- Communities around the world rely on harvesting some of the rarest known fibers to make a living.
- Many prepare for months or years to make their harvest and ship their products internationally.
- Fragile fibers like lotus silk and vicuña wool are so rare that they can cost more than gold.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: Communities around the world rely on harvesting some of the rarest known fibers to make a living. But for most, it’s not an easy task. Fragile fibers like lotus silk and vicuña wool are so rare that they can cost more than gold. From herding communities in the Bolivian mountains to lace experts in northern France, here’s how some of the world’s most expensive fabrics are made.
Here in northern Bolivia, a kilogram of this vicuña wool can sell for $370. Vicuña wool is ultrafine and difficult to come by, which explains why it’s the most expensive textile in the world. Because of conservation efforts, vicuñas cannot be domesticated, and herding communities in the Apolobamba mountain range can only shear them once every two years. An entire community begins preparing to capture the herd a month in advance. In addition to monitoring the herd and tracking its movement, they must build a herding device so that a fleet of motorcyclists can move the vicuña into an enclosure. This is the most difficult part of the job, since the packs are scattered. Once the vicuñas are properly grappled, they can be sheared. Their fur must be at least 2½ centimeters long for collection. Once they’re sheared, they undergo a health checkup, and then they’re released back into the wild. Bolivia offers three types of fiber: raw fiber, cleaned fiber, and pre-carding fiber. Pre-carding fiber is the most expensive because it requires a process that involves manually removing bristles from the fleece. Pre-carding one to two fleeces takes a full day. After that, about 90% of it goes to Italy, and the rest is shipped to other countries for further processing.
Lotus silk is one of the rarest fabrics in the world, produced only on a small scale across Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Extracting enough lotus silk for one scarf can take two months, and the final product can cost 10 times as much as regular silk. Silk usually comes from silkworms, but making lotus silk is different. Each thread of lotus silk starts with the stem of the lotus flower, and every single thread must be extracted by hand. This natural fiber is only extracted by a few skilled craftspeople across the world. Once the stem is selected and picked by hand, the silk inside can be extracted. Each stem contains a minuscule amount of thin stick fibers, which must be rolled together and dried. The threads need to be processed within 24 hours while they’re still wet; otherwise, they’ll break. So harvesting has to be done every day. And the lotus plants are only available to harvest between April and October. Once dry, these threads are carefully weighed down and delicately hand-spooled. Then they’re put into the loom. The fibers are extremely delicate, but once woven can be as durable as traditional silk. The material is soft as silk, breathable as linen, and slightly elastic. A 25-centimeter scarf can sell for just over $200.
Real eiderdown is one of the warmest natural fibers you can find, and it doesn’t come cheap. An eiderdown double duvet can cost you over $8,000. Compared to other goose or duck down, eiderdown is denser, stronger, and more insulating. This fiber is harvested from the nests of wild eider ducks found in Iceland. Collecting even a kilogram of this fluffy material isn’t easy, because eider nests are difficult to come by. During the breeding season, the eider ducks’ down naturally sheds, and the female ducks use it to build their nest. Eiderdown collectors travel between 150 islands on small boats to find every nest and collect the down by hand. The nests are scattered and sometimes hidden, making them difficult to find. Each one contains just 15 grams of down. Once the down is harvested, the work has only just begun. Up to 80% of the weight of the harvest is made up of sticks, seaweed, and larger feathers, all of which needs to be removed. The feathers are sorted through an oven and multiple specially made machines, which draw out the debris. Each feather is then laboriously sorted and cleaned by hand. It takes about four or five hours to pick through 1 kilogram. Once every feather has been manually removed, the down is washed, pressed, and dried one last time. Eider ducks are strictly protected in Iceland. It’s illegal to hunt them or to sell their eggs, and every single eiderdown product in Iceland has to be checked for quality by an inspector.
French Leavers lace is one of the most intricate and expensive types of lace you can buy. More than 15,000 individual threads are woven together on a Leavers loom. A new design can take three months to produce, and 1 square meter can cost over $500. Each design is translated from paper into these punch cards, which are fed into the loom to create a pattern. The looms run with extreme precision, which makes them essential for creating Leavers lace. But there are only a few hundred left today, and they’re no longer being made, so companies have to maintain the ones they have. This one is over 100 years old. The machine might do the weaving, but it takes around 20 people to produce Leavers lace. Each step requires an expert. As the loom weaves a complex design line by line, workers fill it with more threads. Loom experts, called tullists, are in charge of overseeing the whole weaving process. They watch and listen for any tears and make repairs while the machine does its job. There are also lace inspectors, who inspect every inch of the lace for any mistakes and make indistinguishable repairs by hand. It takes at least five years to master one specific step, so finding these workers is a challenge. Dresses or lingerie made with Leavers lace usually cost a few hundred dollars at minimum, and items from brands like Chanel and Ralph Lauren can go for a lot more.
A pair of typical blue jeans might not cost you much, but this pair of gold-label Momotaro jeans will set you back around $2,000. That’s partly because it’s hand-dyed with real indigo, instead of the synthetic dyes most jeans are made with today. It will take the artisan one to two months to dye these threads a deep indigo blue. After that, the denim will maintain its rich color for a long time. A kilogram of some synthetic indigo can cost between $4 and $5. Depending on the quality, natural indigo might cost 10 times that. The one Momotaro gets costs about $1,200 per bale. And that one bale is only enough to dye about 15 pairs of jeans. Natural dye contains a little yellow, which can subtly change the blue tones, creating a look that can’t be achieved with synthetic indigo. Today, cheaper synthetic dyes have mostly replaced natural ones, so jeans still made with natural dyes are often considered a premium product. Plus, this denim has a distinctly different feel. It’s softer than typical denim. That’s because it’s produced by hand with an antique loom. It takes one hour to weave just 10 centimeters of fabric. Then it goes through an extensive quality-control process.
Cashmere is one of the most sought-after fibers in the world. It can be woven into incredibly soft, luxurious, long-lasting garments. One genuine cashmere sweater could cost you well over $500. The fiber comes from a cashmere goat, which can be found across the Himalayas, where temperatures can drop to minus 30 degrees. It’s not the outer hair you can see that’s used for making garments, but the supersoft coat just underneath it. It’s softer, lighter, and can be up to three times more insulating than sheep wool. But while a sheep can produce at least 3 kilograms of wool every year, a cashmere goat will only give you around 200 grams. So one cashmere sweater requires up to 10 goats’ worth of cashmere. Cashmere goats are usually brushed to remove the soft hairs that molt in the spring. Once the hairs have been stripped of grease, dirt, and thicker hairs, about half of the harvested weight remains. The fibers can only be collected once a year, so the supply is extremely limited. Plus, processing it, dyeing it, and aerating it is a lot of work. It’s extremely soft, so it needs to be treated delicately, avoiding any chemicals or overprocessing.