Merino has become such a trend, it seems everywhere. From dress shirts to running tops, more and more clothes are made of or incorporate merino wool. Almost all of it comes from New Zealand, almost all of it seems made in China.
Straight from a very different part of China, and recently moved to be Made in England, comes Khunu.
The company and its products are remarkable for a whole set of reasons:
They don’t use utilitarian merino or luxurious cashmere. Rather, Khunu products are made of yak wool that is, by their account (and increasingly mine) softer and warmer than merino, but also more durable than cashmere, with which it shares a luxuriously silky feel.
It also shares all the usual properties that make wool a natural performance fabric that is water-resistant, warms even when wet, and does not take on much of any stink*, either.
(*Wool, be it good merino or yak, does not start to smell like sweat the way synthetic clothing does. Hang it up – or better yet: out – over night, and it will be like fresh again.
But whoever says that it never smells at all doesn’t count the smell of wet wool itself, which it can get when – surprise! – it gets wet. I grew up around sheep, so I know that smell only too well…)
The Khunu line of sweaters harkens back to a time when explorers were gentlemen with style (and that was the highest-tech that was available).
And it would have suited them just as well as it suits a modern man (or woman), ranging as it does from classic zip-top sweaters to shawl-collar pullovers, from thin flat weaves to bubble knit, in styles that easily go from the outdoors to the metropolis.
All that comes not just with some promises of sustainability or the like, but in clear partnership with Tibetan yak herders, from whom the yak ‘down’ is bought directly. The whole process is very visible – and makes for great images: Just follow Khunu on Instagram (@khunuworld) and see for yourself.
One year ago, when I was working in Beijing, I had a chance to visit Khunu’s office (when it was still) there, talk with the people, and get myself a Nansen Shawl sweater they had newly introduced into their lineup.
This piece is, like the Arc’teryx Veilance Diale sweater (which I also got at that time but reviewed much sooner because of that brand’s always-changing lineup) a shawl collar sweater. The Nansen has a very classical look, an airy knit, and all the details that matter.
It is of course not ideal as a stand-alone outer layer in windy weather, as wind will go through it. In spring or fall temperatures with not too much wind, however, it is great with just a base layer, and add a windproof shell or rain jacket (or winter coat or perhaps even blazer), if need be, and it warms well and feels wonderful.
Most important of all, though, it would be alright on travels – I had it with me in Beijing where I had to hand wash everything, not just such wool things, and could only hang everything up to dry, and it held up well – and is fine in the city.
For the true outdoors, of course, a more tightly knit sweater such as Khunu’s original Chimera sweater or the new, just-released mid-November 2015, limited edition, first “Made in England” Balto is a better choice.
Khunu Chimera and Balto
The Chimera is right at home outdoors, on travels or the next expedition, but works just as well as a casual sweater.
It is a zip-top with a high collar, and this along with the contrast-color detailing (when it was last available, it was either in brown with red, the way I got it, or in grey with navy blue) makes it more of a sporty piece.
Still, it is pretty sharp; better than most ordinary sweaters – and after all that one can see of how and where it has been worn, I wouldn’t hesitate to use it as a base layer when active, nor as a sweater to go to work in (which I have, in fact, done).
The Balto looks to take things up a notch in, perhaps, quality* and definitely in sharp looks.
(*I apparently happened to get a piece with a bit of weakened yarn in the armpit, which resulted in a small hole there. Informed Khunu, got a replacement immediately, have not seen problems since.)
It is very nearly undershirt-thin (in fact, your grandpa’s cotton undershirts probably had a thicker material), in a mid-tight knit, which again makes it wearable as everything from a base layer by itself, tucked into the pants, to a sweater above a thin base layer, worn outside.
The knit is, actually, two different knits: one for the saddle shoulders, which aren’t very visible but a nice touch in both looks and comfort/usefulness, and another knit for the main body.
The Khunu-trademark red band on the right wrist is there again, but where it looks like an added-on piece of cloth on the Chimera (which may be good for the durability of the cuff but didn’t look quite that good), it is stitched in like an overlock stitch on the Balto.
Nothing too important, but it shows the attention to detail that has gone into this first limited-edition piece of the first “London batch” from Khunu.
“Old” designs may return, new things will come.
On that note:
If you find yourself interested, do subscribe to Khunu’s newsletter (at the bottom of their webpages) for information and discounts.
If you can still/again find the Wayfarer socks, do check them out.
I laughed when I got a pair for testing last year, but when the Chimera sweater was offered with a free pair of the socks just recently, that made me decide to get it/them: They do lose a few fibers, the way soft wool will, but they are tremendously comfortable, too: Plush and warm, but never uncomfortably so.
With thick socks, that may be even more of a feat than with the sweaters…
However things go with designs old and new, with the new Made in England-character, Khunu is moving into more of a fashion-forward approach – and if this is fashion, then it is fashion with a lot of enduring character and timeless style, in the products that are the final result, as well as in the whole process of production, from Tibetan yak herders to the final customers.
Cheap this is not, but the values are all there. And for gear to be good, life to be “enclothed“, that matters.