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Yakety yak: The woman changing the Mongolian landscape

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Georgina Wilson-Powell

5 September 2017

Nancy Johnston has helped change the political and economic landscape of Mongolia, one of most remote and delicately balanced landscapes on earth. She’s done it by inventing an entire supply chain and a sustainable industry dedicated to turning yak fibres into a luxury clothing. Meet Tengri.

“I was sitting in this yurt in Mongolia and the mother had no milk for the tea, which is unheard of, she was so embarrassed. All their animals had died and she was working for another family, which is also unheard of as in a herder society everyone is independent,” she explains.

Johnston discovered that the family were trying to save for their daughter’s education, which after high school is only private, expensive and exists only in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Rents there are as much as London and the schooling can cost up to 10,000.

“It didn’t seem right that a family in Mongolia, which supplies the luxury global fashion industry with cashmere, couldn’t afford an education, no matter how hard they worked,” she says.

She sketched out a vague plan on the back of a chocolate wrapped in the family’s yurt that night. Back in London she corralled fashion and design friends into helping her, thrashed out community development ideas and moved back to Mongolia.

“I bought a ton of yak fibre and shook hands with the head of the herders and that was that.” 

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The Mongolian way of doing business. With a handshake.

An ancient land

Johnston has had an emotional tie to Mongolia since she was a child.

“I saw a flyer with pictures of all these remote places in the world and one of them was of Mongolia. The idea of these vast landscapes, where children and older people survived together in these harsh environments, something about that resilience struck a chord with me,” she explains.

When she was made redundant after a career in social work, she got on a plane to the country that inspired her but despite travelling the world, she’d never visited. It was after staying with an old friend who worked as a vet, she ended up on the tundra, in a yurt homestay, learning more about the challenges that faced the nomadic herders.

Mongolia is the 18th biggest country in the world, a vast, remote swathe of land that separates Russia and China.  There are perhaps one million nomadic herders left in Mongolia (a third of the population), living on subsistence wages and supplementing it with goat hair for the cashmere industry. They might move between four and eight times a year to find new pastures for their animals, it’s a society built around the animals for survival. But Mongolia is changing.

“I’ve been lucky because Mongolia is going through an interesting transition,” Johnston says. “The younger people are digitally connected and more globally aware but they want to keep their culture.”

Yak vs goat

“Yak fibre is as warm and soft as cashmere, it’s also organic, hypoallergenic, anti-bacterial and supports livelihoods, it’s a miracle fibre. And it’s machine washable!” says Johnston. “Yaks also don’t damage the environment the way goats do.”

Part of the problem for Mongolian herders is the rapid change in their environment. Over the last 30 years, a quarter of the country has turned to desert, 2,000 rivers have dried up. It’s on the cusp of irreversible change.

Desertification has been caused in part by the increase in people keeping goats to supply the global cashmere demand.

“Goats are aggressive when they graze, they pull out the roots of the grass, kill the plants and their hooves break down the fragile terrain. Yaks are like lawnmowers, they eat the grass not the roots and have soft pads which don’t damage the ground. They’re ancient creatures that work with the landscape,” Johnston explains.

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“Yaks are like lawnmowers, they eat the grass not the roots and have soft pads which don’t damage the ground”

While most herders might keep yaks for milk and meat, the idea of using the yak for fibre to replace goats is a new one and something Johnston has had to create a market for.

“No one has ever done this before, but I knew it had to be a fashion brand,” she says. “Fashion is a universal language that cuts across every culture. Visually everyone can relate to wearing clothes.”

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Nomadic herders move up to eight times a year to find fresh pastures for their animals. It's a lifestyle under threat.

The fair share

Other people might have been daunted travelling alone to Mongolia to negotiate a trade deal that had never been done before. Not Johnston.

She went to the remote Khangai mountains of western Mongolia, home of the semi-wild Khangai yak that produce these miracle fibres, or noble yarns as they’re known at Tengri and approached the community leader with a fair share model. It pays a premium price for the yak fibres and supplies a deposit for each family in the co-op to put against the cost of feeding and tending the yaks.

“In Mongolia you do business in person as they want to look you in the eye. I approached them with this fairshare model and didn’t realise that a nomadic society is built on sharing. It’s frowned upon not to share as when you’re in a harsh climate you need to depend on others to survive, so this was a business model they understood better than I did from the outset,” she explains.

While families and herds in Mongolia might be miles apart on the prehistoric tundra, the country is fully digitally connected. Mobile phones outnumber people (five million to three million) and radio and TV are prevalent. Before long a lot of people had heard about what Tengri was doing – and paying.

“We started with 298 families in the scheme, which went up to 1,500 at the end of the first year, now we have over 4,500 families all raising yak.”

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Mongolia has up to a million nomadic herders moving across huge swathes of remote landscape

From Mongolia to the Material World

Johnston has built her supply chain from scratch. Each yak is combed once a year in the spring (under the belly and chin). It doesn’t hurt them and they go back to roaming the pastures. Each yak might produce 100g of fibres that are bundled into traceable bags so each family can be compensated accurately. Motorbikes or ox carts collect the bags and take them to the city. The fibres are carded and sorted into three grades – only the top 10% are good enough to be made into clothes.

“Up to 90% of fibres, not just yak fibres, are wasted when they’re graded,” Johnston explains. “It’s mad the amount of biowaste that is generated after all this effort to cultivate it, these are precious organic fibres. I didn’t want to waste mine so I exported the whole lot, the top 10% and the other fibres which are too slippery to be twisted into yarn for clothes.”

Back in the UK she had to find small traditional weaving mills to turn her precious yak fibre into fabric. She has developed strong links with heritage mills in Yorkshire and Scotland, communities that to her have similarities to those in Mongolia.

“The textile industry along the border of England and Scotland used to employ 18,000 people, that’s down to 6,000 now. The pace of fast fashion doesn’t work for these kind of mills, so I wanted to work with people who value a more traditional way of working. There’s a remoteness and a hardiness that’s like Mongolia.”

With her first fabric she went straight to Huntsman on Savile Row and had it turned into clothes. 

Fashion is a universal language that cuts across every culture. Visually everyone can relate to wearing clothes

Selfridges picked up Tengri for its Material World exhibition on sustainable fashion last year and Johnston is now working on its first unisex collection.

Tengri’s luxury jumpers and coats, with their modern cuts and millennial style muted minimalist tones (that come from not dying the yarn) aren’t cheap but with the amount of work that goes in they are the right price. They might not be in everyone’s budget but an item from Tengri will last forever.

Selfridges highlight the difference between producing yak and cashmere fibres

Tengri’s success has been remarkable but no less remarkable than Johnston herself. She couldn’t let go of the idea that 90% of her fibres were being wasted. After coming across a cashmere bedding brand in Paris, she approached them.

“I met with Savoir Beds and asked them how they made their range out of cashmere. We talked and they said if I could find a way to make it out of the lower grade yak fibre then they’d sell it,” she says. “I found a heritage manufacturer in Yorkshire who works with felting and padding and we’ve found a way to do it. They were so excited to work on something new.”

The yak effect

Tengri demonstrates that done properly, fashion can be a real force for change. It has had a real impact in Mongolia, both economically and environmentally.

“Our international press has forced the government to acknowledge the herders’ land rights, which it never had done before. And in the region that we source from, I’ve met the local governor and they’re going to protect the region as a Green Zone so no-one will be able to develop it or hunt on it. The landscape is safe for yaks to grow and graze.”

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Nearly a quarter of Mongolia has turned to desert in the last 30 years

But Johnston hasn’t stopped at yak. Other nomadic communities have heard about her work. You can imagine a bad movie montage cutting to people around the world – the camel herders want to work with her on a similar model, as do people in the Himalayas, the Middle East and South America.

“We are developing a programme for other nomadic traders in other parts of the world,” she explains. “Tengri is about exporting and sharing these precious resources in a way where more money goes back into the community and the fibres and so on are crafted into more contemporary products,” she says.

Johnston travels back to Mongolia several times a year, which can often take days to get to the herders. She’s created a yak festival where everyone can come together once a year and she can see the difference Tengri is making on a very human level. There are children planning to take their first steps into further education, all funded by yak fibres.

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