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A Muskox Yarn

A Muskox Yarn

It’s soft, it keeps you warm and a Kugluktuk start-up hopes qiviut might also sustain a business
By Elaine Anselmi
Dec 08
2017
From the December 2017 Issue

This summer, Natalie Griller, Geoff Clark and a crew of four were hunched over muskox hides, pulling at the soft clumps of wool—qiviut—tangled with long and coarse guard hairs. Griller and Clark live on a rocky hillside next to a meadow criss-crossed with pallet boardwalks that connect homes in that area to Kugluktuk, Nunavut’s community centre. People on their way to the hall or store often stop in to say hi. Over the last three years, neighbours have noted the couple’s growing obsession. It takes a long time to separate the qiviut, but once that’s done it can be spun into yarn. Griller and Clark are finding out that qiviut can be spun off in other ways.

Qiviut is a luxury item because it keeps you warm, it’s soft and very rare. Muskox herds are only found in the northern reaches of Arctic countries. The area around Kugluktuk, on Coronation Gulf, has one of the most densely populated habitats in the world. Muskoxen are an important part of the local diet, and their hides are used for blankets and as camp sleeping mats. Around town, the wispy black and brown hides hang from porches and off the roofs of sheds. But sometimes hides go unused.

Nunavut Qiviut started a few years ago when Clark got the idea to make a Christmas gift for his wife from a hide he’d harvested. He’d seen hats and scarves knit from qiviut yarn, so for six months he collected as much as he could and shipped it down south to a mill. Once ready, he sent the yarn to his mother to knit into a scarf. “Once the Christmas present part was over, we realized there could be a huge community benefit to this project,” says Clark.

Photo by Geoff Clarke

The couple started buying hides. “We’re perfecting a process to spend as much money in the community as possible processing, rather than sending the raw hides down south,” says Clark. That means pulling the hair and qiviut from the hide and treating it in town. After it is sent south to be separated and spun into yarn, the qiviut skeins return to Kugluktuk and are distributed to retailers in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Alaska.

Nunavut Qiviut doesn’t want to compete with individual artisans spinning their own yarn from muskox or other animal hair, Griller says. Instead, they want to enter the broader market and compete with southern companies buying raw hides and processing them completely in the south.

Katelyn Atatahak and Nellie Kaiyogana were among the group pulling at the hides this summer in Griller and Clark’s yard. Neither woman had harvested qiviut before this job. They started in May, working hours that fit their own schedules, and finished around mid-September. “Sometimes it was six or seven hours a day. It’s slow, but you get used to doing it,” Kaiyogana says.

One big hurdle to keeping every part of the process in Kugluktuk is the high costs to build and operate a yarn mill, which would only run at limited capacity considering the amount of raw material coming in. (Qiviut would make up only a small fraction of a southern mill’s production.) The muskox hunt is strictly controlled by the Government of Nunavut, which allows less than three percent of the population to be hunted. And Nunavut Qiviut is only buying hides from subsistence hunters.

Still, qiviut yarn is becoming more popular. The arts centre in Ulukhaktok, NWT has a supply of knitting machines—locally made qiviut headbands sell mostly to tourists for more than $100. Right now, Griller is getting comfortable working with her own hand-powered knitting machine so she can turn her qiviut into knitwear and add more value to the product.

Katelyn Atatahak wearing a knit qiviut scarf. Photo by David Ho

She plans to train others. Atatahak will soon get acquainted with the knitting machine. She works as a substitute teacher, but looks forward to the additional income the knitting could bring her. It’s also something she enjoys. “We just work at our own pace,” says Atatahak. “I like what I’m doing… the product and the harvesting. Seeing what you make from your hard work.”

Right now, Nunavut Qiviut isn’t exactly a big moneymaking venture. Qiviut yarn sells at a premium—around $120 per skein—because it’s so expensive to produce. At this point, Griller and Clark are hoping to break even and make the business profitable enough for someone else in town to one day take over. They want to develop a self-sustaining business that doesn’t rely on government grants. They want to get more people working in the community—both with them and with their yarn. (Government grants help artists purchase materials like yarn.)

This summer, Nunavut Qiviut paid out between 300 and 400 hours to workers. And employment in Kugluktuk is scarce. The community of 1,500 people has an unemployment rate of 31 percent, compared to the territorial rate of 18 percent. Over the last three years, Clark estimates they’ve worked with about 50 people in the community—hide-workers and hunters.

“We’ve had several knitters approach us interested in the project. We’ve let them experiment with the yarn. They’ve gone on to make their own products and designs but we think that’s largely untapped at this point and we want to roll this out in a structured way,” says Clark. This Christmas, they want to be more visible in the whole community—not just to the passersby on their way to the store.