The Machu Learning Curve

When Dechen and her brother Genam set off to Amdo to buy yak wool in the summer of 2005, they had no idea what they were getting into, and neither did I. The instructions were simple; set out and meet a few Amdo families whose relatives we knew, find out everything about yak wool, buy a few tons, send it back to Nepal and have it tested in a friend’s workshop.

All this was to explore the possibilities of setting up a yak weaving workshop in Amdo. I firmly believed that the yak held something great. I had never seen anything knitted or woven from yak khullu on the market or even touched any, but I had heard of qiviut. I thought that the musk ox looked very similar to the yak, and that the highly spoken of fiber that it delivered could very well hold similar properties. There was also the intriguing story, told to me by ‘Namsa Chenmo’ or Master of Robes, of the Mao style coat Ngabo had worn to an important meeting in China in the 60’s, made from a piece of yak wool fabric. Ngabo asked him to tailor it into something, which in spite of its style, would be quintessentially Tibetan. In short, I believed in the yak, and my children, in the face of such confidence and the prospect of an exciting summer, went right along.

They met three families; the first, in Chapcha had no yak wool. The second and third, in Machu and Ritoma respectively helped them find the quantities they needed. Machu was a learning curve while Ritoma led us on the path to success.

Yak wool is very matted, and needs to be de haired to separate the soft khullu from the guard hair that covers it. The factories that did this were in the Moslem town of Linxia, at the base of the Plateau, a processing center for all the products of the grassland; meat, leather and hair. We all tried to avoid the unavoidable by hiring seven, then up to twenty women to try dehairing by hand. Dechen borrowed a corner of the Machu family’s yard, an example of multi-use. One end was occupied by a big heap of bones separated into ribs, knuckles, forelegs and back legs. All afternoon men sat chopping and separating the bones, earning 25yuan a day. On the opposite side was a makeshift awning covering our sacks of yak wool, where the de hairing took place.

The women sat all day cracking chewing gum, their fingers separating the rougher guard hair from the soft fluffy khullu. The job was tedious and Dechen gave it a week to test whether the women could actually clean and separate the hair as efficiently as the factories.

While this was going on, they visited the Machu family’s nomad camp and learned all there was to know about the yak. Genam even made a drawing.

As it turned out, Dechen and Genam would have to spend a year and a half in the Machu yard to de-hair 2000kgs by hand. The process was abandoned and the factory solution sought out.