She's founder and publisher of Wild Fibers Magazine, a U.S. quarterly that has been called "the National Geographic of the fibre world"
At her home in Maine, USA, Linda Cortight runs a small herd of cashmere goats. But each year her passion for "wild fibre" takes her around the globe, on the trail of sheep in the mountains of New Zealand, cashmere goats in Kyrgyzstan, and elusive wild guanaco in the high Andes.
What got you so deeply involved in animal fibres?
"Perhaps the fact that as a child I always preferred playing with stuffed animals over dolls may indicate an early 'attraction' to the fuzzier things in life. My passion for fibre animals began with my own herd of cashmere goats. However, I must confess that I was well into adulthood before I even knew that cashmere came from a goat. It's too bad they don't make stuffed animals out of cashmere – I would have started my herd earlier."
What's your favourite fibre and why?
"If you promise not to let my goats read this, my favorite fibre is probably qiviuk, which comes from the muskox. It is softer than cashmere (which is akin to saying that something tastes better than chocolate), but qiviuk really is the most exquisite fibre. And yet, I cannot deny that the cashmere industry is responsible for the livelihood's of thousands of nomads and shepherds throughout the world, so it's hard to argue against the 'bigger' picture of cashmere and its sustainability."
One of your "reportage missions" took you to the mountainous Ladakh region in India. What can you tell us about the life of a cashmere goat herder there?
A cashmere goat herder in Ladakh: "They still use their yaks to transport their belongings from one camp to the next"
"All of the cashmere herders in Ladakh are semi-nomads. They have a permanent home for about three months during the winter, but the rest of the time they are on the move. Their daily schedule revolves around the care of their goats. They get up soon after sunrise and milk the goats before taking them into the mountains to graze on what little forage is available. They don't return home until shortly before nightfall when the goats are milked again. Many of their daily habits have remained relatively unchanged although there are increasing signs of modernization. Some nomads actually own a vehicle, although they still use their yaks to transport their belongings from one camp to the next."
In general, what have you learnt about the people who produce animal fibres?
"I have to be really careful how I answer, since I personally fall into the category of 'people who produce animal fibres.' Overall, I have been pleasantly surprised by the level of care for the animals, particularly in Third World countries where I was initially concerned I might see a lot of neglect. However, since the animals are the source of their livelihoods, the shepherds and nomads have a vested interest in keeping them healthy and producing. On more occasions than not, I see animals treated with both gentleness and respect. Sadly, there are exceptions, but those abuses are not limited to fibre animals, nor to Third World countries. I have been surprised by the number of people who raise fibre animals that don't seem to enjoy a greater use of the product. You won't find many nomads wearing cashmere sweaters, nor herders in the Gobi Desert clad in camel hair. It is a sad testament to the pervasiveness of synthetics, particularly polar fleece."
"Fibre animals tend to be more tractable because they have an ongoing positive interaction with humans"
...and what have you learned about the animals?
"Perhaps the most fascinating, although completely logical, thing I have noticed about fibre animals is how much their behaviour is altered by domestication. Sheep, which are the oldest domesticated animal after the dog, have earned the reputation of being difficult lambers – particularly in the more heavily manipulated breeds. However, if you go back to the breeds which have been left relatively feral, for example, the Soay [a breed found on a small island off Scotland] – they still have excellent mothering skills and rarely require assistance during birthing. The same can be said for fibre animals that are not dependent on a daily ration of hay for survival during winter. If they have the ability to endure a harsh climate on their own, their overall health seems equally strong. I have also discovered (even if this is purely unscientific) that because fibre is a renewable resource and the animals ostensibly have a natural lifespan, as opposed to those animals that are raised for meat, fibre animals tend to be more tractable because they have an ongoing positive interaction with humans for the harvesting of fibre. Of course, in the meat industry some animals only have human contact at the 11th hour."
In your travels have you come across any animal fibres we've never heard of?
"Aside from the muskox (which is increasingly on the radar screen of the general public, if for no other reason than it is the 'ultimate' luxury fibre and comes from an animal that could easily be mistaken for a mastodon wearing a football helmet), I think the two most uncommon fibres are possum fibre from New Zealand, which is stunningly soft, and guanaco, which sends most people running to the dictionary. It's a member of the camelid family and a first cousin of the llama."
You've said you'd like to "create a bridge between all aspects of the fibre industry". How would you like to see Central Asia's cashmere goats herders connected to the fibre industry?
"Cashmere is a vital source of income for those herders, but generally they lack the knowledge to evaluate the fibre's consistency and fineness, so the vast majority of them are being paid 'rhinestone prices for diamond jewels'. In a perfect world I would love to see the entire fibre industry more vertically integrated. I think the producers should not only be able to reap the benefits of value-added product, but be involved in fibre processing so they have a much greater appreciation of the needs and limitations of processing equipment. Most farmers don't understand that when it come to processing cashmere, for example, the amount of guard hair included in a poorly prepared fleece absolutely impacts the quality of the finished product. Those shorter fibers are what can lead to pilling and occasional 'scratchiness. The same is true for sheep fleeces that haven't been properly skirted. The shorter, dirty fibres get blended into the overall production that the equipment can't properly sort out. I think there would be great improvement in the overall quality of fibre production if the growers had a vested interest in the end product, and, a better understanding of the stages it goes through to get there."
Last we looked, there appeared to be almost 400 000 blogs on the internet about knitting. What's so great about knitting?
"Gosh, can 400 000 people be wrong? The whole culture of knitting has changed dramatically in the last century from something that was either considered peasant work, or limited to your grandmother leaning against her antimacassar. The short list of its advantages include: it's creative, it's inexpensive, you can make something wearable with a limited skill set, it's portable, it can be done in a group or by yourself, it won't raise your caloric intake and depending upon the pattern you choose – it should lower your blood pressure. Knitters talk about yarns, patterns, needles and designs in the same way that men (and some women) talk about cars or similar passions. If you put two knitters in an elevator together, I guarantee they will be fast friends by the time they walk out."
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