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Student entrepreneur crowdfunds yak-wool clothing

UC student Stefan Warnaar is the founder of Peak to Plateau - a startup company making outdoor clothing using yak wool from the Tibetan Plateau.

  • Stefan Warnaar riding a Yaksmall

    Up close with yaks during Stefan Warnaar's travels through the mountains of Tajikistan.

It’s not a typical next move for a freshly graduated engineer to take on the highly competitive clothing industry.

But University of Canterbury student Stefan Warnaar aspires to higher things. He’s the founder of Peak to Plateau – a startup company making outdoor clothing using yak wool from the Tibetan Plateau.

“I have just completed my degree in Chemical Engineering and am now working on this business over the summer as a part of the UC Centre for Entrepreneurship Summer Startup programme,”

Recently he launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise the $50,000 he needs to manufacture the garments.

“Right now we have raised $32,000 and feel very confident about hitting the goal.”

Here the student entrepreneur talks about his unique start-up:

How did an Engineering student from Canterbury discover Tibetan yak wool?

I first encountered yaks in Mongolia, and then in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan after that. I was there in May 2015 to travel around the country where I could go hiking, camping, horse-riding and experience a remote way of life. I saw a few companies making scarves and beanies with cashmere, yak and camel fibre. I didn't see the local herders using it, or collecting it to sell, but I did see and help them collect fibre from goats for cashmere. Initially I didn't understand why they were only collecting the goat fibre, when you could feel that yak fibre was also very soft and warm, but quickly understood that it was because no-one was buying yak fibre, whereas there is a massive market for cashmere. Except for a few local brands there weren't many people using yak fibre. So I started the company around December 2015.

What is different about yak wool? What are some of the benefits? Does it feel different?

Yak is a very different type of fibre compared to sheep wool. It’s not shorn, rather it’s combed just before it begins to fall off in spring. A yak has three main types of fibre. Two are long and coarse and are mostly what you see when you look at a yak, but the third fibre is what we use. It is a soft under-fibre, and is responsible for keeping the yak warm throughout the winter. It can be quite hard to imagine a big hairy yak having such soft wool.

As a few companies have begun to use yak fibre, there have been tests done that show that yak is warmer, softer and more breathable than merino. When you think about it, it makes sense – yaks live at altitudes up to 5000m and survive temperatures down to -40C, whereas merino sheep live in a much more temperate climate. It feels a lot softer than merino, which is great for comfort and also for people who are sensitive to sheep wool. The softer it is, generally the less irritating it is.

How do you source yak wool?

We get the fibre from yak herding communities on the Tibetan Plateau. The herders primarily use yaks for milk, transport, meat, and making tents with the longer fibres, so by buying the fine under-fibre we supplement their income. Co-operatives have been set up for yak herders to sell the fibre, which ensures that they get a fair price and everyone involved in the supply chain benefits.

It is much harder to get yak fibre than other wools. This is mostly because yak fibre is still relatively undeveloped and the remote location of the Tibetan Plateau slows down any development opportunities. Many manufacturers don't have any experience working with yak fibre, and they can be hesitant to use it. It has been important to work with people who are as interested in using yak fibre as we are.

Why create base layers?

I felt that there was a lot of innovation and development in outdoor parts of the outdoor gear industry, but very little has changed with base-layer clothing, especially for companies using natural fibres. Base-layers have always been the most important items of clothing for me, and I knew that I could develop a product as good as or better than what was currently available. Every company was using the same fabric and claiming that their process or technology was better, but the results were always the same.

We started selling beanies and neck-warmers earlier in the year, and now we have three base-layers ready to be manufactured – a long-sleeve 1/4 zip, long sleeve crew, and t-shirt. We want to develop a complete range of base-layers including leggings, underwear, socks, gloves and more. We aim to have a range of different fabric weights, and also introduce sweaters, hoodies and possibly even jackets made with a lofted yak down.

Are there particular activities your base layer is good for?

I would say that our base-layers are best suited active pursuits – whether that’s hiking, climbing, skiing or running. This is because they are made with a lightweight fabric that will keep you warm during low or moderate intensity, but won't overheat if the intensity of the activity increases. Our base-layers come into their own on longer trips where you’re wearing the same clothing all day, every day and you want something that feels fresh every day. The reason for this is our fabric blend. The 65% Yak, 35% Tencel [a natural fibre made from the Eucalyptus tree] fabric combines the qualities of both fibres, and we believe this is the way forward for lightweight base-layer clothing. A lightweight base-layer should have a combination of warmth, durability, comfort, breathability, and odour resistance. We have achieved this with our fabric, and the results show on longer, more demanding trips where the wear and tear on clothing is much greater.

When did you discover your passion for the outdoors?

I grew up as a very sporty person, mostly playing team sports when I was younger, but also learning to ski. As I got older and became more independent, the opportunities to get into outdoor activities opened up. And living in Christchurch, it is almost certain that you will end up getting involved in the outdoors at some point. Living in New Zealand is great because we have so much to offer in such a small country and you are never far from anything. It's entirely possible to spend every weekend in the outdoors, without going to the same place twice. These days, I mainly ski and hike, although I want to get more into kayaking, fishing and maybe some climbing.

How did you come up with the name, Peak to Plateau?

The name refers to the geography of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. The mountain peaks of the Himalayas are the backdrop of the Tibetan Plateau. I knew that I wanted the name to have a connection to where the yak fibre comes from, and the geography and landscapes are such an important part of why yaks have such amazing fibre.

Tell me about the design of the base layers.

They are designed on three principles – performance, comfort and style. The garment needs to do its job but stay out of your way. To achieve this we used a slim fit that is not too tight that it restricts movement, but not so loose that it annoys you. Raglan sleeves allow for complete freedom of movement of your arms and shoulders, and also mean that the seams are placed off the top of your shoulders. Shoulder seams were always a source of rubbing when wearing a pack and this completely stops that. The torso is long so you don't have to worry about your top riding up when you reach for something or when wearing a pack. The long sleeve base-layers have thumb holes which keep your hands much warmer without the need for gloves. The seams are flat stitched and offset from typical rubbing points (like under the arms) so you won't get any chafing.

Why a Kickstarter for the company?

Kickstarter is a great way to offer your early supporters and customers a special deal on upcoming products, and also allows us to reach new customers who may not have heard of us otherwise. Most importantly, however, is that we are able to get the funding required to complete the manufacturing of these garments. The clothing manufacturing industry is extremely tough because there are large minimum order requirements and therefore you need a lot of money to get started. With Kickstarter we can raise the money and offer a great product to the people that help us reach our goal.

Find more about Peak to Plateau at www.peaktoplateau.com.

For further information please contact:
Margaret Agnew, Senior External Relations Advisor, University of Canterbury
Phone: +64 3 369 3631 | Mobile: +64 275 030 168 | margaret.agnew@canterbury.ac.nz
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