Here’s what I analyzed, from the introduction to:
Picture yourself surrounded by the softest fiber you can imagine. Skeins of yarn, tufts of fleece, delicate knitted lace envelop you. The nearly weightless fiber has the texture of a cloud. The yarn is fine and fluffy, with a hand that reminds you of a kitten’s fur. The lace drapes like fine-woven silk. As you touch the lace scarves—in natural taupe and soft, muted colors—you notice a gentle halo lightly framing the stitches, adding a dimension of luxury not quite like anything you’ve ever seen. Softer than merino, finer than cashmere, lighter than silk, the fiber you are touching is qiviut, the down of the musk ox.
I first learned about qiviut in an article in PieceWork magazine in 1996. Janet Catherine Berlo told of visiting a group of Native Alaskan women who knit with this incredible fiber. The article drew me in. I was driven to find out as much as I could about these women and this mystery fiber they were knitting into lace. Thus began the adventure that led to this book. My quest took me to the Internet, to the library, to conversations with yarn compa- nies in Canada, and ultimately to Alaska, where I finally found Oomingmak (“the bearded one” in the Inupiat language).
Approximately two hundred Native Alaskan women from remote coastal villages of Alaska own and operate Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Co-operative. Using yarn spun from musk ox down, these artisans hand-knit intricate lace items. Each village has a signature stitch pattern derived from Eskimo culture. Lacy images of harpoons, native dancers, and butterflies—inspired by ancient ar- tifacts and beadwork designs—decorate scarves, nachaqs (hoods), and caps. The co-op store, located in Anchorage, sells these items to supplement the resources of the knitters so they can maintain their traditional lifestyles.
Dorothy Reade, a pioneer in the use of knitting charts, developed a three-step technique for teaching lace knitting. In the 1960s, she taught the elegant lace-knitting techniques used by the co-op knit- ters to the co-op’s founders. In December 1968, the co-op sent Ann Lillian Schell to the village of Mekoryuk to teach the first members how to follow charts and how to work with lace-weight qiviut yarn.
Qiviut is harvested from musk oxen in the wild and on farms. The first musk ox farm, started in 1956, still provides qiviut fiber to the co-op. Some fiber is also harvested from animals taken in Inuit hunts in Canada. (Although musk oxen were once extinct in Alaska and their numbers were greatly reduced in Canada, today there are over 150,000 animals in the wild.)
During my stay in Alaska, I was privileged to visit the Oomingmak store, the Musk Ox Farm, and one Eskimo village, and to meet several of the co-op’s expert knitters. I also visited museums, cultural centers, and bookstores in my quest to learn about the knitters’ cultures and history.
In Arctic Lace, I invite you to join me on my journey in learning about the extraordinary knitters, unusual animals, luxurious fiber, and beautiful lace knitting of Oomingmak.