Qiviut

qiviut is the fibre from musk ox...

The animal

The fibre Qiviut, which in case you are wondering is pronounced kiv-ee-uht and means down or underwool in the Inuit language, comes from the musk ox. The Latin name of the musk ox is Ovibos moschatus which translates as musky sheep-ox and refers to the musky odour that the males give off during the season rut, or mating season, to attract the females. On the theme of names, their Inuktitut name 'umingmak or oomingmak’ translates as the bearded one, whilst the Woods Cree names of mâthi-mos and mâthi-mostos translate as ugly moose and ugly bison, which seems a little unfair. Native to the tundra of the Arctic, they are found in Greenland and the Northwest Territories and Nunavut of the Canadian Arctic. Populations have been reintroduced into Alaska, Yukon, Siberia and Norway, the latter having immigrated into Sweden, which was home to the last European population which died out 9000 years ago. Overhunting caused the massive decline of the population; the enforcement of hunting regulations and reintroduction now sees the population at an estimated 80-12,500. Given their native habitat, they are prone to the threat of climate change restricting their range even further.
In all these regions its distinctive thick coat is much needed to keep warm in temperatures that can get as low as -70 oC. Their coat, a mix of grey, brown, and black, has long skirt hairs that almost reach the ground at 60-90cm long.
A bovine they are more closely related to sheep and goats than to cattle and has its own genus Ovibos, which if you remember means sheep-ox. An adult stands between 1.1-1.5m at the shoulder and weighs in at an average of 285kg, although some males are as heavy as 410kg. A social animal, living in herds of 10-20 that form larger herds or aggregations in the winter, probably due to limitations in food. When threatened the adults will face outward in a circle to protect the calves inside. Given their bulk, they have few predators, but the young are vulnerable to predation from grey wolves, grizzly bear and polar bear.
There are three captive herds in Alaska and Alberta, which are harvested for wool. The fibre can be combed from these domesticated herds, collected in spring from naturally shed musk ox, or shaved from the hides of wild animals killed in regulated hunts in Canada, where the meat is the primary objective. The shed fibre consists almost entirely of qiviut and thus naturally requires less sorting and processing. An adult musk ox can produce 1.8-3.2kg of fibre per year with global production at about 5000-6000kg. Qiviut comes from the secondary hair follicles which are not connected to sebaceous glands and therefore only contains about 7% oil, making it much drier than wool and less allergenic.
The Oomingmak, an Alaskan women’s cooperative, has been running since 1969 is owned by 200-250 Native Alaskan women who hand-knit items, with each village or area having a signature pattern for their knits. As with other yarns from wild animals, this cultural connection with the local communities benefiting from the wildlife ensures that the wild populations are conserved. Most knitters come from communities reliant on the land and this extra income helps them cover some modern expenses, such as electricity and transport.

The fibre

Given the incredibly low temperatures, the musk ox must endure it should come as no surprise as to how warm the fibre is. Alongside the usual down and the guard hairs, a musk ox coat also have skirt hairs that can be over 60cm and an intermediate fine hair that generally remains with the qiviut once the guard hairs are removed, although can be manually removed for the very patient!

As this fibre is still quite rare there are fewer data available to get a good average of fibre size, today the best estimate is 11-19 microns for the qiviut.
It has very few scales, thus it does not shrink or felt and lacks crimp therefore has no fibre memory. It can pill with abrasion, because of the many short, fine fibre ends.

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Ethical and environmental considerations

Given the very low levels of muskox in captivity utilised for wool, the wild collection of shed fibres and the regulated hunts, it is very easy to trace the origin of the yarn that you order.

Knitting with it

Qiviut’s fineness, softness, lightness, and warmth make it a delight to work with and wear, as reported by the lucky few to have had the opportunity to get their hands on this beautiful and sustainable yarn. It is fluffy and thus will obscure texture and patterns but works well with lace patterns, blooming a little to fill gaps, so simple patterns work best with this fibre. Given its rarity, hats, scarfs, and snoods are often the pattern of choice when working with this yarn, rather than larger cardigans or jumpers. If whilst reading this you have gotten excited about knitting with qiviut, you may have to be patient to start a project as there is often a waiting list to order the yarn.

The fibre

Ethical and environmental considerations

Knitting with it

Gallery