In the Our Knitting Roots Book Club, we are reading about Orenburg Lace knitters. The topic reminded me of this article that I wrote in 2006, when my book Arctic Lace first came out. So many of the knitting traditions we celebrate today were created to enable women to make money.
Knitting Softens the Impact as Worlds Collide
In Unalakleet, a life-long knitter and author finishes writing an article for the Musk Ox Farm’s newsletter, puts down her pen, and picks up her knitting. Outside, the wind groans as snow drifts in on the air currents from the nearby hills.
In St. Mary’s, a young mother yells for her kids to turn down the sound on their X-box video game so she can concentrate on the intricate lace knitting chart she is working from. They come in and ask for a snack of akutaq, or Eskimo ice cream, to tide them over until supper, which will not be served until their father comes home from his job at the local school. She takes a break and whips together a treat made from seal oil, trout, and salmonberries.
In Anchorage, a middle-aged woman goes home from work, cooks dinner, and sits down to watch TV. Before she goes to bed, she knits half of a nachaq hood. During the night she dreams of her mother and brother at home in Nightmute.
These women, and over two hundred others scattered across the state of Alaska, have been knitting through cultural change for decades. As members of Oomingmak, the Musk Ox Producer’s Co-operative, they knit feather-weight lace using qiviut (kiv’-ee-yoot), the wooly down of the musk ox. Their purpose can be summed up in two words: economic imperative.
Most knitters today don’t knit to make money. We knit to express our creativity, to entertain ourselves, to make special gifts for our loved ones, and to relax. But all across rural Alaska, knitting is one of the few ways women can make money without abandoning their homes and traditional lifestyle.
I first learned of the Oomingmak knitters about six years ago when I read an article about the co-op in Piecework magazine. I was so intrigued to learn about these women, that I started on my own journey to learn about their lives, their culture, their knitting, and the qiviut yarn that they knit with. I read literally hundreds of books and magazine articles, spent untold hours surfing the web, and eventually found my way to Alaska to visit the knitters myself. Their story turned out to be more fascinating than I could ever have imagined and my adventure to Alaska changed my life more than I would have guessed.
For tens of thousands of years, Eskimo peoples have inhabited the arctic and sub-arctic regions of Alaska. Many of the villages that are home to Yup’ik and Inupiat people today have been inhabited by their ancestors for thousands of years. These people never lived in the ice-igloos so often portrayed in cartoons and children’s books. They built underground houses framed with driftwood or whale bones and covered them with sod. A tunnel below the ground level made a weatherproof entryway, and a single seal skin window in the roof let in the little sunlight available at the beginning and end of the dark winter season. A large central dwelling housed the men and older boys and served as a place for community gatherings and festivals, while smaller single-family dwellings were home to women, girls, and very young boys. Men hunted, and women took over once the animals were brought back to the village. Although they did not spin the fur from any of the animals taken in hunts, they developed amazing skills in needlework, and created beautiful and functional clothing that kept their families warm and dry in the arctic weather.
Knitting first came to Alaska in the hands of missionaries. Early Russian and European visitors to Alaska found the conditions the Native Alaskans were living in appalling, because their lifestyle was so different than the European expectations. In addition to making trade agreements with the indigenous peoples to collect furs, they felt an obligation to “civilize” the people they met, introducing them to modern conveniences such as whiskey and iron, as well as converting them to Christianity. They set up churches and schools in the area, and convinced the people to abandon many of their centuries-old traditions for the ways of the white man. The missionaries persuaded the men to abandon the men’s houses, completely changing the family structure and the organization of culture and daily life. When the men moved from the community houses into their family houses, the women were no longer autonomous. Although churches, schools, and trading posts sometimes substituted for community gathering places, they did not provide the links to the past lifestyle that served these people for thousands of years. Missionaries also introduced white-man’s foods such as flower, raisins, and other packaged foods, available year-round for cash, that conflicted with the healthy, seasonal diet of natural foods. The Native way of life was changing, and it was not an easy transition.
Along with their religion and customs, however, missionaries brought yarn and knitting needles and put them into the hands of the first Alaskan knitters.
I learned to knit from a Russian, too, my grandmother. For as long as I can remember, my grandmother always had several projects on the needles. Old black and white photos in my family albums show the sweaters she made for herself and for my mother and uncle before I was born. My grandmother loved to knit and to give the finished projects to her children and grandchildren. For as long as I can remember, my grandmother also had a job. My grandfather had been in poor health for many years, and had to retire early. Grandma worked on the side to make some extra money to keep the refrigerator filled. Although she was a hard worker and never complained, she would never have dreamed of knitting for money, for economic imperative.
Once the missionaries introduced knitting to Alaska, it became a popular craft. Although knitting in the past often allowed women to make garments for less money than they cost in the store, it was not always recognized as a way to make money, to generate income. Just as in the lower 48, knitting in Alaska started out as a necessary tool for making clothing, and later became a hobby.
In the 1950s a Vermonter named John Teal had a vision to domesticate an animal native to Alaska and to create a cottage industry that would provide income to Native Alaskan people living in villages across the state. Concerned about poverty and education, Teal believed that musk-ox domestication could be a tool for bringing financial security to rural communities in Alaska. With the coming of the cash economy and modern technology Eskimo villages, Teal foresaw that new sources of income would be necessary. While he assumed “the minority must become acculturated,” he believed that “social responsibility is recognized, to reduce the cultural chaos inevitably resulting from transition.” After running an experimental farm for ten years in Vermont, he started a full-sized domestication project in Alaska and began working on a plan to develop yarn and products to sell to tourists. By 1968, the farm was considered a success, yarn was being processed, and it was time to start knitting.
Nine women attended the first workshop meetings over the Christmas holidays in Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island, and in the following months, another twenty-one knitters completed the lessons and made qiviut scarves. As other villages became interested, it was soon obvious that the project was going to be a success. Oomingmak, The Musk-ox Producer’s Cooperative was incorporated in 1970. Knitting was becoming a way to help keep the refrigerator full.
All of this I learned from books and magazines, as my drive to learn about the Oomingmak knitters led me to the library and the internet. At the time, I was working as a technical writer, creating computer manuals for high-tech corporations. After changing jobs four times in almost as many years, I finally realized that it wasn’t just the job I hated, it was the entire industry. I decided I would rather surround myself with yarn and knitters than computers and engineers. While I was reading about Oomingmak and the Native Alaskan culture, I sent some designs in to magazines. Amazingly the editors liked my work and asked for more. I decided to try my hand at a bigger project and wrote a book of knitting patterns. The first printing sold out in a few months. I began to think I was onto something. Perhaps my obsession with qiviut and Alaska could turn into another book. In 2004, I decided to visit Alaska to learn about the co-op and meet the knitters first hand.
The Oomingmak co-op’s headquarters and retail shop are housed in a small building at the corner of 6th and H streets in downtown anchorage. The co-operative is named after the musk-ox, known as the “bearded one” in the Inupiat language. The knitters of Oomingmak use yarn spun from musk ox dow) to make elegant knitted lace and warm colorwork accessories. Airy images of harpoons, native dancers, and butterflies inspired by ancient artifacts hand-knit scarves, nachaqs hood), and caps, and fluffy patterns of snowflakes and musk oxen adorn the colorwork hats and headbands. The shop in downtown Anchorage is headquarters for this enterprise, selling these luxury items to tourists and handling all of the business paperwork and logistics.
Each member of Oomingmak pays a $2 annual membership fee. Members do not pay for yarn; it is provided by at the co-op’s expense. But they do have to purchase their own knitting needles. Knitters correspond with the co-op primarily by mail. Because few of the knitters live near or in Anchorage and travel in Alaska is quite expensive, the knitters receive their yarn by mail, send back finished items and again, receive more yarn along with their payment.
The knitters are paid by the stitch. Each project has a specific number of stitches cast on and a specific number of rows to knit, so the total can easily be calculated. The actual price per stitch changes over time, with inflation but the goal is to give the knitters a fair price, while keeping the cost of the finished items at a price that will not make them seem unreasonable to tourists. At the end of the year, any profit is distributed to the knitters, which each receiving a percentage based on the number of items they knit during the year.
Because the knitters of the co-op are doing production knitting, some members get tired of knitting the same thing over and over again. (Many hobbiest knitters can relate, knowing how difficult it can be to finish the second in a pair of socks or mittens!) However, there are many different items that can be knit by each member in the signature pattern of their village, including scarves, stoles and nachaq hoods. There are also several lace hats that are made with designs that can be made by knitters in any village. The colorwork knitters can knit any of the patterns in the Tundra and Snow collection, which includes four different headbands, and six different hats. However, the co-op members knit primarily to make money, not for pleasure. Once they become proficient in knitting a specific pattern, they can knit much faster and more accurately.
While I was in Alaska, I met with Fran Degnan, one of the Oomingmak knitters who lives in the village of Unalakleet. Fran is an inspiring and fascinating woman who is passionate about preserving the environment with both renewable and non-renewable resources for future generations. She lives the traditional Eskimo subsistence lifestyle, yet seems perfectly well suited to moving into the mainstream American culture when necessary to stand up for Native rights in Alaska. Meeting her was the highlight of my trip to Unalakleet. As I was reading Fran’s book, Under the Arctic Sun, I realized that bit-by-bit, one small decision after another, the Yup’ik and Inupiat have been slowly and voluntarily assimilating the white man’s ways. I guess in part it is necessary to have a political voice in our governmental system, to have their voices heard on state and federal decision making committees. In part the convenience is irresistible: electricity, running water, snow machines. Perhaps some technologies and customs were adopted to improve health. But even though Fran and others mention the health benefits on the one hand (clean water and sewer systems, access to modern medical facilities), they prefer the old, natural ways of tradition on the other (not taking drugs, eating fresh and local foods).
Unalakleet is a medium-sized village of about 600 on the west coast of Alaska. It has a Post Office, a school, two state troopers, and a general store. The only other jobs available are in commercial fishing, which is seasonal work. In a place where high-paying jobs are few and far between, the cost of basic necessities is outrageously high. A pack of hot dogs cost $7, a gallon of milk, $6.99, a quart of apple juice, $4.59, and one pound of low-quality chop meat cost $3.49. In addition, most of the food filling the shelves of the general store is processed and frozen. The selection of fresh, healthy items is all but non-existent. This is true all over the Yukon Kuskokwim River Delta, where most of the knitters from the Oomingmak Co-op live. With so few opportunities to make money and little healthy food available for sale even at high prices, the people there still depend primarily on traditional food gathering techniques for their survival.
Most of the Yup’ik people who live in the delta work hard to preserve their Native traditions and live off the land, but that does not eliminate the need for cash. Today snow mobiles have largely replaced dog teams for winter transportation and aluminum fishing boats have replaced kayaks for summer travel. Both of these vehicles run on purchased fuel. Traditional fur parkas have been replaced by modern Polar Fleece and ready-to-wear winter clothing. Indoor plumbing, heated houses, and computers have become necessities of life in Eskimo villages, just as they have for the rest of us. These are just a few examples of how modern technologies are being incorporated into the traditional subsistence lifestyle. And all of these things cost money.
Traditional Yup’ik society was much more egalitarian than today’s free-market culture. Wealth was often redistributed at annual feasts and ceremonies, and families took care of one another in a way that is not common in modern American society. The changes that have come, in many places just over the past 40 or 50 years, have not been easy for many Yup’ik and Inupiat people to accept. They struggle to maintain the important aspects of their culture while adopting modern tools to help them gain a stronger political voice and to make life easier for themselves and their children. Knitting gives women in these villages the ability to make money while they travel to fish camps and berry picking areas in the summer, preserve food for the coming winter each fall, and care for young children or elders throughout the year.
I had a lot to think about after my trip to Alaska. I wanted to stay longer, but after two weeks of traveling around the state with my husband, who was taking pictures, I ran out of money. When I came home, I started writing my book while I was still working on writing computer manuals. Somewhere between the end of my trip and finishing the manuscript, the excitement about what I was doing got lost in the stress of working two jobs at once. When the deadline for my book came, I was not finished. I had never missed a work deadline before, and I started to worry about what was wrong with me. I went to the doctor, and she said that extreme procrastination could be a sign of depression. Fortunately, recognizing that I had a problem seemed to be my cure and I did not need to take any drugs or go to a therapist. I decided to stop working on computer jobs, even if it meant I would make less than half of the money I’d been used to. If knitting could give me a way to make money with less stress, I was going to try it.
Although all of the knitters in Oomingmak are Native Alaskan women, they a diverse group. Some grew up in sod houses, others never saw igloos (Inupiat for “house”) as children. Some still go to fish camp every spring, pick berries, and eat native foods almost exclusively. Others have never participated in subsistence activities, or have done so only as children. Today, just as in the lower 48, many women learn to knit from the mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and neighbors, and continue to make clothing for themselves and gifts for friends and family members today. Other knitters learned to knit in workshops presented by Oomingmak, and only knit for extra income. Some knitters remain in their home villages and others have moved to Anchorage for jobs or to attend college. Teens, young mothers, college students, senior citizens and village elders knit for Oomingmak. Bringing in between $15 and $5,000 a year, knitting supplements their family’s income and allows them to continue practicing the subsistence lifestyle of their ancestors while helping provide for the financial needs of their families.
Life for women in the Alaskan bush is still more difficult than it is for those of us who live in cities, suburbs, and even in rural towns in the lower 48. The knitters of Oomingmak live in small villages scattered across the vast open spaces of Alaska. Each village has a unique history and a distinctive culture blending traditional Yup’ik and Inupiat subsistence activities with modern jobs at local airports, general stores, and public schools. Unemployment is high in most Native Alaskan villages, with seasonal work available on fishing boats and in construction. Many of these jobs are filled men. Knitting provides one way for the women here to help supplement their family’s income.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the villages along the Bering Sea continue a journey from past to future, merging traditional and modern culture at their own pace, as local elders and community leaders make decisions and instigate changes they feel are best for their people. The knitters of Oomingmak are capturing traditional designs in a modern craft, while providing themselves a way to make money and still participate in their unique and time-honored culture. Their work preserves their cultural heritage and they take pride in the high quality of their fine needlework. As their needles click across Alaska, in cities and rural villages, in living rooms and kitchens, at fish camps and even in boats, the knitters of Oomingmak are answering the call of economic imperative.
Here at my home in Colorado, knitting gives me a way to escape the mundane world of every day work and explore the world, even when I can’t get on a plane and fly to the Alaskan bush. This year, for the first time, I did not have to take on any computer jobs for money. I no longer spend my days doing work I hate, commuting in traffic to work, putting in long hours to fill the pocket of a rich CEO. I no longer dream of changing my life. Today I am at peace with myself and my work, and I spend my time writing about things I love, things that may help to bring more peace and understanding to the world. Today I also knit to answer the call of economic imperative.
Longmont, Colorado 11/15/2006