I come back to the opening question of this article: “Did you know that 90% of the people employed by the Mongolian cashmere industry are women? I wanted to tell you a little bit about my university research. My research specifically looks at the role of women within the cashmere industry, so during my time in Mongolia, I wanted to find out how women worked within the industry. The answer to my question was surprisingly clear from the get go. In Mongolia, women work everywhere! Mongolia’s cashmere industry is abuzz with a very female presence, from herding women through to the processors, managers and CEOs. While this is just the beginning of my own journey as a woman in cashmere, already there are so many stories to tell, and I look forward to sharing them with you.

Charlotte Blades-Barrett