The Fibre Lab in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan
In 2004,2005 & 2006, Hilary Redden of The Fibre Lab was involved in project work with the USAID funded Global Livestock Collaborative Research Support Program (GL-CRSP) project Developing Institutions and Capacity for Sheep and Fiber Marketing in Central Asia in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
For Hilary, this involved visiting towns and villages in South Kazakhstan and South and Central Kyrgyzstan. The practical work involved the running of workshops designed to train farmers about the potential value of the cashmere obtainable from local goats.
Farmers were given samples of different commercial cashmere types with a description of their different qualities and were able to compare these samples to fibre collected from their own goats.
It was explained that cashmere is collected all over Central Asia and processed in China, so that Chinese cashmere is likely to contain cashmere from their own animals.
It was apparent to the farmers that the commercial cashmere and the local cashmere was very similar.
It was hoped that using this knowledge farmers could instigate some easy changes to their fibre collection system and increase the value of their cashmere when they sold it on to middle men at the farm gate.
For example, their cashmere was normally sold as one mixed lot, all qualities, all colours. It is easy however to sort fibre into white and coloured and sell these two lots at slightly different prices. This sorting could be done at farm, village or district level depending on the cooperation of the farmers.
Normally, the middle men take the fibre away to the nearest large town and have the fibre sorted by hand there, adding value for the next step in the chain of processing. Sorting at the farm level gives the added value to the farmers, not the middle men.
Kazakhstan is a huge country, the size of Europe, and travelling to the workshop villages involved an overnight train journey and an 8 hour ride in the ex-army Russian equivalent of a minibus.
The country is spectacular; the train leaves from the largest city, Almaty, and travels beside a mountain range, gradually declining into the Steppe.
Hard to describe, the Steppe is vast and imperturbable in the distance, full of flowers, birds and wildlife close up.
South of Kazakhstan lies Kyrgyzstan, a country full of mountains as the final ranges of the Himalaya reach across it. Flying over Kyrgyzstan in a very ancient plane for those of us used to Western levels of health and safety is an adrenalin surge, for the locals it’s business as usual. In the South lies the city of Osh, in the Fergana Valley, a region of rich flat farmland reminiscent of France and coveted by neighbouring countries.
The Fibre Lab in Mongolia
In 2005 The Fibre Lab was also involved in a study trip with Kazak and Kyrgyz researchers and fibre processors to Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia to view their cashmere collection and processing system in operation.
Farmers and dealers can bring their cashmere to barter towns and chose the agent with the best price. Their fibre is then sorted by colour and depending on the skill of the grader, by fibre diameter before being sold on to cashmere processors in Ulaan Bataar or to Chinese traders.
The major cashmere manufacturer ‘Goyo’ uses skilled women to sort the cashmere into different qualities, then processes it into a range of cashmere goods for sale in Mongolia and the rest of the world.
The study tour also involved field visits to herders with flocks of a typical red breed of Mongolian cashmere goat. During one of these trips, the minibus became bogged down in mud in a river basin for four hours. Now, being stuck in Mongolia could easily become a very difficult situation, but this was a relatively well populated area with other four wheel drive vehicles about and we were relatively safe; in fact the break in our hectic schedule meant that the we could sit in the sun looking at the wild flowers while the men laboured mightily, ignoring all sensible suggestions from the women…
Eventually, with much huffing and puffing, the bus was freed and the group continued the trip to our host and a meal of boiled mutton (with no veg). So, it all worked out well in the end.
Before setting up The Fibre Lab, Hilary Redden worked at the Macaulay Institute (which later became the James Hutton Institute) in Aberdeen, Scotland, and was involved with research resulting in a number of papers on the subjects of fibre analysis, cashmere goats, sheep and alpacas.
Click on the link below for an overview of her published work while affiliated with the James Hutton Institute and other places: