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two adult musk oxen after shedding qiviut and a baby musk ox on the tundra in summer

Muskox wool fashion is very expensive and wanted for its great insulation properties for thermal comfort in winter. The underwool of musk-ox, namely, is best to hinder body heat from escaping. This post covers the production of muskox fashion from qiviut, where to buy qiviut garments like musk ox mittens, scarves, and beanie as well as interesting things about muskox wool.



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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. In the Arctic, temperatures often plump below -40F (-40oC). Muskoxen shed their under-wool naturally each spring, i.e. they don’t need shearing. 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.


Why and How Do Canadian and Alaska Qiviut Differ

Most of today’s commercially available qiviut stems from Canada where it is taken from the pelt of hunted animals. The pelts of hunted animals, however, are shaved to gather the muskox  wool as the animals are taken during hunting season in fall.

In Alaska, the majority of qiviut stems from live domesticated muskoxen. Muskox farmers comb the qiviut off as one sheet of fleece. Wild animals rub their underwool off on brushes or the underwool falls off in large clumps. Natives gather qiviut from the land during the molt of wild muskoxen. An adult muskox looses about four to seven pounds of qiviut during the molt.


Qiviut Wool Processing

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.


Basket with qiviut raw wool by Dvortygirl CC BY-SA 3.0
Basket with qiviut raw wool. “File:Qiviut wool 2.JPG” by Dvortygirl is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0



Characteristics of Muskox Underwool

Qiviut has a soft grayish brown color, but dyes well. While one can bleach qiviut, 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, it is easy to handle qiviut because it does not shrink no matter of the water temperature. It is eight times warmer than cashmere and much lighter. Even better, qiviut garments are equally comfortable in warm and cold weather.


Qiviut Fashion Cooperatives

Native Alaskan women in remote coastal Alaska villages use qiviut to produce musk ox mittens, 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, Alaska. The University of Alaska Fairbanks also farms muskoxen. Their Large Animal Research Station is open to the public for guided tours during summer. In their souvenir store, you can buy muskox wool fashion items too.


Qiviut Yarn Patterns Are Local Secrets

The different villages of the cooperatives knit recognizably different pattern. These fashionable knit patterns are under copyright for the use of the cooperative members only. Consequently, you cannot buy them. Experts in qiviut clothing can tell the origin of the items by their pattern. For instance, members of the Oomingmak cooperative from Nightmute, Tununak, Newtok and Toksook Bay, a cluster of small villages near the coast of Kangirlvar Bay knit the so-called Nelson Island Diamond Pattern. This pattern mimics a traditional design on their parka trim. The so-called Harpoon pattern stems from Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island. The inspiration for this pattern was a 1,200 year-old ivory harpoon head found on that island.


example of a hand-made qiviut lace scarf
“Qiviut Scarf Blocked (Close-Up)” by noricum is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.



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 made of muskox wool. You can wear it as a hood around the head or as a stylish accessory to any outfit around the neck.

Qiviut scarves are about 12 inches wide and four feet long (31 cm x 122 cm). Stoles measure five feet by 18 inches (1.52 m x 46 cm). You can wrap these stoles around the head or drape it around the shoulders.

Qiviut blankets consist of knitted panels sewn together.

Qiviut items are pretty expensive as compared to sheep wool pieces of same 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 the United States of America on the old Queen Mary (the one that’s now a hotel in Longbeach, California). She still wears the scarf today every winter. While it meanwhile looks used, it looks still acceptable for a couple of seasons to come. Speaking of scarves, a scarf can really up your style.


Native Alaskan in hand-made qiviut sweater jacket
Cropped version of “File:Qiviut sweater front.JPG” by CambridgeBayWeather is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.


Where to Buy Qiviut Clothes and Wool

In Alaska, you can find smaller items like musk ox mittens, scarves, and hats in the gift stores at the Fairbanks and Anchorage International Airports as well as in gift stores of major cities. Some museum gift shops also offer a small selection as mentioned already above.

You can buy hand-made qiviut sweaters with yoke and hand-knitted qiviut sweater with raglan sleeves online from these vendors.

At the corporate store, you can buy pure qiviut. However, you can buy qiviut blended yarns like 70% Qiviut 30% Merino wool blend, or a blend of 45% Qiviut 45% Merino wool 10% silk online. Recently, there are also yarn blends of 50% Qiviut 40% Merino and 10% polyester. Note the lower the percentage of qiviut, the lower if the price.


Other Qiviut and Muskox Related Fashion Items

Recently, Oomingmak introduced a cheaper line which items consist of a 20% silk 80% mix 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.


Muskox Scent

Like many animals, male musk oxen urinate to mark their territory, especially during mating season. The name muskox refers  to the strong odor of urine trapped in their wool. Perfume can consist of the imitated and/or real version.


Arctic Muskox Fun Facts

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 difference between muskoxen and buffaloes is the musk oxen’s adaptation to the frozen grounds of the Arctic.

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.


Muskoxen Demoscopy

Estimates say that there are currently about 150,000 muskoxen worldwide. Muskoxen live in small herds of up to 40 animals. 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.

After an eight months pregnancy, female muskoxen give birth in April. At this time, snow still covers the tundra. The newborn muskox baby can walk and keep up with the herd a couple of hours after birth. 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, muskoxen 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, the law protects muskox herds where they live on preserves.


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