Shangdrok: The workshop brand
The workshop is in a Tibetan village on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. It is named Shangdrok, meaning "northern shepherd" in Tibetan. The founders are two young Taiwanese, hoping that Tibetan herdsmen can live and work in peace and contentment on the land they are familiar with. They started with Tibetan handicrafts and use the unique, precious and extremely warm yak wool of the plateau to make delicate and elegant fabrics. It is suitable for the changing weather in Taiwan and any other places.
Whether in daily life or special celebrations, hats are indispensable for Tibetans. It might be the strong sunlight on the plateau that the Tibetans cannot live without hats. These hats, specially made with yak wool felt, signify the Tibetan’s hat obsession. The concave-folded natural curve of the hats cannot be made by machines, but only through manual shaping. They retain the rich texture of handmade style. These elegant hats are very comfortable to wear.
The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in China is green in summer and snow-white in winter, dotted with black Yaks, white sheep and dark herder tents. The lives of Tibetan herdsmen are all involved with yaks. From the tents they live in, the butter tea they drink, to their transportation.
The yak down used by herdsmen on the plateau for hundreds of years has been recognized by the fashion industry because it has the same softness and warmth as Kashmir wool. Hermès, LANVIN, CÉLINE, LV and other European and American famous brands, now use a large amount of yak down.
The fine, fluffy down is a speciality from the yak. The plateau is thousands of meters high. Although the temperature in Tibetan areas in summer is a balmy, 25 degrees Celsius in daytime, it drops to about ten degrees at night. In the white winter, the temperature can be as low as minus thirty degrees.
Growing in the cold plateau areas, yak hair has a strong insulation mechanism far stronger than other animals, in order to resist cold wind and frost. Most types of animal hair have chaff scales that are neatly and flatly attached to the surface. The structure of that of the yak is different. Their chaff scales have a unique fir cone structure, creating air chambers to effectively store heat, keep warmth and resist the extremely low temperature.
Herdsmen use yak fur differently according to the different textures. The hair growing on the outer layer is thick, hard and dense. When the yak sheds, they pick up the coarse hair to make the covering cloth and rope of the tent. The insulation effect is also good. Under the rough outer layer, there is a layer of extremely precious and delicate down.
Tibetans rely on yaks's capability of carrying heavy weight. (Source: ALPF)
The yak will grow new fluffy down every fall to make it through the winter, and it will naturally fall off before the next summer. The characteristic of yak down is its extremely soft texture. Even babies’ sensitive skin will not be irritated. The down is also free of pungent animal smell because of its natural antibacterial properties.
Yak down is short and thin, just like Kashmir and Merino wool. With only 16-20 microns in diameter, it is very light. It has a special hydrophobic acid, which makes the textile breathable and retains warmth excellently. This is also the ultimate protection for the yak to survive the harsh winter of the plateau. Yak down in Tibetan areas is mainly brown, and some might be gray and white.
In spring and summer, herders collect the down, and then separate coarse hair from it. Comparing to the obtaining of the top fabric, Shahtooth from Tibetan antelope, in ancient times, which was done by slaughter, yak down collection is more animal-friendly. On the other hand, it also makes yak down very rare. On average, each yak can produce only a few hundred grams in one year. In addition, the yak is notoriously bad-tempered, making it difficult to obtain. All these factors makes fine down extremely precious and scarce.
The Tibetan yak down is usually brown. Gray and white are rarely seen.
Shangdrok and Tibetans
The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is formed by Qinghai, Xikang, and the Tibetan Plateaus. The herdsmen there live a traditional nomadic life of seasonal migration. These herdsmen are described as stubborn, straightforward, and clumsy. But in fact, they live according to the spirit of Tibetan Buddhism, believing that "you get what you have given." They think everything follows the universal rule, and work their bodies and spirits in difficult environments for generations. The Tibetan culture of Buddhism is the solid core of the lives of Tibetans.
For thousands of years, living on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau where the air is thin and temperature change is drastic, yaks and goats have become Tibetans’ most important companions. They twist the yak hair into yarn for tent weaving, make wool felt carpets and raincoats, and make yak down into precious accessories. The yak provides everything the herders need for food, clothing, shelter and transportation, and is the center of life.
Felt Craft | The Memory of Fibers
The mysterious technology of felt has changed the method of fabric forming. It uses the characteristics of animal hair, the locking phenomenon of chaff scales. Chaff scales are one of the components of animal hair, human hair, body hair and animal fur, etc. The outermost layer of hair is actually composed of many translucent, small, and waterproof scales arranged to protect the hair from damage and water loss.
With the help of moisture and heat, these chaff scales in the fiber will open. The longer the humidification and heating time, the more entangled the chaff scales will get. They will finally shrink and tie the fibers tightly together. Once the piles of compressed wool are shaped, it is not reversible. The "locked together" fibers make beautiful felt.
The irreversible felting process allows the magical "memory". When the felt is not yet dry, it can be kneaded into any desired shape. These locked fibers will remember and remain the shape firmly, and gradually set as it dries. This is why a masterpiece of felt is completely seamless, three-dimensional, soft sculpture-like.
Making traditional Tibetan felt hats, the craftsmen use simple earth and wood materials as the hat molds. They collect the wool from the sheep, overlap layers of fur and wash them with hot water, and make the felt into a variety of simpler pointed hats. The felt hats collection is more modern in style and also handmade. All of them are different from the factory made ones because they are manually attached on the hat mold to dry. And then the steam is applied again for further manual shaping, forming the natural curves that the machine cannot reproduce.