Sunday, March 28, 2010

Qiviut: Cashmere From An Ancient Goat

I don't think that most people realize it, but cashmere is from a Mongolian goat.  Most people don't like goats--they smell, they scavenge, they don't always make the best pets.  But, their hair is amazing.  There are many different kinds of goats and several of these produce hair that is worth wearing.  The most sought after is hands-down musk ox hair.  The traditional name for it is "qiviut".  The musk ox is basically a giant goat left over from the last Ice Age.  It dwells in northern arctic regions like parts of Alaska and Canada.  It is endangered due to over hunting.  It is not endangered because people like to make scarves from its hair, like some websites suggest.  The opposite is true--it is its hair that has proved to be its saving grace.

One of the key theories involved in saving endangered species is to figure out how to make them "economically necessary" to save.  Since the musk ox makes hair that is of even higher quality than any cashmere, some researchers have taken it upon themselves to figure out how to collect the hair, produce goods from it and then market it to the public.  One of those is The Musk Ox Farm where musk ox are bred and their hair is humanely collected for use by native Alaskans.  The hair is either combed off of the oxen or collected off of the ground when it is shed.  No musk oxen are harmed in the process.  Once the hair is collected, it is distributed to people in the Oomingmak Cooperative where they spin the hair into yarn and then knit it into products.  After that, the goods are collected by the Cooperative and then sold.

Qiviut has proven to be ounce for ounce the most expensive wool on the planet.  That isn't due to some sort of marketing gimmick--it is because it is the highest-quality wool on the planet as far as hair diameter, warmth-retention and shrink-resistance.  Due to the Endangered status of the animals, not very much of the hair is collected for commercial purposes each year, so due to the supply being so small and the demand so great, the price is rather steep.  But, as the saying goes, "you get what you pay for."

As a result, one of the only places to buy Qiviut products is from The Oomingmak Cooperative Store.  What makes shopping from them so cool is that their goods are made by Native Alaskan artisans, so their prints are traditional ones that can't be found anywhere else.  Not only are they producing stylish, unique items but it also allows families who chose to maintain their traditional lifestyle to do so.  Knitting qiviut is a traditional craft and the Cooperative helps make this traditional art economically important enough to keep it going, which in this modern age is something that is socially and culturally essential.  The patterns that they use might be otherwise forever lost to the world if the Cooperative hadn't been established.  One of my favorite patterns is on a scarf--it is a very old pattern that has been found on hunting spears.  Its pretty and I like it.

I always hear people complain that fashion is shallow.  No, it isn't.  Buy a scarf and help save an endangered species and an endangered way of life.

Top picture from Jungle Noises, Bottom Picture from Oomingmak Cooperative

For my post about mohair, click HERE


M said...

Learned something new tnx to your post…just wondering how expensive is an item from this wool?

Empress said...

wow I had no idea thanks for this post!

shoulderache said...

Thanks for stopping by and reading!

kateohkatie said...

Great post - I love that you're giving publicity to such amazing animals and a good cause! :-)

Couple small corrections/explanations, though. Qiviut is actually not the most expensive fiber, yard-for-yard. That would be vicuna:

To make that into an "apples to apples" comparison, here's the price for 217 yards of vicuna yarn:

vs 217 yards of qiviut yarn:

You can see that the vicuna is almost 4x as expensive as the qiviut - makes it seem like a bargain in comparison! :-D

Also, to commenter "M" above - it would depend entirely on the size of the item; how many yards of yarn were required for the knitted or woven object. With one ball of the yarn above you could knit a small, lacy scarf. Plus the cost of labor, $150-$200 would probably be the minimum price (assuming a fair price was paid for labor, and "fair" is of course highly subjective). A larger garment - say, a sweater - could easily cost upwards of $1500 or more.

For what it's worth, I have been privileged to feel qiviut in person once, but I've never been lucky enough to own or knit with it ;-)

shoulderache said...

Thank you very much for taking the time to read my blog. Just a quick correction though, Vicuna is generally considered to be llama wool and it is not commercially collected or processed, so it is not included in the global price tallies. Qiviut is commercially produced.

Charmaine said...

Funny that you post this... the "Canada's Northern House" Pavillion at the Olympics was selling some Qiviut yard. Me and my sister both are into knitting so we took pictures of some items & we were astounded by the price... $59(Canadian) for 217 yards (proof: )

As for how much a single item costs: $595 for a shawl ( ) or $760 yet another shawl ( )

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