Monday, August 27, 2007


Have you heard of qiviut? It is a fiber from the downy undercoat of musk oxen, and the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers' Co-operative in Alaska uses it to create beautiful knitwear. Donna Druchunas visited Alaska and met some of these talented women and learned about the native cultures of Alaska as well as the Co-operative and their work. She has shared this knowledge in her book, Artic Lace: Knitting Projects and Stories Inspired by Alaska's Native Knitters.

The instructive part of the book contains a section on the qualities of qiviut, as compared with other yarns. It is finer than cashmere and, because so little is harvested each year, it is far more expensive.* The lace knitting workshop contains techniques, guidance on reading charts, and instructions for basic stitches, seaming, blocking, and fixing mistakes. She has included several projects inspired by the work of the collective, as well as instructions to design your own lace patterns and garments.

Based in Anchorage, items to be sold by the cooperative are knit by women in remote villages, so remote that the author was only able to visit one village. The only way to travel to these areas is by plane, and there is little or no guest lodging available once you get there. Still, she was able to put together a fascinating, informative work including many pictures of the villages and people of Alaska and recounted stories told by those she met and corresponded with.

One of those stories is of an Inuit woman in the 1920s who joined a team of Arctic explorers as seamstress and was the only member of the party to survive. Intrigued, I found a copy of the book Ada Blackjack: a true story of survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven. From the outset, the expedition to Wrangel Island was fraught with controversy, greed, and poor planning. The story continues long after the trip is over, with media distortion, accusations, lies, and scandal. A gripping story that I would highly recommend to anyone at all interested in Arctic exploration or women in history. An excellent read!

*as an approximate comparison, a skein of good quality wool is around $8; cashmere around $20; qiviut around $50.

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