A passion for nature and social enterprise

In 2006, Aaron Pattillo and Julian Wilson met on a biking trip while living in Beijing, China. They quickly became friends and realized that they ultimately shared a similar vision- they wanted to create a company that harnessed their passion for the outdoors, travel, and the evolving field of social enterprise. Two years later, their concept began to take shape and led to an expedition to the Tibetan Plateau. They first arrived in the dead of winter, where they witnessed the lives of yak herders and experienced the majestic country, where 95 percent of the world’s yak population lives. From this trip and a subsequent one to Mongolia the pair pursued a ‘what-if’ idea and ultimately founded Khunu, which represents the name given to the first true Mongolian dynasty over a thousand years ago. Khunu is a specialty apparel company driven by social purpose - 'to empower communities at the heart of their supply chain.' Khunu works with nomadic herding communities throughout Tibet and Mongolia, sourcing yak wool to create premium quality outdoor sweaters and accessories.

Khunu works directly with rural herder communities who have very limited resources and face increasing pressure to abandon their traditional livelihoods and lifestyles. Aaron explains, "In fact, other than yaks, they have very little else, as the huge animals are basically their main commodity and means of subsistence. On the surface, the lives of these roaming herders may seem simple, sustainable, and even rather idyllic. But as hardy as they are, their lack of financial sustenance frequently has dire consequences. All too often medicines, vegetables, and other staple commodities simply cannot be purchased. The yak herding locals are ethnically Tibetan and semi- nomadic. They tend to live in fixed dwellings during the wintertime and migrate to greener and more distant pastures during the summer, moving up to three or four places per year depending on the season. Each family typically owns 50 to 300 yaks. Wool harvesting takes place in May/June, depending on the weather conditions. We currently source from two specific communities and have visited and continued discussions with two more groups for this year. As herders are not accustomed to dealing with foreigners we work with members of the local community, to build trust and help establish an on-the-ground presence. It takes time for our efforts to come to fruition, but we discovered that if we purchased one year and then returned for a second season, people began to see that we were serious and that provided us with many important long-term benefits.”

When I asked Aaron why he chose to work with yak wool, he explained, “It was really a vehicle that helped us created positive impact and extra income for these herder communities. For example in 2011 our direct purchase of wool in Mongolia represented approximately a 20% increase of annual income per family for the thirty families in the Arkhanghai region with whom we directly worked. We also seek to understand and measure the impact associated with the extra funds earned by the herder families. To date, these assessments have been more qualitative and anecdotal in nature – e.g. 'we used the funds to buy medicine for the grandmother.' But we are aiming to develop more robust evaluation processes and specific indicators of impact and improvements in quality of life that are directly linked to our work.” Historically, the nomads only used the coarse part of the wool and not the soft part. Khunu was founded because we wanted to create a market and pay herders for their unused wool. It’s money that they wouldn’t have otherwise received. In that sense, the ‘problem’ we were solving was actually more of a social one – a way to pay the herders for a commodity they are not themselves using. We just had to figure out what kind of products, company, and brand to ultimately grow out of that basic premise." 

Yak wool is an ideal fiber to work with, as it is warmer and softer than merino and more durable than cashmere. "A typical Khunu product will start with the herders, who either comb or pull wool from the animal. We use the soft fiber that yaks typically shed in the spring. This would otherwise be a waste material, as herders only use the longer tough yak strands to make tents and ropes. This fine wool is then taken to a washing facility where all contaminants are removed. Once the fiber has been dried, it is then de-haired to remove the rough thicker strands and ensure that we end up with the best quality yarn. Next, the wool is carded and prepared for spinning. Spinning is one of the most challenging steps. Therefore, we now spend a lot of time trying to get the best quality yarn we can, either 100 percent yak or blends with other natural fibers. Once our yarn is completed, it is ready to be delivered to our knitters or weavers to be made into the finished product.”

Aaron and Julian are humble about their successes and they admit to be novices in the field. Aaron adds, “We spent the better part of the first year figuring out product development. Knowing next to nothing about textiles or apparel it was a steep learning curve and much of it was trial and error, hit and miss – trying to minimize the number of mistakes we made. We were just trying to learn about all the steps required to effectively turn wool into yarn into sweaters and identify the best partners who could help at each step. Suffice to say, making a high-quality sweater from raw yak wool is a lot more complicated than I ever would have expected!”

One of the newest additions to their line is the gorgeous Mongolia travel wrap made out of wool collected from herders in the Arkhanghai mountain region. To create it, they teamed up with the oldest textile workshop in Mongolia. “They are gorgeous wool and cashmere shawls that use all-natural non-dyed yak wool paired with cashmere accents. The results from our product evaluation show that it is the perfect item to travel with when a bit of extra warmth is needed and equally well suited in the home.  As the first woven fabric we’ve created (it’s been all knits up until now), there are certainly different challenges and issues that hand weaving this fiber presents. We’re thrilled with the product and very pleased to be supporting the local artisans in what we expect to be a long-term relationship.”

Aaron and his partner continued to face challenges and surprises along the way, but are constantly impressed with the outcome. “I suppose that what has amazed me the most is just the basic realization of what beautiful, soft, and high-quality products can be created from the wool of this burly beast, the yak.  When I step back and think about the various processes and multitude of people involved to just produce a single sweater or travel wrap I’m pretty wowed by the whole transformative process. It’s pretty remarkable and something we’re very proud to have a hand in creating.”

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