The muskox (Latin ovibus moschatus) roams the Arctic tundra of Alaska and Canada. Many people confuse the muskoxen with the buffaloes that look similar. Adult muskoxen have only a shoulder height of about 4 to 5 ft (1.2 to 1.5 m) and weight about 500 to 800 lbs (227 to 363 kg), and males are taller and heavier than the females. One of the biggest differences to buffaloes is that the muskoxen are well adapted for the frozen grounds of the Arctic.
Like many animals, male musk oxen urinate to mark their territory, especially during mating season. Some urine gets trapped in their wool and leads to a strong odor that gave them their name muskox.
Muskoxen live on a herbivore diet. During the summer with its long white nights, muskoxen graze on flowers and grasses. During the dark nights of winter, they dig through the snow with their strong hooves to live off lichen, moos, dried grass and flowers, roots and alike. They also use the hooves to break through solid ice to reach the water below for drinking.
Estimates say that there are currently about 150,000 muskoxen worldwide. Muskoxen live in small herds. When we drove up the haul-way to Dead Horse, we were lucky to see a herd of 14 animals. Some of them were baby muskoxen. Herds can be as large as about 40 animals.
The female muskoxen give birth in April after an eight months pregnancy. At this time, the tundra is still snow covered. It takes only a couple of hours until the newborn muskox baby can walk and keep up with the herd. Typically, the herds move at low pace as they graze, but a muskox at full speed can reach 25 mph (40 km/h) over a short distance.
In the wild, muskoxen live about 12 to 20 years. Their biggest enemies – beside humans – are polar bears, bears and wolves. Muskoxen build defensive circle of wagons to protect them and their youngsters from these predators. The young are in the middle of the circle. When threatened muskox become very aggressive. They have very strong muscle power in their head and body, and their horns can be deadly. In Alaska, Norway, and Siberia, muskox herds are protected by law where they live on preserves.
Qiviut – the wool of the muskox
To survive the freezing temperatures of the Arctic, muskoxen have a two-layered coat consisting of soft under-wool and long outer wool, the guard hairs. The under-wool serves for insulation as temperatures often plump below -40F (-40oC). Muskoxen shed their under-wool naturally each spring, i.e. they are not sheared. On the contrary, the under-wool is plucked from their coats during the molt. Historically, the under-wool was collected/gathered from objects that the muskoxen have brushed against.
Qiviut is an Inuktitut word that originally referred to the down feathers of birds. Today, qiviut refers to the downy soft under-wool of the Arctic muskox.
Canadian and Alaska qiviut differ
Most of today’s commercially available qiviut stems from Canada where it is taken from the pelt of hunted muskoxen. The pelts of hunted animals, however, are shaved to gather the wool as the animals are taken during hunting season in fall.
In Alaska, the majority of qiviut stems from live domesticated muskoxen. Some qiviut is gathered on the land during the molt of wild muskoxen. In the case of farmed muskoxen, the qiviut is combed of as one sheet of fleece. In the case of wild animals, the under-wool fell off in large clumps or was rubbed off on brushes. An adult muskox looses about four to seven pounds of qiviut during the molt.
The obtained qiviut is cleaned manually to remove vegetation and other debris including intermediate (greater than 30 micrometer in diameter) and long hair from the outer wool. The latter process is similar to the carding one applies for cashmere. The manual carding avoids breakage and weakening of the qiviut. The latter would roughen the qiviut. Obviously, qiviut from hunted muskoxen requires much more work and time as the shaving process cuts off both the wanted and unwanted wool.
Next the raw, cleaned qiviut is spun into yarn and then washed. Qiviut has a soft grayish brown color, but dyes well. It also can be bleached, but as with human hair, bleaching damages the fiber. Thus, natural or dyed qiviut items are better in quality than bleached items.
Qiviut is not scratchy like sheep wool. Having only about 7% oils, qiviut fiber is much drier than sheep wool. Furthermore, qiviut is easy to handle as it does not shrink no matter of the water temperature. It is eight times warmer than cashmere and much lighter. Items made from qiviut are equally comfortable in warm and cold weather.
Qiviut yarn pattern are local secrets
Native Alaskan women in remote coastal Alaska villages use qiviut to produce sweaters, scarves, stoles, smoke-rings (also known as nachaqs), hats and tunics. They are organized in cooperatives of which Oomingmak founded in 1969 is one of the most known. The name of this cooperative goes back to the Inupiaq word, umiŋmak, which mean “the animal with skin like a beard.” Their muskox farm is in Palmer. The university of Alaska Fairbanks also farms muskoxen. Their Large Animal Research Station is open to the public for guided tours during summer.
The different villages of the cooperatives knit recognizably different pattern. The patterns are copyrighted for the use of the cooperative members only and are not available for sale. Experts in qivuit items can tell the origin of the items by their pattern. The so-called Nelson Island Diamond Pattern, for instance, is knitted by members of the Oomingmak cooperative from Nightmute, Tununak, Newtok and Toksook Bay, a cluster of small villages near the coast of Kangirlvar Bay. This pattern is derived from a traditional design on parka trim. The so-called Harpoon pattern is knitted in Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island. This pattern was inspired by a 1,200 year-old ivory harpoon head found on that island.
Garments knitted from qiviut
A qiviut headscarf or so-called smoke ring is about 18 inch wide and 24 inch in diameter (about 46 cm x 61 cm). A nachaq is a seamless tube-like garment that can be worn as a hood around the head or as a stylish accessory to any outfit around the neck.
Qiviut scarves are about 12 inch wide and four feet long (31 cm x 122 cm). Stoles measure five feet by 18 inch (1.52 m x 46 cm) and can be wrapped around the head or draped around the shoulders.
Qiviut blankets are knit in panels and then sewn together.
Qiviut items are pretty expensive as compared to other items that have a comparable purpose. Therefore, I still don’t own anything qiviut. However, a friend of mine bought a qiviut smoke ring more than 45 years ago after she had immigrated to America on the old Queen Mary. She still wears the scarf today every winter. While it meanwhile looks used, it still acceptable for a couple of seasons to come.
Qiviut related fashion
Recently, Oomingmak introduced a cheaper line that is knitted from a 20% silk 80% Qiviut yarn. As I have mentioned several times here on High Latitude Style, silk has a good insulating effect.
Some artist knit qiviut items using their own pattern and share their pattern for free. However, these pattern are not the originals from the Native villages.
Dark blue and gray outfit for work
Speaking of scaves a scarf can really up your style. There is some eternal elegance to a gray with white like the hat above. Pair these colors with blue and you have the perfect American Classic outfit. This color combination has some corporate feeling with it as many pants suits or skirts suits in business use this color combination because of its immediate elegance. However, this classic elegance also brings gray plus dark blue easily into boring or overly conservative territory.
To keep a gray plus dark blue outfit interesting different materials are key. Here I went for denim with the skirt, knit with the sweater and tight, and a neoprene Chanel style jacket. This outfit – despite being gray and dark blue – is far away from the business corporate style work wear. However, it works well for work in a creative or college work environment.
How do you style dark blue with gray? Do you like this color combination?
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Photos: G. Kramm
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