Selina Scott knows a lot about yaks. There are 600,000 of them in Mongolia, for example. They are emotional creatures that mourn their dead. The bulls like to wander off to live in solitary confinement for up to a year. Perhaps most surprising of all, they have no odour, not even their dung.
Yaks live in temperatures of up to minus 50 degrees, so produce a soft but durable down to keep warm. It’s similar to cashmere, says Selina, adding: “But you don’t get as much off a yak as you do off a goat. It’s only the soft underdown on the neck that’s prized , so, although it’s a massive beast, there’s only a small part of it that gives up this fantastic fibre.
“I’m living in it at th moment. I just love it,” she says, referring to the yak sweaters, cardigans, shawls and hats that she produces, working with herders and manufacturers in Mongolia, then selling them through her website and her shop in Malton, alongside her established ranges of mohair socks and cashmere pieces.
Her brand, Naturally Selina Scott, started 20 years ago when she found six bedraggled angora goats which had been imported to the west of Scotland, where the ground was so wet their feet couldn’t cope.
First she billeted them on friends, but after moving into her 200-acre farm near Malton, her home became their home. The initial six quickly became 30 – and all needed shearing twice a year, which meant she was building up quite a stock of lovely mohair. A friend gave her a pair of mohair socks, she says, “and they rest, as they say, is history”.
Initially, Selina’s thoughts were simply to use the fibre to make socks to give to family and friends. “Before I knew it, a lot of people had heard about it and I’d got a little business going,” she says. “I’ve always been extremely interested in natural fibres and I hate wearing synthetics. The amount of burning the planet that goes on making all these clothes out of acrylic and nylon, it’s just ridiculous.”
On a quest to seek out the best natural fibres in the world, in September she travelled to the Gobi Desert, where she discovered the yak – and became smitten. For Selina, this is much more than business. The whole experience of visiting and developing links with the people of Mongolia has been rewarding – and an eye-opener. “They depend totally on cashmere to make a living,” she says. “They live off mares’ milk, they live off mutton, they have no vegetables in the countryside.
“The children are obviously very precious and, when they are born, they don’t get their hair cut until they are three years old, because they reckon by the time they’re three, they’re going to survive. They don’t want to do anything to a child before the age of three which may kill it.
“The children are still on their mother’s breast until they are four years old, then at five, they leave these yurts and their close family communities and they go off and stay miles away. They call them ‘soums’, like villages where they live, and they’re allowed to stay with relatives if they’re lucky or they stay in dormitories.”
The clothes are made in the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator, with the design a collaboration. In particular, Selina loves her men’s yak jumpers, as soft as cashmere but a little thicker. “It’s got that look about it. Cashmere is not what rugged Yorkshiremen wear – they like something a little more substantial.”
She shows off the clothes herself for the website – these pictures were taken in a small village high up in the Mongolian mountains – single-handedly proving, at 64, that there is no need whatsoever for fashion models to be so comprehensively under 35. “It’s one of my bête noirs, actually,” she says.
Two years ago she opened her shop in Malton, selling her garments to local farmers as well as to visitors who come calling during the Malton Food Festival and the Dickensian festival (she’s patron of both). Chris Evans is a fan.
It’s a world away from the days when Selina was never off TV, but there are no regrets. “I’ve done most of the things I want to do in television,” she says. “I’m asked to do quite a bit. I just feel I’ve done it before and it doesn’t really appeal to me.” She is busy with her writing, and there are still TV cameos, appearing on Newsnight in August, discussing Donald Trump’s feud with her. But Naturally Selina Scott pulls together the strands that inspire her, from her love of fashion to her concern for the planet and animals, plus her desire for travel and adventure.
“I’m used to setting my own agenda,” she says. “Sue Lloyd Roberts, who died recently, was my contemporary at ITN. She took herself off with a Sony camera to places like North Korea on her own to find stories and report back. I think once you have that training in life, that you have to find things to do yourself, it does give you a certain mindset. I feel that I challenge myself all the time.”
• Naturally Selina Scott is at www.selinascott.com and at The Shambles in Malton.