Fingers and Needles

10 YEARS AGO. From the March/April 2000 issue of Rural Cooperatives.






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Publication: Rural Cooperatives
Date published: March 1, 2010

Alaskan co-op turns cashmere-soft musk ox wool into hard cash

Soft yet sturdy. Thin but warm. That's how Sigrun Robertson describes the garments marketed by the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers' Cooperative.

"Qiviut is similar to fine cashmere," explains Robertson. She has been with the cooperative since it began in 1969 and now serves as its executive director. "And our members love working with this beautiful fiber to make beautiful products. They're artisans," she adds.

Mention musk oxen to most people in the lower 48 states, and their questioning eyebrows belie the fact they know litde about this cousin to sheep and goats. But in the open tundra and well -vegetated terrain of Alaska, Canada and Greenland, this short-legged, massively built animal with broad, downcurving horns and an ankle-length outer coat is well known. Alaskan agriculture has helped the musk ox industry evolve into a sustainable enterprise.

The domestication of the musk ox and the start-up of the Oomingmak cooperative are tightly interwoven. By 1969, enough qiviut had been converted to yarn to put it into production. The first 25 knitters were all from Mekoryuk, Alaska, located on Nunivak Island. They were encouraged to try the fiber and they enlisted as the cooperative's founding members. Research had shown qiviut was better suited to knitting than weaving, and knitting was a skill Eskimos had learned from missionaries.

The fine needles required for the delicate patterns also meant less equipment and little financial investment, Robertson says.

The patterns were adopted from traditional village life and Eskimo culture - from 1,200-year-old artifacts to beadwork designs. The patterns were converted into graphic instructions easily understood by the older women, most of whom were not familiar with the complex written English instructions used in typical knitting patterns. Workshops were held so members could learn how to read the patterns and complete the lace-like stitches. More importandy, members learned how to handle qiviut.

"It's spun much finer than what you're used to with other yarns," Robertson explains.

Today, more than 200 knitter-members, ranging in age from pre-teens to octogenarians, own Oomingmak. Many are related or are close friends who helped each other get started knitting and into the cooperative. All are women, though men have been members in the past, and nearly all the members are Alaskan Eskimos, who work from home in villages ranging from 150 to 300 people.

"I'm not sure what tomorrow's challenges will be," she adds. "But I do know they will center around fingers and needles," she adds.

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