A precious fiber that comes from afar, used for the production of fine yarns.
The Origins: the Species of Camels
Camels appeared in North America 40 to 50 million years ago and then migrated to Europe and Asia while becoming extinct in their original homeland.
Camelus is part of the Camelidae family which is made up of two sub-species: the one-humped camel (Camelus dromedarius) and the two-humped camel (Camelus bactrianus).
The one-humped camel, or dromedary, is found mainly in Africa, Arabia, the Middle East and in some places in Asia. It lives in desert areas with a torrid hot climate and provides a poor and ordinary fiber which the manufacturing industry uses solely to make local products.
The two-humped camel, or bactrian, is instead found in Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and is closely related to the rare wild camel known in Mongolia as “Khavtgai” and lives in areas with a very cold climate.
There is also a population of “Hybrid” camels, which although they live in regions that are subject to cold climates such as some areas of Kazakhstan, only have one hump. These camels are the “Bactrian Dromedaries” called “Bukhts” by the local populations.
Bactrian Camels: the Nomads and Breeding
Man began to domesticate Bactrian Camels about 4000 years ago when, it is assumed, there were two distinct species: one easier to catch, and therefore bred; and the second least inclined to interact with man, the ancestor of the present Bactrian Camel.
Throughout history, camels have been vitally important in the development of trade between the east and the west, and over time they started to also be used as an aid during battles or as a tow for caravans along the Silk Road, on the route between China and the Middle East.
Despite being slow paced, camels represent one of the five animals revered by nomads. They travel at an average of five km per hour but are easy to manage as they can live a week without water and a month without food. They are resistant animals that can carry heavy loads and provide fiber to make clothing and ropes as well as milk and meat.
Mongolian nomads, who normally take care of camels both in “Outer Mongolia” (People’s Republic of Mongolia) and in “Inner Mongolia” (People’s Republic of China), consider fermented camel milk to be a real treat. It represents the ritual ceremonial offering, together with the always present white welcoming scarves, from the hosting nomads to visitors.
Bactrian camels are bred in desert and semi-arid areas north of China as well as in the cold highlands of Mongolia. In Inner Mongolia (China), breeding is concentrated in the prefecture of Alxa Megn, bordering on the Gobi desert.
Although not extremely intelligent, at 1 year of age camels are able to recognize the voice and commands of their owner and while the animal serves its owner well, it does not receive reciprocal treatment, as it gets beaten with or without any reason.
Animals in the Wild: Extinction and Protection
Until 1957, when the explorer Nikolai Przewalski found, during his expedition, some Bactrian camels living in the wild in the Lop Nur desert in China, it was thought that this animal was extinct.
It is believed that there are, currently, less than 1,000 animals living in the wild. About 400 to 700 are located in Mongolia and less than 200 in China, but more than 2,000,000 are domesticated.
In October 2002, Bactrian camels living in the wild were classified as animals at high risk of extinction, just like Pandas.
Prof. Craig Hilton-Tailor, the IUCN’s representative for the listing of endangered animals, expresses a somewhat pessimistic view by stating, “… if it continues declining at the current rate, we will lose it!”
In fact, in the last 40 years, the number of camels has considerably decreased due to the fact that many nomads are abandoning the Gobi territory to migrate to areas where the pastures are better and thus have the opportunity to breed other animals, such as Capra hircus (goats) which provide the valuable Cashmere fiber.
To safeguard the camels living in the wild, several national parks have been established.
Animals and their Habitat
Among the artiodactyls, the Bactrian camel is one of the largest species. It lives in groups of about 20, made up of females and young males who have not yet reached sexual maturity, all dominated by one male adult.
Bactrian camels differ from the Arab species not only by the double hump, but also by the slightly smaller although more robust size, shorter legs and thicker fibrous coat, making it more suited to living in rocky and mountainous areas compared to its Arab relatives.
The mating season runs from January to February, and in most cases the offspring are born in the spring. Thus, the baby camel is able to face the hard life of the steppe already from its first hours of life. Furthermore, it has a life expectancy of approximately 30 years, up to 45 in the rarest of cases.
Camels are universally known for their endurance in facing extreme conditions. In particular, Bactrian camels manage to survive at very low temperatures.
They can live for 4 to 5 days without eating or drinking by exploiting their two humps, where a quantity of fat is concentrated, when they cannot find other food. Furthermore, these animals are able to store a supply of about 7 liters of water in four special sacs located around their stomach. In case of need, they have the ability to drink up to 30% of their body weight. Measuring the hump, which deflates once the supplies are exhausted, therefore, helps to evaluate the animal’s state of well-being.
Camels are classified as herbivorous and feed mainly and preferably on salty or bitter plants. However, they also accept any type of vegetation, including shrubs that are unappetizing to other animals, and in some cases even meat.
The fibrous coat of Bactrian camels grows mainly on the head, neck, shoulders, belly and humps and the color can vary from light cream to dark brown. The quantity and quality of the fur depend on the habitat in which the animal lives. Camels, like the Hircus goat or the Cashmere goat, have an ordinary outer coat and a fine undercoat.
The Duvet produced by animals that live in warm and more temperate areas tends to be coarser than that of animals that live in cold environments, which instead have a finer and thicker coat.
The best fiber comes from Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China. In particular, the Alashan desert region, subjected to very harsh winters, provides the best quality fiber for fineness and softness.
The outer coat is coarse and unusable for the manufacturing industry, with fineness ranging from 20 to 120 microns and a length of around 38 mm. The undercoat of adult animals instead varies from 19 to 22 microns with a maximum length of 34 mm. By making a careful selection, it is sometimes possible to have a fiber of less than 17.5 microns and exceptionally it can reach 16.5 microns, a fineness that aligns with that of Iranian cashmere. This is the fiber that comes from animals in the early years of life and is called “Baby Camel”.
The harvest takes place in the spring when the camels moult their fur. The process occurs several times; first the hair of the neck falls, then that of the throat and finally that of the abdomen. This takes place within 6 to 7 weeks. The hair that covers the humps is not used because, without it, the animal would be more subject to disease. The collection of the fiber differs depending on the different systems used: combing the animal, shearing it or simply gathering the fur when it falls out naturally. The animal produces about 2.5 kg of fiber per year which corresponds to a little more than 1 kg once washed and dehaired.
The fiber of this animal is believed to be very precious and has interesting thermal characteristics that make it suitable to use for clothing.
Only the finest fibers and the most selected origins are used in knitwear, while less valuable qualities are used for weaving, keeping costs lower.