It’s not a typical next move for a newly-graduated engineer to take on the highly competitive clothing industry – and especially not typical when the animal that supplies the fibre for the clothing lives more than 11,000 kilometres away.
But University of Canterbury student Stefan Warnaar aspires to higher things. He’s the founder of Peak to Plateau – a startup making outdoor clothing using yak wool sourced from the Tibetan Plateau.
“I first encountered yaks in Mongolia, and then in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan after that,” he explains. “I was there in May 2015 to travel around the country where I could go hiking, camping, horse-riding and experience a remote way of life. I saw a few companies making scarves and beanies with cashmere, yak and camel fibre. I didn’t see the local herders using it, or collecting it to sell, but I did see and help them collect fibre from goats for cashmere. Initially I didn’t understand why they were only collecting the goat fibre, when you could feel that yak fibre was also very soft and warm, but quickly understood that it was because no-one was buying yak fibre, whereas there is a massive market for cashmere. Except for a few local brands there weren't many people using yak fibre. So I started the company around December 2015.”
Stefan Warnaar on a yak in Tajikistan.
Warnaar recently completed a degree in chemical engineering, and is now working on his business as part of the UC Centre for Entrepreneurship’s Summer Startup Programme. Compared to sheep wool, Warnaar says yak wool has several distinct advantages. “Yak is a very different type of fibre compared to sheep wool,” he says. “It’s not shorn, rather it’s combed just before it begins to fall off in spring. A yak has three main types of fibre. Two are long and coarse and are mostly what you see when you look at a yak, but the third fibre is what we use. It is a soft under-fibre, and is responsible for keeping the yak warm throughout the winter. It can be quite hard to imagine a big hairy yak having such soft wool.”
In fact, Warnaar says, yak wool is even softer than merino wool. “As a few companies have begun to use yak fibre, there have been tests done that show that yak is warmer, softer and more breathable than merino,” he explains. “When you think about it, it makes sense – yaks live at altitudes up to 5,000 metres and survive temperatures down to minus-40 Celsius, whereas merino sheep live in a much more temperate climate. It feels a lot softer than merino, which is great for comfort and also for people who are sensitive to sheep wool. The softer it is, generally the less irritating it is.”
Warnaar gets his wool directly from yak herders. “We get the fibre from yak herding communities on the Tibetan Plateau,” he says. “The herders primarily use yaks for milk, transport, meat, and making tents with the longer fibres, so by buying the fine under-fibre we supplement their income. Co-operatives have been set up for yak herders to sell the fibre, which ensures that they get a fair price and everyone involved in the supply chain benefits."
It is much harder to get yak fibre than other wools. This is mostly because yak fibre is still relatively undeveloped and the remote location of the Tibetan Plateau slows down any development opportunities. Many manufacturers don’t have any experience working with yak fibre, and they can be hesitant to use it. It has been important to work with people who are as interested in using yak fibre as we are.”
Three principles define Peak to Plateau’s design. “They are designed on three principles – performance, comfort and style,” Warnaar says. “The garment needs to do its job but stay out of your way. To achieve this we used a slim fit that is not too tight that it restricts movement, but not so loose that it annoys you. Raglan sleeves allow for complete freedom of movement of your arms and shoulders, and also mean that the seams are placed off the top of your shoulders. Shoulder seams were always a source of rubbing when wearing a pack and this completely stops that. The torso is long so you don't have to worry about your top riding up when you reach for something or when wearing a pack. The long sleeve base-layers have thumb holes which keep your hands much warmer without the need for gloves. The seams are flat stitched and offset from typical rubbing points (like under the arms) so you won't get any chafing.”
Base layers, Warnaar explains, are a key focus for his company. “I felt that there was a lot of innovation and development in outdoor parts of the outdoor gear industry, but very little has changed with base-layer clothing, especially for companies using natural fibres,” he says. “Base-layers have always been the most important items of clothing for me, and I knew that I could develop a product as good as or better than what was currently available. Every company was using the same fabric and claiming that their process or technology was better, but the results were always the same.”
The first product: beanies. “We started selling beanies and neck-warmers earlier in the year, and now we have three base-layers ready to be manufactured – a long-sleeve one-quarter zip, long sleeve crew, and t-shirt,” Warnaar says. “We want to develop a complete range of base-layers including leggings, underwear, socks, gloves and more. We aim to have a range of different fabric weights, and also introduce sweaters, hoodies and possibly even jackets made with a lofted yak down.”
And the reasoning for the focus on base layers? “I would say that our base-layers are best suited active pursuits – whether that’s hiking, climbing, skiing or running,” says Warnaar. “This is because they are made with a lightweight fabric that will keep you warm during low or moderate intensity, but won't overheat if the intensity of the activity increases. Our base-layers come into their own on longer trips where you’re wearing the same clothing all day, every day and you want something that feels fresh every day. The reason for this is our fabric blend. The 65 percent yak, 35 percent tencel (a natural fibre made from the Eucalyptus tree) fabric combines the qualities of both fibres, and we believe this is the way forward for lightweight base-layer clothing. A lightweight base-layer should have a combination of warmth, durability, comfort, breathability, and odour resistance. We have achieved this with our fabric, and the results show on longer, more demanding trips where the wear and tear on clothing is much greater.”
Even the name “Peak to Plateau” connects to the yaks and their natural habitat, Warnaar explains. “The name refers to the geography of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau,” he says. “The mountain peaks of the Himalayas are the backdrop of the Tibetan Plateau. I knew that I wanted the name to have a connection to where the yak fibre comes from, and the geography and landscapes are such an important part of why yaks have such amazing fibre.”
In order to help manufacture more of the garments, Warnaar has launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise $50,000. “Kickstarter is a great way to offer your early supporters and customers a special deal on upcoming products, and also allows us to reach new customers who may not have heard of us otherwise,” he says. “Most importantly, however, is that we are able to get the funding required to complete the manufacturing of these garments. The clothing manufacturing industry is extremely tough because there are large minimum order requirements and therefore you need a lot of money to get started. With Kickstarter we can raise the money and offer a great product to the people that help us reach our goal.”
So far, almost $40,000 has been raised, with 14 days to go.