Tuesday, January 27, 2015

M is for Musk Ox

M is for Musk Ox
by Lynn Hamann

Alaska's town of Deadhorse where the Dalton Highway ends near the Arctic Ocean is one of the homes of wild Musk Ox in the USA. Each year when the musk ox molt, their fiber is collected from the ground and the bushes. It can take years to collect enough fiber to process (600 lbs / 272 kgs) But there is another way to collect the fiber. I'll tell you about it later in this article. Musk ox are also in other parts of Alaska.

The musk ox boasts a double layer coat. The undercoat is the softest, strongest and warmest of fibers, but even the long outer layer is soft. The fiber from the musk ox is very expensive. Its value is that it can withstand any temperature in water without shrinking, but the trade-off is that it's not good for felting. Never mind, because the fiber is softer than cashmere, and stronger and warmer than sheep wool. This sumptuous fiber is called QIVIUT, and is pronounced KIV-ee-et.

Most qiviut is reserved for the Alaskan natives for use in their Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers' Cooperative in Palmer, AK. Knitters create handmade hats, scarves and other clothing. It is very popular for its warmth and softness and often purchased for gifts. A qiviut scarf can go for over USA $300.00, though it will last forever.

The Musk Ox Project to domesticate Musk Ox was started in the 1960s on a farm in Fairbanks, AK and is still there. An adult muskox can produce four to seven pounds of qiviut a year. Most commercial qiviut comes from Canada, but Alaska's wild and domesticated musk oxen continue to produce, though in smaller quantities for sale to others.

During the molt the qiviut loosens from the animal's skin and pulls away slightly. At this stage of the molt, the undercoat is a short and a uniform distance from the skin. It's time for combing the qiviut from the animal in a single large sheet. This is the best way to collect the musk ox fiber. It's possible to do it this way because qiviut is much drier than sheep wool with only 7% oils.

At the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station (LARS), a modified bison crush is used to gently but firmly hold the musk ox in place, and the pelt combed out using a long-toothed comb or hair pick. Afterwards, it's cleaned by hand, to remove vegetable matter and then it is “dehaired”, that's removal of intermediate hairs (greater than 30 micrometers in diameter). Mechanical carding breaks and weakens the fiber. (Because the qiviut pelt is combed rather than shaved, few guard hairs exist. Pelts from hunted animals are shaved, so the dehairing process in this case is more laborious.) The qiviut may be cleaned again before spinning.
Because my husband (working in Alaska) and I were looking for a stockist for qiviut in order to replenish Dean M's supplies, we started researching the pre-historic looking musk ox and it's fiber. I am sharing some of what I learned here. Dear husband found a wonderful place to buy qiviut. Best of all, Dean approves of the quality of their qiviut. Click on their link . For more information on QIVIUT, click on these links:

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