Hand-Combed Qiviut: A Rare Luxury from Alaska
The grassy fields and red barn with shadowy mountains in the background could have been in Vermont, Colorado, or elsewhere in the United States. The tuft of fluffy taupe-colored fiber lying on the ground by my foot could have been sheep’s wool or alpaca fleece. Movement in the field caught my attention, and an animal stood up; I was in Alaska and the fiber at my feet was qiviut, the downy undercoat of the musk ox.
Goats of the North
As the musk ox rose, I could see its long, dark outer coat flowing almost to the ground, with skinny whitish legs sticking out at the bottom. Its enormous head with an elongated snout was topped by curving horns that flowed down the sides of the head, then flipped up at the ends just like Pippi Longstocking’s pigtails. Its shoulders were above its head, and its back was shaped like a saddle, with a patch of light fur just behind the shaggy shoulders.
I had been invited to The Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, Alaska—about an hour’s drive outside of Anchorage—to meet with Mark Austin, Executive Director, and find out what was new at the farm. I’d visited in 2004, when I was doing research for Arctic Lace (Nomad Press, 2006), but I hadn’t been back since.
When I drove up at eight in the morning, no one seemed to be around. But a few minutes later, a man with a big smile and curly brown hair emerged from a barn carrying two mason jars filled with milk.
“Good morning!” he said. “You must be Donna.”
I nodded and returned the smile.
“Give me a minute to go put this musk-ox milk away, so I can shake your hand and then we can talk.”
Musk-ox milk in glass bottles was certainly something new!
When Mark returned, after shaking my hand and introducing himself, he told me that the farm was starting a milk bank in case they had to bottle‑feed any of the calves.
“Of course we had to play with the milk too. We made fudge,” he said. “And scones. We even pasteurized some so we could drink it.”
Musk-ox milk, it turns out, is incredibly rich and thick, more so even than heavy cream.
But Mark, who was hired in 2010, wasn’t intent on starting a musk-ox dairy. The farm’s primary product is qiviut, the soft undercoat of the animals, and Mark’s job was to help the farm increase the herd and produce more of one of the most coveted fibers on earth.
We walked around the farm to see the animals close up. Musk oxen are misnamed. They have no musk, and they’re not oxen. But in 1720, French explorer Nicolas Jérémie called these animals, previously unknown to Europeans, boeuf musqué (musk cattle), and the name stuck. Musk oxen are actually most closely related to sheep and goats. Now, close up, I could see that—just like their more familiar cousins—musk oxen have two-toed hooves and horizontal pupils in their dark brown eyes.
Qiviut: The Golden Fleece of the Arctic
I bent down and picked up some of the soft fluff at my feet. As one of the most luxurious and expensive fibers in the world, qiviut has sometimes been called the “golden fleece of the arctic.” Eight times warmer than sheep’s wool and softer than almost any other fiber, it belongs on the shelves of luxury shops and yarn stores, not on the dirt under my shoes.
“Let’s go inside,” Mark said. “I’ll show you where we comb the animals in spring when they’re shedding the qiviut.”
Unlike sheep, musk oxen are not sheared to harvest their fleece. (In 1910, one young animal in the Bronx Zoo was sheared, and died of pneumonia not long afterward.) At The Musk Ox Farm, experienced handlers comb the animals every spring when they’re shedding down naturally. Inside the barn, I saw the holding stall where the animals go every week to be weighed and examined, so they are relaxed and easily led into the stall when it’s time to be combed. There, the handlers use afro picks to gently remove the fiber without damaging it or hurting the animals.
An adult musk ox can shed up to 5 or 6 pounds of qiviut every spring. Last year, the farm harvested more than 280 pounds of fiber. Since Mark came on board in 2010, the herd size has doubled, and there are now more than eighty head. In the past, the farm sold all of its qiviut to the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Cooperative, a group of about two hundred Native Alaskan women who knit lace with musk-ox wool. But with the increased herd size and the larger fiber yield, the farm is now able to process some of the fiber to sell as knitting yarn, while still meeting the needs of the co-op.
Processing Fiber: From Beast to Beauty
After the fiber is harvested, the process of turning flax into gold begins, as the mass of raw fiber begins its journey to becoming expensive luxury yarn.
Qiviut covers the entire body of the musk ox except for the nose, lips, eyes, and hooves. The short legs, which are almost invisible when their guard hairs reach full length, are also protected by a layer of qiviut. In fact, the long guard hairs and fluffy qiviut often hide so much of the animal’s features that Jérémie claimed it was “impossible to tell which end is the head.”
Because the quality of fiber varies on different parts of the animals’ bodies, sorters separate the combed fiber according to quality and length. If the fibers are particularly dirty, they are sometimes scoured, or washed. The fiber is dehaired at a cashmere-processing plant to remove any guard hairs, so only the soft down remains for spinning yarn. (The qiviut combed from captive animals in Alaska contains relatively little guard hair. Because the long outer coat does not shed, these long, coarse fibers don’t come out as the qiviut is combed.) Sometimes the fiber is dyed or blended with other fibers, such as merino and silk. Finally, the clean, dehaired fiber is spun into yarn that is ready to knit.
Types of Qiviut Yarn
These shaggy beasts, which roamed as far south as Virginia during the last ice age, today live only in Canada and Alaska on the North American continent. Once hunted almost to extinction, their numbers have been growing in North America and in Greenland since they have gained protected status. Herds have also been introduced into the wild in Scandinavia and Siberia.
In Canada, where large herds roam the tundra, the wild musk oxen are protected by the government. Because the animals have few natural predators, controlled hunting is used to manage the population. Annual quotas allow Inuit hunters to harvest musk oxen. When the animals are butchered, their hides are preserved and sold to yarn companies. This is how most qiviut fiber comes to market, as a by-product of hunting.
In Greenland, qiviut is harvested and processed in the same way as in Canada, and sold in Denmark. As far as I know, no yarn is processed or harvested from the musk oxen in Scandinavia and Siberia.
Wherever I go in Alaska, I meet people who have collected qiviut in the wild. In Nome, in western Alaska, and in other areas where smaller wild musk-ox herds roam, tufts of qiviut can be found blowing in the wind or hanging on branches and fences in spring when the animals are shedding, but no one gathers qiviut in the wild for commercial fiber processing.
There are very few places where you can get hand-combed qiviut fiber and yarn, and The Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, Alaska, is one of them.
Writer Donna Druchunas escaped a corporate cubicle to honor her passions for knitting, world travel, research, and writing. She is the author of six knitting books including Arctic Lace: Knitting Projects and Stories Inspired by Alaska’s Native Knitters -(Nomad Press, 2006). Visit her online at www.sheeptoshawl.com.
Featured image photo by Donna Druchunas.
Inspired by Qiviut!