Camel

a large, long necked ungulate mammal of arid countries...

The animal

Bactrian Camel


Most camel fibre comes from the domesticated Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus), whose
wild ancestor are a critically endangered mammal of Central and East Asia. Sadly, their
numbers are decreasing due to the spread of livestock farming and degradation of habitat,
mining, hybridisation, predation by wolves, and hunting. Whilst found throughout the steppes
(vast, usually level and treeless arid biome) and rocky deserts of Central and East Asia, the
wild population (Camelus ferus) is restricted to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and China, as
they are already extinct in Kazakhstan. In these habitats, the temperatures are extreme, from
over 45oC in the summer to as low as -23oC in the winter.
These large animals stand at about 1.8m at the shoulder and come in at a hefty 900kg, often
comical perceived as grumpy and ungainly animals their ability to live in such inhospitable
environments for 30-50 years is testimony to their incredible adaptations. Their most obvious
characteristic is the humps; Bactrians have two humps and their cousins the dromedary camel
have one, and these humps facilitate their survival in these conditions. This is a fat store,
sustaining them, which they draw on for resources. A camel with droopy humps means a
hungry camel. The other vital resource the camel needs to survive is of course water, and this
they take on board in vast quantities when they can, and sacks around their stomachs enable
them to store it for later us. Another adaptation that makes life a little more bearable is the
ability to close their nostrils to keep out the sand. The bushy eyebrows and long eyelashes
protect the eyes.
Like their relatives the llamas and alpacas (they all belong to the Camelidae family) their big
flat feet help them traverse difficult terrain, making them and llamas ideal pack animals. It is
their incredible resilience that makes them so good as pack animals and enabled the travel of
caravans on the famous silk road and is believed to have been domesticated sometime before
2500BC in either Northeast Afghanistan or southwestern Turkestan. They can carry up to
250kg and travel close to 50km a day making them invaluable to nomads and merchants
traversing desert environments.
As well as wool, camels provide their owners with many useful and indeed life-sustaining
products, including meat, milk and leather. The milk is typically fermented to extend its life and this drink is called kumis by the peoples of the Central Asian steppes. The fat is used for cooking and the dried dung is utilised as a fuel.

Video by Taryn Elliott

The fibre

Given the extremes of the temperature of their natural habitat, it is no surprise that the shaggy coat, which does such a good job of keeping the camels warm in the winter, is shed during the warmer months. The camel is generally not shorn, losing their coat naturally during the spring when they moult and are manually collected. If a camel is shorn, then the coat will have more hair to the comb out. The fine undercoat is harvested by combing and sometimes the shorn hair is manually collected. As for other animals that have coarser guard hairs, like llamas) the coarser guard hairs are not typically used for knitting and are much better for making rugs, for weaving and even bedding as well as tents. It has been recorded for making western garments from the 17th Century, even being popularized by the British high street brand Jaegar. The finest quality is produced by baby camels, and most are produced in Mongolia, Tibet, Iran, Russia, China and Afghanistan and more recently, New Zealand and Australia.

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Ethical and environmental considerations

The largest producer of camel yarn is Mongolia, and here most producers have been caring for Bactrian camels for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Many of the herds are owned by nomadic people, and thus whilst domesticated the camels’ lives are similar to their wild ancestors.
As most camels are not shorn for their wool, but the coat naturally moults in the warmer months the animals are not stressed however like any domesticated animals, the welfare of the animals is affected by husbandry, so as always be conscious of your consumer decisions.

Knitting with it

Yarn from camels tends to be compact and stable compared to other fibres of similar length and fineness, which means it gives good stitch definition for knits. It lacks the elasticity of many animal fibres, which means it lacks the fluffiness to fill holes. Naturally, it comes in tones from white to dark browns but also responds well to the dyes used for sheep wool. Its softness is often compared to heavier cashmere and like their South American relatives, the llama and alpaca, the yarn from camels is very light and has incredible thermostatic properties (will keep you warm)

Dromedary Camel

There are two camel species in the world and when most people think of camel, they think of the dromedary (Camelus dromedarius) with its characteristic hump. Imagining a camel also tends to come along with the image of sand, extreme heat and perhaps a Bedouin (nomadic tribesperson), but they would be wrong in thinking that this is the source of their camel wool.
Adapted to the hotter climates of the African desert lands, the dromedary produces less useable fibre than their relative the Bactrian camel of Central Asia, however that being said they are still harvested for their hair.
A dromedary on average produces 1kg of hair per year whereas the Bactrian has an annual yield of between 5-12kg.

As with all domesticated animals, there are different breeds of dromedary and the Aravana dromedary of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistani, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan yield the most yarn, no doubt as they have adapted to these colder regions.

The hair is concentrated on the shoulders, throat, and hump.
The dromedary is the tallest of the camels with a shoulder height of 2m. They are a social species and like to be in herds of about 20 and one way they minimise water loss is that they will press against each other in the hit of the day and decrease surface area. Physical characteristics that make it so distinctive, alongside its single hump include a long-curved neck, long legs and narrow chest.

It is hard to pinpoint when the species was domesticated, with some scholars arguing that it was in the Arabian Peninsula about 4000 years ago, whilst others claim it was 5-9000 years ago in what is modern-day Somaliland based on the beautiful cave paintings of Laas Geel.

Today there are no wild dromedary camels left, although feral populations are found including in Australia! It is generally found in semi-arid to arid regions of the Arabian Peninsula and Africa, with Africa being home to 80% of the population.

Like the Bactrian camel, it is a beast of burden being incredibly adapted to desert conditions and able to carry heavy loads over difficult terrain and has been used in warfare since the 2nd century BC and prized for its capacity to outrun horses in desert conditions, lending itself to being raced in the Arab world.
It can also be used to plough and the milk it provides is a staple diet of desert nomadic tribes whilst the meat is a staple of Somalian and Djiboutian culture.

The fibre

The camel is generally not shorn, losing their coat naturally during the spring when they moult and are manually collected. If a camel is shorn, then the coat will have more hair to the comb out. The fine undercoat is harvested by combing and sometimes the shorn hair is manually collected. As for other animals that have coarser guard hairs, like llamas) the coarser guard hairs are not typically used for knitting and are much better for making rugs, for weaving and even bedding as well as tents.

Ethical and environmental considerations

As most camels are not shorn for their wool, but the coat naturally moults in the warmer months the animals are not stressed however like any domesticated animals, the welfare of the animals is affected by husbandry, so as always be conscious of your consumer decisions.

Knitting with it

Yarn from camels tends to be compact and stable compared to other fibres of similar length and fineness, which means it gives good stitch definition for knits.

It lacks the elasticity of many animal fibres, which means it lacks the fluffiness to fill holes. Naturally, it comes in tones from white to dark browns but also responds well to the dyes used for sheep wool.
Its softness is often compared to heavier cashmere and like their South American relatives, the llama and alpaca, the yarn from camels is very light and has incredible thermostatic properties (will keep you warm).

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