Discover the World’s Finest Wool – Qiviut Wool

Qiviut

What is Qiviut? The Qiviut - pronounced as Ki-vee-oot, is a recent discovery in the world of animal fibers. It is special beyond its unique qualities. Different communities manage the production and distribution of Qiviut. The muskox or oomingmak as it is called by the Inuits has two layers of hair to protect it in the Arctic climate. The outer layer is the long and shaggy guard hair, while the inner layer is the soft downy hair which is the precious qiviut.

Origin of the Musk-Ox

The Muskoxen were wild animals until 1964 when John Teal established the muskox domestication project in Alaska. During the 1800s, unsustainable hunting practices led to the annihilation of the muskoxen from Alaska, which is their original habitat.

In 1935, the US government reintroduced muskoxen back into the state, where a population of over a thousand flourished.

The muskoxen may look like cows or bison, but they’re more related to goats. Native to Alaska, they have spread to the arctic regions of Canada and Greenland.

Wild muskoxen roam in herds of two or three dozens, led by a single female. An adult Muskox can weigh up to 800 pounds and grow to about 5 feet above shoulder height.

They are herbivores that dig through the snow with their hooves to feed on lichen, roots, moss, dried grass, and the likes.

Although the muskoxen population is not overflowing, they’re tagged as a ‘least concern’ species with stable population growth. The law protects herds of muskoxen in Alaska, Norway, and Siberia

Domestication of the Musk-Ox

Domesticated muskoxen can live for up to 20 years. They calve once in a year with an 8-month gestation period. Every summer, they shed the inner layer of hair that provides extra warmth during the winter.

For a long time, this hair often ends up rotting, but around the 1950s John Teal Jnr. saw an opportunity to put the Qiviut to good use. He embarked on a research that proved the muskox wool as a durable and profitable animal fiber.

With the help of the W. K. Kellogs Foundation, the University of Alaska, and some volunteers, he established a Muskox farm in 1964. The growth rate of the herds has influenced the popularity of Qiviut.

The establishment is currently located at the Matanuska Valley, where volunteers and project participants continue qiviut farming. This development has been profitable for the local economy.

The locals collect tufts of qiviut hair shed by free-ranging oxen and hand it over to the Oomingmak Co-operative, which takes care of the processing and distribution of yarn back to the locals.

The local weaving communities then create intricately designed caps, scarves, blankets, gloves, and the likes, which consumers can buy through the Co-operative.

Qiviut Farming

In Greenland, qiviut farming came into existence about 20 years ago, thanks to the efforts of Anita Høegh. She pioneered the use of the qiviut as a textile resource when she realized that the inner layers of the muskox coat could be worth a fortune if processed expertly.

Qiviut farming also exists in some parts of Canada. Muskoxen domestication is not too capital intensive as the animals adapt well to the environment and can forage for their food.

Also, harvesting qiviut happens naturally. The hair falls off in large chunks of their own accord, eliminating the need for shearing. In Alaska, the majority of the qiviut is combed off the domesticated muskoxen. Apart from meat and qiviut, the muskox urine has a unique scent that is used in some perfumes.

Qiviut - is the inner wool layer of the Muskox - by: World's Finest Wool

Properties of Qiviut Wool

The qiviut called the musk ox wool has a brownish-grey color. It also has a luxurious luster that closely resembles the cashmere but it is softer with a higher warmth to weight ratio. The qiviut has about 12-14 microns and an average staple length of 3.5-7 cm. It is 8 times warmer, a lot lighter, and not that scratchy when compared to sheep’s wool.

The absence of oils in the fiber makes it less allergenic, making it most suitable for people allergic to wool. Despite its lightness, the qiviut has considerable strength. It can withstand temperature shock and agitation without shrinking, pilling, or felting. Clothing made from qiviut is easy to maintain and can last for several years with minimal washing by hand. They are said to become softer and more beautiful as they age.

Qiviut is odorless and retains its warmth even when wet. It provides more warmth than any other animal fiber with less weight. You can wear qiviut garments even in summer as they are lightweight and breathable and you won’t even feel the extra weight.

The fiber is not as elastic as sheep’s wool. Although qiviut takes to dye well, it naturally comes in soft earth colors that match all skin types. This makes it even more valuable, healthy, and eco-friendly.

Qiviut fiber is versatile as it can blend with silk and fine merino wool to create stunning fabrics.
Global production of qiviut amounts to 5 or 6 tons annually, making it one of the rarest animal fibers in the world.

Musk Ox Battle one of the Harshest Climates on the Planet - by: National Geographic

Processing of Qiviut

Collecting raw qiviut is relatively easy as the muskox will naturally shed their soft downy underwool in summer. This often happens in April and May. Clumps of hair tend to fall off the body of the animals.

One way to collect qiviut from free-ranging muskox involves picking it from objects or bushes that the animal has rubbed against. This method, while cheap, is not very effective since exposure and other factors can reduce the fibers’ quality. The Inuit of Nunivak Island in Alaska collect this naturally shed wool and spin it by hand.

For the domesticated herds, the qiviut is collected by combing through the fur of the muskox. This method is more effective as it’s easier to extract large chunks of qiviut wool in a single session. Adult muskox sheds up to 7 pounds of qiviut per year.

Harvesting of the wool takes place once a year. The minimum requirement for shipping the fiber to a processing plant is around 800 pounds. After harvesting, the fiber goes through scoring using a mild detergent with a four bowl system to get rid of dust and other residues.

Thereafter, it is detailed to remove coarse guard hairs and debris. Dehairing helps to untangle the fiber thoroughly. The fiber is ready for spinning once it undergoes scouring, dehairing and detangling.

Spinning requires oiling the fibers to make it open for carding, which is the next step. The system of carding qiviut is almost the same as that of cashmere [7]. After carding, the next thing is to spin the fiber into yarns before sending it back to the farmers. The process can last for over a year before the yarns get back to Alaskan qiviut societies.

Oomingmak Co-operative Association

Due to the small size and communal nature of qiviut farming in Alaska, the entire process from harvesting to processing and sale is run by the Oomingmak Co-operative association. The name of the association comes from the Inuit word for the muskox, which means “the animal with skin like beard.”

The Co-operative came into existence in 1969, to ensure the continual production of qiviut and that it provides benefits to the local people. They work with processing companies, e-commerce, postal agencies, and local weavers to produce qiviut items year after year.

Currently, there are only two active qiviut farms in Alaska; one in Palmer and the other at the University of Alaska. Even at the low production rate, they are still thriving economically when compared to other wools.

Qiviut has the potential to offer an immense financial benefit to regions where muskoxen exist. This is not just because it is rare, but also because of its efficiency and eco-friendliness. Native Alaskan women and a few men weave the qiviut yarns in special patterns unique to their village community.

These techniques are not available for commercial purposes, and each pattern has copyright protection. The latter can only be used by members of the Oomigmak Co-operative. Some of these special patterns include the Nelson Island Diamond pattern, which is unique to the people of Nightmute, Tununak, Newtok, and Toksook Bay. Also, the Harpoon pattern is indigenous to the Nunivak Island natives only.

The weavers produce sweaters, scarves, hats, tunics, smoke-rings, and stoles which the Co-operative will package and sell. Each weaver receives payment on each item they sell.

Autumn Tundra Landscape in Denali National Park – In Alaska, the musk ox populations were exterminated at the turn of the 20th century. They were successfully reintroduced after Greenland musk oxen were abandoned on the island of Nunivak off the west coast of Alaska in the 1930s and then spread again along the Arctic mainland. Today there are approximately 5,300 muskox in Alaska.

Musk Ox - Characteristics and Distribution

The musk ox has a very prehistoric appearance – with their long, drooping fur, which glides over the ground, and powerful horns curved towards the face. They not only look prehistoric, but it is assumed that the ancestor of the musk ox migrated from Asia to North America around 200,000 to 90,000 years ago.

The preferred habitat of the musk ox is the low-precipitation tundra. Through their unique heavy fur, the animals tolerate extreme cold but are sensitive to long-lasting humidity. Predominantly, they populate more deeply situated levels and river valleys, in which meltwater and low precipitation on the permafrost ground accumulate during the summer months and nutritious vegetation, which is very diverse for arctic conditions, thrives.

They feed on woody plants such as birches and willows, from which they strip the leaves and on herbs, lichens and mosses. Muskoxen migrate with the seasons. In winter, they migrate to areas with a thinner snow layer, so that they waste less energy digging for food.

Today, muskoxen live in larger numbers in Greenland, Canada, Siberia and Alaska and as smaller herds in Norway and Sweden. However, only their occurrence in northern Canada and northeastern Greenland is still of natural origin.

Successful reintroduction of muskox populations:

  • Muskoxen have been successfully released on the Russian Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2004; they now form a herd of about 100 animals.
  • Repopulations in other regions of Greenland, in Siberia and in Norway were also successful.
  • In the Norwegian Dovrefjell National Park, however, it took 20 years of effort until 1947 to reestablish a population of muskoxen.
  • During a military exercise in Norway in 1971, five animals were separated from the herd. These musk oxen migrated to the Swedish border, and they established their territory near Rogen in Femundsmarka. As of 2010, there were still seven animals living in Sweden.
  • The settlement on the northern Siberian Taimyr Peninsula was also successful. Unfortunately, attempts to settle muskoxen on Iceland have not yet been successful so far![11/12]
Muskox - oomingmask
Muskox - Distribution Area Map

Musk Ox – Distribution Area Map

Red – Historical Habitat

Blue – Recently Introduced Popultions

Animal Welfare

Extracting the Qiviut wool is by no means painful or unpleasant for the musk ox. It is neither sheared, nor does the animal have to be fixed in any way. Instead, the fine undercoat is combed out simply and gently. The loss of hair has no disadvantages for the musk ox.

Especially the fact that the combing out and processing of Qiviut wool is almost exclusively done by the Inuit Oomingmak Association is a very positive factor. The people can live in harmony with animals and nature, which is still very important for the indigenous people of Alaska, and there is no exploitation of labor.

Further, the domesticated herds, which live in Greenland, Canada or Alaska, are an important step in the right direction when it comes to preserving the population of the musk ox.

Under the condition that the keeping conditions for the animals are met, there is no reason to object to the production of Qiviut wool from an animal welfare perspective.

Price of Qiviut

Qiviut is expensive. This is not surprising as it’s a rare fiber with unique qualities. Another reason is the elaborate processing of the fiber – once a year, this process is necessary to collect about 7 pounds of Qiviut wool per animal.

  • Raw unprocessed qiviut costs about $35 per ounce, which is double the price of cashmere.
  • The cost of hats and scarves at the Oomingmak store ranges between $200-$300.
  • Sweaters can cost up to $650.
  • The association recently introduced cheaper versions of qiviut apparel woven with a blend of silk that cost an average of $180.

Skeins of qiviut yarn are not readily available for sale, because of the small amount of fiber harvested and the long processing time. The Alaskan co-operative usually has just enough for its members. The scarcely available skeins can cost up to $95 for an ounce.

Summary

Muskox farming is a sustainable agricultural system that has worked well for places like Alaska.

The qiviut harvested may be small and expensive compared to other wool types, but it is well worth the cost for its great qualities.

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References

[1] University of Alaska Fairbanks: Large Animal Research Station: Muskox

[2] National Geographic: Animals: Musk Ox

[3] Musk Ox Farm: History

[4] Visit Greenland: From Ashes to Gold: Musk Ox Wool: How one woman pioneered the finest musk ox wool in Greenland

[5] Musk Ox Farm: What is Qiviut?

[6] Nunavut Qiviut: What is Qiviut?

[7] High Latitude Style: See why simple muskox-wool fashion is so expensive

[8] Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Co-operative: About Our Fiber & Yarn

[9] Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Co-operative: Hats & Tunics

[10] Starr, L., Greenberg, J., & Rowell, J. (2017). Farming Muskoxen for Qiviut in Alaska: A Feasibility Study. Arctic, 70(1), 77-85. Retrieved August 12, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/26379725

[11] Cuyler, C., Rowell, J., Adamczewski, J. et al. Muskox status, recent variation, and uncertain future. Ambio 49, 805–819 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-019-01205-x

[11] Muskox, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Muskox&oldid=972778315 (last visited Aug. 27, 2020)