Camel Wool, commonly called Camel Hair, is a category of fabric derived from camel coat. This unique fabric is usually derived from the Bactrian camel subspecies. These camels are mostly found at the Mongolian Steppes region across areas like China, Siberia and Turkey. Bactrian camels have long lustrous hair, unlike most camels with their short hair.
The Bactrian camel hair comes in two different forms: the undercoat and the guard hair. The guard hair is coarse and hard. It is not a good material for fabric unless mixed with materials like sheep wool. The guard hair is the part of the Bactrian camel coat that protects it from those harsh Steppes winters, giving it a fuzzy and thick appearance during the winters.
The undercoat, on the other hand, is quite soft. Bactrian camels use it to provide insulation, much like fiberglass insulation between the outer and inner walls of houses. Unlike the guard coat used for making certain textiles, the Bactrian camel hair undercoat is mostly used for making apparel.
Camel Hair became famous for textile fabric making towards the end of the British Empire. However, the use of camel hair for garment making has experienced a recent resurgence, especially amongst the “conscious” consumer population. Unlike other wool production methods that typically involve shearing off the animals’ hairs, camel wool is harvested when the Bactrian camels shed their winter coats during the spring, which makes this harvesting system not only sustainable but cruelty-free.
Only about 30% of the raw fiber derived from camel hair is suitable for apparel. Camel wool comes in three grades: the high-grade fibers, the medium fibers and the low-grade fibers.
The color and level of fineness of the fiber are what determines the camel hair grade. The high-grade fibers are those derived from the camel undercoat. They are soft and fine, with a light tan in color. And for it to be genuinely considered high-grade, it mostly comes from the best of the undercoat fibers. These high-grade fibers are primarily used for producing consumer textiles.
The medium-grade category comprises those undercoat fibers that are not considered high enough to be high-grade. They are longer and coarser than their high-grade counterpart. These fibers are used to produce apparel, though the end products are usually rougher to the touch.
While low-grade camel fibers are derived from guard coat. These fibers are long and coarse, with a brownish-black color. They are inflexible and rough, so they’re only suitable for carpets and other rigid textiles. They’re also used within interfacing and interlinings in apparel to make the garments stiffer.
On a closer look, camel hair fibers appear very similar to those sheep wool fibers; the difference is that their scales are not as pronounced. And like other wool fibers, the camel hair has air-filled and hollow matrices, which makes them great insulators.
One camel can produce about 5 pounds (2.25kg) of hair in one year. Camel Hair is collected by combing or shearing or hand gathering the fiber during the molting season in the latter half of the spring.
The fine and coarse hairs are then separated after the collection. Next, the fiber is washed to remove possible debris or dirt before it is spun into yarn for knitting or weaving.
The Bactrian camel grows a thick coat of hair every year towards the end of summer. The thickness of this coat continues to grow until the midwinter when it becomes full and robust.
This coat protects the Bactrian camel from the chilly winter. This attribute is a product of its genetic parent, Camelus bactranus. Camelus bactranus is a camel species found in Siberia and other cold regions in Asia. Camelus bactranus was once bred with the Camelus dromedarius, known for its lustrous hair; this happened centuries ago. The Bactrian camel with its parents’ attributes is the result of this breeding exercise, which means its soft and beautiful hair can be grown in the coldest climates.
The Bactrian camel usually sheds its coat during the spring as the frost prepares to thaw. People who breed this kind of camel are very good at predicting when the camel hair will begin to fall off in their caravans.
Back when Bactrian camel breeders were still nomadic, a person often called the “trailer” was usually assigned to follow the camels in a caravan in other to pick the hair fibers as they fell. However, you’ll hardly find nomadic Bactrian camel breeders these days, and it’s not unusual to see them shearing the camel’s hair if it is not entirely ready for harvesting at the same time.
Bactrian breeders hardly shear their camels, they just wait for one of the animals to shed off all of its hair, and when they do shear them, they don’t touch the area around the hump because the hair in that area has excellent disease resistance properties.
After the hair is shorn off or fallen, the next step is to clean it to remove impurities then have it carded. Carding involves separating the hair fibers into different strands.
Once the carding is done, the next step is to start spinning the wool into yarn. An industrial spinning machine can be used to spin the wool into yarn, but not in all cases. The indigenes of Mongolian Steppes mostly employ traditional tools for this particular job.
After the yarn is spun, it is rewashed before it is worked into textiles. While it is not unusual for some breeders to create their finished textiles, most finished yarns are usually shipped off to major textile factories around the area or abroad.
The history of camel wool dates as far back as the Bible, where it was said to be used as material for cloaks, carpets and tents. This fiber has been in the West since the 17th century, but it did not become popular in England until the latter part of the 19th century.
Polo was a trendy sport at that time, and polo players had a thing for camel hair jackets. As time went on, many upper-class British men began to adopt garments made with this fabric. Some collectors still like to collect camel wool vintage polo jackets till this day.
Today the camel wool is primarily used for making garments like coats, underwear and sweaters. Mongolia is the major exporter of camel wool, where a variety of lightweight sweaters and scarves are produced to be sold to consumers across Europe, America and China.
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Camel wool might not be as popular as other fabrics. However, it has its unique features, which is why it is still very much a part of the global wool industry. This wool can be woven into thin garments despite being highly insulative. Furthermore, high-grade wool is almost as soft as quality cashmere, which is why it is sometimes blended with cashmere for luxury garments. Also, carpets can be made from the rougher camel wool.
Mongolia produces a large percentage of the world’s camel wool. Textile exportation is a large part of the country’s economy.
Breeders do most of the camel wool production in Mongolia. These breeders have been raising Bactrian camels for thousands of years and are mostly nomads. Their method of harvesting camel wool is the same as that used by their ancestors. However, other breeders in other locations have started to employ modernized techniques to harvest animal hair and care for the animals.
Tibet, China, Iran, Afghanistan and Iran, also produce semi-processed or raw camel wool. These countries are within Mongolia’s general region, and some of the nomadic tribes involved in camel wool production at the Mongolian Steppes also come from these regions.
New Zealand and Australia are the only regions that actively breed Bactrian camels despite the British Empire’s repeated efforts to facilitate the production of camel wool within their colonies.
Several other nations like South Africa and the USA also produce this fiber in small quantities.
The fact that they barely produce it in factory settings is one factor that makes the camel wool so expensive. Despite its brief popularity surge between 1880 and 1930, the popularity of this fabric has been waning for some time, which is why many international textile manufacturers don’t even bother to produce it in large quantities.
There are two types of camel wool, they include:
Camel wool is probably the most environmentally friendly animal fiber out there. The odds of the animals being mistreated during the harvesting of camel wool are improbable, unlike what is obtainable with other wool animals. Among all the wool sources, it is only the Bactrian camel that sheds its hair naturally every year.
What makes the use of restraint unnecessary during harvesting, significantly reducing the chances of animal trauma or injury during collection. Though shearing is sometimes necessary, it is not a common occurrence as shearing an entire camel is hardly economically expedient. Restraining an entire Bactrian camel for complete shearing would be quite tricky considering their large size.
Though a few dedicated farms are into the business of raiding such animals to harvest their wool, Bactrian camel wool is mostly harvested by families and individuals in remote parts of Asia. A large chunk of this fiber is produced in Mongolia, so the odds of the production – causing any significant impact on the environment is very low.
Mongolia’s GDP is about $12 billion; it implies that the country’s industrial might is not big enough to cause any significant damage to the environment regardless of its manufacturing process.
Producers hardly ever dye this substance. When they do, they make use of natural dyes and even when they make use of harmful dyes, the quantity of fabric produced is so minute that the chances of it potentially harming the environment are slim to none. Also, the harvesting process does not involve the use of any toxic or caustic chemicals. Camel wool is completely biodegradable, so it does not harm the environment when discarded.
There are textile certification organizations that certify camel hair for textile purposes. The certification offered by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is recognized internationally as an authority on organic and sustainable fabric manufacturing standards. It is one of the most respected in the industry.
OEKO-TEX, which is an independent testing organization, also provides certification for this fabric in addition to providing essential information on different types of raw, finished or semi-finished textile products. Woolmark, a product brand, offers a licensing program that determines the quality of certain fabrics like camel hair.