Jones & Vandermeer and Camels: How One Yarn Took Me on a Journey of Discovery

It all started with a skein. My friend Michele Wang, a designer with unerring taste in fiber, introduced me to a baby camel yarn called Clever Camel by Jones & Vandermeer, and once I started swatching, I knew it was a fiber I had to work with. (In fact, one of those early swatches led to the Lumi Tunic, featured in knit.wear Fall/Winter 2017). After my positive and unexpected experience with the yarn, I wanted to learn more about its origins and what made it distinct from other camel yarn, so I got in touch with Emily Lin, the founder of Jones & Vandermeer, to find out more. Through our conversations, I learned about the founding of her unusual company, the creation of her bespoke yarns, the wonders of camel fiber, and the remarkable characteristics of the unique Bactrian camel.

THE COMPANY: JONES & VANDERMEER

Emily learned how to knit and sew from her grandmother—an accomplished knitter and seamstress—which sparked a lifelong love of knitwear and an interest in craftsmanship. In the mid-2000s, she began examining the sweaters in her closet and realized her favorites were made of cashmere and camel, and a large part of what she treasured about them was their ability to endure over time. A gift of mink yarn brought back from a friend’s travels only increased her curiosity about yarn and fiber. She started seeking out these unique fibers for her handknitting but realized she couldn’t find what she was looking for in the United States, so she flew to Italy, Mongolia, and China in search of rare fibers and the mills that turn them into yarn. By late 2010, she had officially registered Jones & Vandermeer (named after her two dogs) as an online shop based in New York City; she dubbed it a purveyor of “100% curious goods.”

Emily describes the aesthetic of her shop as “modern, curious, and whimsical.” J&V strives for the Victorian notion of “curiosities”: a collection of strange, novel, or unexpected specimens, artifacts, or ideas. At the same time, the company has a light, breezy, and fanciful attitude that reflects Emily’s own philosophy that it’s important to have a laugh and a bit of fun in the process of making things.

When stocking J&V’s online shelves, Emily regards herself as something of an explorer, bringing back unusual goods from her travels abroad and seeking out hard-to-find treasures that interest makers of all kinds. The company began with three unusual commissioned yarns: Qualitá Cashmere, a cashmere designed to last and sold at a fair price; Curious Copper, a sock-weight cotton and alpaca yarn that includes a bit of copper for its antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and heat-regulating properties; and Clever Camel, spun from the undercoat of baby Bactrian camels, which makes a supremely light but hard-wearing yarn.

THE YARN: CLEVER CAMEL

J&V Clever Camel. (This photo by and featured image by Emily Lin)

Clever Camel was inspired by a pure camel-down pea coat Emily owned for many years. She was impressed by how well it held up to constant wear and how warm it was for its weight, so she set out to make a yarn with similar properties. Sourcing the highest-quality camel down was the first hurdle, because camel down is rare; statistics vary, but only about 1,000 tons of camel yarn are produced each year, compared to 10,000 tons of pure cashmere.

The finest camel fiber comes from Bactrian camels (the camel species found in central Asia), which have two coats: a coarser outer coat and an inner coat, called “down,” that is much softer and finer. The fineness of the down varies depending on the animal and where on the body it is collected (much like other fiber animals), but the overall quality of the fiber is affected by where the camels are raised. The finest-quality camel down is collected in the Alashan region of Inner Mongolia, where the harsh winters produce exceptionally fine down, particularly from the baby camels. The camels are raised by nomadic herdspeople; each family keeps two to four camels, largely for use as transport animals and for milk. Each camel produces just 2.5 kilograms of fiber a year, which is collected either by combing the animal when it molts naturally in spring
or by shearing.

Each year, hundreds of herdspeople bring the fiber they’ve collected to Alashan to sell it to the Tuscan mill that produces Clever Camel. The mill, which has been in operation for over 125 years, has established strong relationships with the local people over several decades of operating in the area, and its expert handling of the fiber is vital to the quality of the final product.

Camel fiber is said to be twice as warm as wool, and its looser scale structure and long staple length make it less prone to pilling and extremely durable. It doesn’t contain lanolin, which is a source of sensitivity for some people who are allergic to wool. One of the unique qualities of Clever Camel is that it is dyed—it’s extremely rare to find camel yarn in shades other than the natural colors of the animals (which range from pale cream to dark brown). Dyeing camel fiber causes a loss of softness (as with many fibers); however, the mill that processes Clever Camel uses a proprietary low-temperature dye process to preserve the fiber’s gentle hand.

A wild Bactrian camel mother and calf. (Photo by John Hare)

THE ORGANIZATION: WILD CAMEL PROTECTION FOUNDATION

The careful crafting of Clever Camel results in a yarn with a superb pedigree that knits up into a light and durable fabric, but this yarn has another dimension: a portion of the proceeds from each skein is donated to the Wild Camel Protection Foundation (WCPF). Camel yarn is made from the down of domesticated Bactrian camels, but these camels have a genetically distinct wild relative, the wild Bactrian camel, that lives in some of the most forbidding terrain on earth and is critically endangered. Fewer than 1,000 wild Bactrians survive today, making the species more threatened than the giant panda.

When Emily heard about the WCPF and the work it is doing to save the wild Bactrian camel from extinction, she asked its founder, John Hare, how J&V and its devoted customer base could help. John wrote back with several ideas, and a partnership was born.

I wanted to learn as much as I could about the state of wild camels, so Emily introduced me to John, and what I learned about the WCPF and its founder had me spellbound. Born in 1937, John is an explorer, conservationist, and author who has worked extensively in Africa, first for Great Britain’s Overseas Administrative Service and then for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). During his time with UNEP he undertook a number of expeditions into remote areas of northern Kenya, making use of camels as pack animals. His experience of the domesticated camel ’s exceptional hardiness and its vital role in desert travel kindled a lifelong passion for the animals.

J&V Clever Camel

Wild Bacterian camels in Inner Mongolia. (Photo by John Hare)

In 1993, he traveled to Mongolia as part of a Russian expedition to observe wild camels, the first of many explorations he has since made. In his desert travels, John has reached previously unexplored archeological sites, discovered unmapped valleys of the Gobi, and observed wildlife that has never experienced human contact. Using domestic camels for transport during these journeys has given him unique opportunities to observe wild camels, which are exceedingly elusive.

One of John’s greatest accomplishments was to gain permission to enter the former Chinese nuclear test site Lop Nur, which no foreigner had been allowed to enter for forty-five years. Lop Nur is the only place in China where the wild camel lives, having survived forty-three atmospheric nuclear tests and adapted to drink water with a higher salt content than seawater. As John frequently points out in his writings, any animal that has learned to survive in such brutal conditions would be an invaluable aid to scientific research—yet another reason ever y effort should be made to preserve the wild Bactrian camel from extinction. Despite its retreat to a remote area and ability to survive overwhelming hardships, the camel’s existence is threatened by local miners who hunt and poison the animals.

In 1997, John and Kathryn Rae founded the WCPF as a U.K.-registered charity with Dame Jane Goodall as their life patron. Kathryn met John in 1993 after answering an ad he placed in The Spectator, a U.K.-based magazine, which read, “Explorer seeks fund-raiser on a commission basis for an unusual project in Central Asia.” She was the successful applicant in a field of twenty-five, and she’s been working pro bono for the organization ever since.

Together, through fund-raising efforts and hands-on assistance, John and Kathryn helped the Chinese government establish the Lop Nur Wild Camel National Nature Reserve in Xinjiang Province. In 2004, the WCPF established the Hunter Hall Wild Camel Breeding Center at Zakhyn Us in Mongolia as one of only three places in the world that houses wild camels. Due to WCPF’s extraordinary efforts, the number of camels in the reserve has increased from twelve to thirty-one, and the center has begun to release camels bred in captivity into the wild to rebuild the population. Last year, proceeds from purchases of Clever Camel supported one camel at the breeding center in Mongolia; this year, proceeds will support two animals.

REFLECTIONS

The journey I have taken since knitting my first swatch of Clever Camel has been remarkable. From learning about camel fiber, yarn production, and opening an online business to reading about modern-day explorers and the astonishing adaptations and extreme vulnerability of camels in the wild, I have experienced a fascinating adventure without ever leaving my knitting chair. As knitters, the fiber we use connects us to people, places, and animals—in this case, even animals that don’t produce fiber for us to use—we might never have experienced without the craft. I love that knitting can expand our horizons and connect us to things we never even imagined.


This article appears in its entirety in knit.wear Fall/Winter 2017, newly released and ready for your needles. SARAH SOLOMON lives in New York City, where she designs and teaches knitting. She blogs about knitting at www.intothewool.wordpress.com, and you can find her patterns on Ravelry as Sarah Solomon Designs.


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