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What Is Qiviut Yarn?

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  • Written By: Greer Hed
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2014
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Qiviut yarn is yarn spun from the soft, woolly undercoat of the muskox. This type of yarn is stronger than wool, softer than cashmere, and does not shrink or felt when exposed to very warm or very cold water. Qiviut yarn is also one of the most expensive luxury fibers a fiber artist can purchase. It is usually only available in finer yarn weights, or strand thicknesses, with most qiviut yarns ranging from cobweb to sport weight. Qiviut is also usually available in a somewhat limited natural color palette, as the fiber loses some of its softness when it is bleached or dyed.

Muskoxen, or a closely related ancestor species, migrated across a land bridge to North America as much as 200,000 years ago and settled in Canada, Greenland, and Alaska. To survive the extreme cold of winters in this habitat, muskoxen have a two-layered coat, with a protective outer layer of longer, coarser hair that covers the soft insulating undercoat. When warmer weather arrives, muskoxen molt, shedding the insulating under-layer in a process that leaves the animals looking ragged and unkempt for a few weeks.

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Unlike sheep, muskoxen are generally not sheared to collect fibers for qiviut, though if the animal is killed then the pelt may be shaved. Some commercial producers of qiviut collect the fiber from muskox pelts after hunting and skinning the animals, while other producers farm muskoxen, raising the animals specifically for their wool. During the molting season, the undercoats of farmed muskoxen are close enough to the surface of their skins that the qiviut fiber can be combed directly off the animals. If the animals aren't combed during a molt, the qiviut will fall off of them in clumps, either landing on the ground or sticking to objects that the animals rub up against. The clumps of wool can also be collected and spun into qiviut yarn, but they are considered a lower quality source of qiviut fiber because they need to be cleaned more carefully.

After collecting qiviut fibers from a muskox pelt, the fibers are cleaned by hand to remove dirt, vegetable matter, and other foreign materials. The fiber is then carded by hand, a process that removes larger hairs and leaves only the softest, finest fibers behind. Modern machinated methods of processing fiber are usually not used when cleaning and carding qiviut, as they can reduce the softness of the fiber. Processing fiber by hand is time-consuming, which is one reason why qiviut yarn tends to be very expensive.

Qiviut yarn may be either pure qiviut fiber or a blend of qiviut and other soft fibers, such as Merino wool, silk, or angora. Garments knit or crocheted from pure qiviut fiber will not retain their shape well, as qiviut lacks the memory of wool. This makes pure qiviut yarn a good choice for creating lacy shawls or scarves, but a poor choice for creating fitted or structured garments and accessories. Qiviut blends have better memory, and thus greater versatility.

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