The buffalo gal

From my anonymous (i.e. non-member) lurking on LJ Knitting, I learn that they’ve discovered buffalo yarn from American Buffalo Products. It has been available in a limited manner for a few years, but I’ve never seen it in person myself. Apparently the yarn, which is made from the down rather than the coarser external hairs, is heavenly soft, like qiviut. But even given its tangible qualities, some people still balk at the price, especially since some of that buffalo fleece could have been gathered from the waste of buffalo meat processing.

But there’s another possible reason for the high price: the yarn’s intangible qualities. Why? Because it’s patented.

U.S. Patent No. 6,237,315, “Processing american buffalo hair to produce a yarn”

Ruth Huffman obtained her first patent on preparing pure buffalo hair yarn in May 2001. A further patent was issued a little later.

The patent suggests that the inventive discovery was that pure buffalo yarn could be manufactured in a cost-effective manner, while admitting that it was known in the past to blend buffalo fiber with wool (which, it is stated, possesses qualities closer to wool than that of buffalo hair):

To date, no one has been able to produce a yarn based solely on buffalo or bison hair (termed collectively herein “buffalo”) at a lower cost, as well as higher productivity and good quality. Whole buffalo hair and buffalo down blended with a minimum of 40% wool fibers have long been used for providing durable, warm and comfortable protection in cold and warm weathers. A yarn based solely on buffalo hair and fibers would be expected to have similar or improved characteristics, however, the inability to produce such yarn in an efficient, cost-effective manner has not been achieved.

The main claims of the patent state:

1.   A method of producing yarn solely from buffalo hair comprising the steps of:
scouring a buffalo fleece with detergent and water sufficiently hot to clean the fleece;
separating a coarse hair from a down hair of the buffalo fleece;
blending the down with an oil and water emulsion in a mixing picker to produce a mixed fiber;
carding the mixed fiber to produce a roving of straight and parallel fibers;
spinning the roving to produce a yarn; and
twisting the yarn to increase the bulk and softness of the yarn.

13.   A method of producing yarn solely from buffalo hair comprising the steps of:
scouring a buffalo fleece with detergent and water at a temperature of at least 80 degrees centigrade to clean the fleece;
separating a coarse hair from a down hair of the buffalo fleece;
dehairing the buffalo fleece to remove unwanted course hair from the fleece to produce a dehaired down;
blending the dehaired down with an oil and water emulsion in a mixing picker to produce a mixed fiber;
carding the mixed fiber to produce a roving of straight and parallel fibers;
spinning the roving to produce a yarn; and
twisting the yarn to increase the bulk and softness of the yarn.

20.   A method of producing yarn solely from buffalo hair comprising the steps of:
collecting fleece from a buffalo hide using sheep shears prior to the step of scouring the fleece;
scouring a buffalo fleece with detergent and water at a temperature of at least 80 degrees centigrade to clean the fleece;
separating a coarse hair from a down hair of the buffalo fleece;
dehairing the buffalo fleece to remove unwanted course hair from the fleece to produce dehaired down;
blending the dehaired down with an oil and water emulsion in a mixing picker to produce a mixed fiber;
carding the mixed fiber to produce a roving of straight and parallel fibers;
spinning the roving to produce a yarn; and
twisting the yarn to increase the bulk and softness of the yarn.

Yes, really, and so long as the patent fees are paid and the patent otherwise remains valid, Huffman has a lock on the U.S. buffalo yarn market. (When trying to choose where to obtain patents, one often chooses the manufacturing countries, the consumption countries, or both.) The broadest claims of the other patent (U.S. Patent No. 6,385,954) seem to be a little narrower.

Unlike Paula Lishman’s fur yarn patent, which taught a new method of construction of yarn from fur strips, this patent seems to rely on the previously known techniques of spinning animal fiber. But apparently the key that was missing in the prior art was the fact that no one realized that the buffalo fleece needed to be “dehaired” if one wished to make a yarn that consisted exclusively of buffalo yarn; if guard hairs were left in the spinning fiber, then one could not produce a sufficiently strong and consistent yarn:


The present invention is based on the realization that prior attempts to spin buffalo yarn had failed to produce a yarn of sufficient strength and with consistency. To avoid the problems associated with the production of pure buffalo yarn, prior users of buffalo based fleece have had to resort to the addition of wool fibers to provide a scaffolding for the formation of a yarn that included buffalo. A key step to overcoming the problem of spinning pure buffalo yarn was the realization that the components of the buffalo hair had to be separated prior to the spinning operation. The un-separated hair could not be consistently matted in the carding process to form a consistent yarn. Therefore, the present inventor separated the coarse buffalo hair from the down buffalo hair prior to entering the basic woolen yarn procedure.

The rest of the steps involved will probably be fairly familiar to someone accustomed to preparing and spinning fleece: collecting the buffalo hair (the patent mentions shaving the torso of the bison the day it is slaughtered for meat, but before the hides are salted down); scouring; then the particular dehairing step; blending the fiber in a mixing picker, then mixing it with an emulsion of a water, oil, and an anti-static compound (this step could be repeated, as shown in the second flowchart); machine carding; producing roving (described in the patent as “a cylindrical form looking like a long spaghetti”); machine spinning; and twising (plying two ends together).

The dehairing step, which the patent emphasizes, is described as being carried out by machine (the machine itself is not described), and removing the coarse hair “leaving at least about 90 percent fine soft fibers, and preferably, about 95 percent fine soft fibers.” No further dehairing is carried out, because it would break down the fibers to run them through the dehairing machine again.


Now, I’ve never spun, so I can’t comment on the inventiveness of the discovery that one must separate the coarse buffalo hair from the fine buffalo hair in order to produce a pure buffalo yarn. I couldn’t say, for example, that the dehairing step was unknown for musk ox in the preparation of qiviut fiber. From what I’ve read (and I can’t say that what I’ve read was published before Huffman filed her patent application in 2000), I understand that some musk ox down is harvested by hand after the down is caught on brush; sort of a natural dehairing process? I couldn’t say, either, that anyone realized that it was necessary to remove at least 95% of the guard hair from musk ox hair before spinning it into yarn. It seems that Huffman was unaware of any printed publications prior to 2000 that described the preparation of qiviut yarn, since her patent does not indicate that any such literature was provided to the patent examiner (in the United States, she would be required to disclose any relevant prior art documents within her knowledge at the time to the examiner).

It’s not for me to speculate on validity, but for those people wondering just why the heck the yarn is $48 US per 2 ounce skein (assuming the effort required to process the fiber doesn’t justify the price), well — it’s easy when there isn’t any competition.

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3 Responses to The buffalo gal

  1. Pam Butler says:

    I too am a spinner and am interested that someone can patent a process that has been around for centuries, just because of the unique animal choice. I just happened to acquire a buffalo hide for the purpose of making rawhide. I hadn’t heard of buffalo yarn before, but when I saw the coat, I had to shear it! It was beautiful. As I plan to work on it for myself, I’m not concerned about the patent, but perhaps this patent will open the door to further manufacturing with a focus on the quality. (If it is ever open)

  2. Shannon says:

    Wow. I spin, and I’ve spun several types of “undercoat” yarns (including Pekinese…believe it or not, they’re practically double-coated). That patent is bogus. So tell us — what are the methods by which someone could challenge it?

  3. sylviatx says:

    UNfuckingbelievable.

    Are they related to Monsanto?