Hand-Combed Qiviut: A Rare Luxury from Alaska (2024)

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The Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, Alaska, harvests precious qiviut from musk oxen. Once a year, they hand-comb the oxen as they naturally shed their coats for spring. Colorado writer Donna Druchunas visited the farm and wrote this piece, originally published in Interweave Knits Winter 2015.

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The snowy 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 as an animal stood up; I was in Alaska and the fiber at my feet was qiviut, the downy undercoat of the musk ox.

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Goats of the North

The musk ox’s long, dark outer coat flowed almost to the ground when it stood on skinny, whitish legs. Curving horns topped its enormous head, swooping downwards and flipping 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, while researching for Arctic Lace (Nomad Press, Fort Collins, Colorado: 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. He carried 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. Mark’s job was to help the farm produce 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.

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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, you cannot sheer a musk ox. (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 their 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 hand-comb 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; however, the adult average on the farm is approximately 4.25 pounds. Last year, the farm harvested more than 350 pounds of fiber. Since Mark came on board in 2010, the herd size has doubled, and there are now more than eighty head. In 1969 John Teal created Oomingmak Musk Ox Producer’s Cooperative. This entity would be responsible for the care and feeding of the musk-ox herd, harvesting the fiber, spinning the fiber into yarn, distributing the yarn to member knitters, and marketing the final garments to the public.

In 1984, two years after John Teal’s passing, the nonprofit Musk Ox Development Corporation (MODC), d.b.a. the Musk Ox Farm, was established. The launching of the nonprofit cleaved the project into two distinct entities. Simply put: Oomingmak would take on the human aspect of the mission and MODC would see to the husbandry side. To ensure an adequate supply of raw fiber, Oomingmak sourced qiviut fiber from many places in addition to the raw fiber harvested at the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer. As the entities gained more and more independence, the amount of raw fiber wholesaled to Oomingmak diminished. Today, all the fiber harvested on the farm supports the herd and the nonprofit organization.

Processing Fiber: From Beast to Beauty

After harvesting the fiber, 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. A layer of qiviut also protects their short legs, which are nearly invisible when their guard hairs reach full length. 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.”

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Before the fibers are scoured, sorters separate the combed fiber according to quality and length. The fiber is then dehaired to remove any guard hairs, so only the soft down remains for spinning yarn. Qiviut harvested from hunted animals often has less guard hair than captive animals. A common procedure is to take the hide and shear off the guard hair to the qiviut layer. Doing this often means the qiviut comes out with very little guard hair at all. 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.

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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. The last musk ox was seen in Alaska in 1864, though they were reestablished by the U.S. government in 1935 & 1936 from animals that were captured in Greenland. Canada protected the species, and musk oxen remained in Canada after the Alaskan herd initially disappeared. 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 was used to manage the population. Annual quotas allowed Inuit hunters to harvest musk oxen. When the animals were butchered, their hides were preserved and sold to yarn companies. This was how most qiviut fiber came to market, as a by-product of hunting. There has been a substantial loss of these populations due to winter rain on snow events and parasite loading due to lack of extended freeze cycles to kill these parasites. Subsequently, these harvests have ended.

In Greenland, qiviut is harvested and processed in the same way as in Canada and sold in Denmark. As far as I know, Scandinavia and Siberia do not process yarn or harvest from the local herds of musk oxen.

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 The Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, Alaska, is one of them.

Where to Purchase Hand-Combed Qiviut Yarn

The Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, Alaska

visit: 12850 E Archie Rd.
mail: PO Box 587
Palmer, AK 99645
www.muskoxfarm.org
info@muskoxfarm.org

The Large Animal Research Station (LARS) in Fairbanks, Alaska

University of Alaska Fairbanks
visit: 2220 Yankovich Rd.
mail: PO Box 756980
Fairbanks, AK 99775
UAF-LARS-Qiviut@alaska.edu

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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 (affiliate link) (Nomad Press, Fort Collins, Colorado: 2006). Visit her online at www.sheeptoshawl.com.

Originally published March 9, 2020. Updated January 7, 2022.

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Hand-Combed Qiviut: A Rare Luxury from Alaska (2024)
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