Qiviut in a Box Is Safe, But That’s Not What Qiviut Is Made For

I made it to Alaska last year. It’s a trip that had captured my imagination for several years. It still does. To me, Alaska is a place that’s both American and foreign, exotic and all domestic-like simultaneously. What an amazing journey, even if it was mainly along the coast on a cruise. It has whetted my appetite for the interior – specifically the Arctic Circle. I’d love to dip my hand into the Arctic Ocean, and I hunger to view the Northern Lights. Can you imagine? When someone asks, “What did you do on your Summer vacation?” you can answer, “Oh, I went to the Arctic Circle.” Now that’s a conversation starter.

qiviutBut on a more mundane, though no less exotic, level, I coveted me some qiviut.

Fiber aficionados are nodding, knowingly. See, I have this love affair with yarn – I love handspun, homegrown, natural, and unique fibers.  In Alaska, it’s quiviut (kiv-ee-ute). It comes from the soft under wool of a musk ox and is considered one of,  if not THE, warmest fibers in the world. It’s also one of the most expensive, at about $98 for one skein (that’s about 200 yards in lace weight, which is really fine yarn). To buy a high-quality native-made qiviut scarf, you’d shell out about $300.

Qiviut captured me because, unlike regular wool, it won’t shrink in water, it’s stronger, it’s eight times warmer, and it’s softer than cashmere. There’s also a certain “je ne sais quoi” factor. I can’t deny it.

So, I hatched my plan. Into my phone went the contact information and directions for several stores – in Juneau, Ketchikan, and Anchorage. I decided to not clue in Charlie until the last minute, probably more because I was looking at dropping some serious cash and I figured that he’d find something he’d want somewhere along the coastline, and that would simply strengthen my case.

I ended up bringing home three skeins – two lace-weight blends and one bulky 100% qiviut yarn kit – which is turning into a winter scarf for Charlie. There are some concessions, you know, in bargaining.

Really, though, it was what we discovered about musk ox and qiviut that made me feel pretty good about my obsession.

Musk OxSee, these gentle creatures have two-layered coats – a longer outer wool and the soft under wool that’s destined to become qiviut. Each spring, the oxen shed this under layer. The neatest part is this: In Alaska, qiviut is plucked from the coat during the spring molt (from farmed animals) or is gathered from objects the animals brush up against (from both farmed and wild). They’re not sheared, and they’re not killed for their pelts. (Although, in Canada, it appears to be a little different story on the pelt part.)

We discovered all this from an unassuming little store in Anchorage called “Oomingmak,” the Musk Ox Producers’ Cooperative.  This knitting cooperative uses qiviut exclusively and is owned by 250 native Alaskans from villages all across the state. They hand knit using traditional patterns from their villages. (Oomingmak is from the Inuit and means “the animal with skin like a beard.”)

So now, nearly seven months later, I’ve finally begun knitting the first project from that yarn, partly because it’s knitting weather here but mostly because I was afraid to ruin a pretty pricey investment. It wasn’t until I was reading through a collection of thought-provoking positive quotations the other day (thanks, Kathy!), that I ran across one that hit home on the qiviut investment. “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” (John Shedd).

OK, so this is yarn, not a boat. Even so, it wasn’t gathered from the under coat of an ox and hand spun into yarn just to sit in a box because it’s a coveted item. It’s meant to be made into something of value, something that’s cared for and enjoyed. As yarn, it’s unfinished, raw, and expensive but, well, useless. As a scarf? Ah, there’s its purpose.

So, yeah. I can’t help but think about my life and my dreams. Crazy, isn’t it? This scarf that’s appearing at the end of my needles makes me realize that I’m created to take risks, to learn, to make mistakes, to grow, to become. I was never meant to be safe and not risk failure, or to be perfect and not risk embarrassment, or to be silent and not risk rejection.

In a few minutes, I’ll put the finishing touches on Charlie’s qiviut scarf. As for the rest of the day? I’m going sailing, I think, past the harbor and into the sea.

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