Tuesday, May 7, 2013

UAF releases new YouTube on qiviut combing

Jan Rowell visits with Freya, a yearling muskox.
Got qiviut? The University of Alaska Fairbanks does and now thanks to a new YouTube video, the public can peek into the world of harvesting fiber from muskoxen.

“I wanted a way to show people how we get qiviut from muskoxen,” said Jan Rowell, assistant professor of animal science in the School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences.

“It’s very different from other species,’ Rowell said. “I’ve tried to describe it in words. With a video you can see and appreciate what happens.”

With muskoxen, the animals are not sheared like sheep and they don’t shed sporadically like dogs. The qiviut comes off in blankets each spring, which Rowell calls a synchronous shed. This occurs naturally for animals on the tundra but domestically, the process is helped along by combing. “It has to feel wonderful when that blanket comes off,” Rowell said.

“It’s quite unique,” Rowell said. “It’s not something most people would get to see.”
Qiviut comes off the animal in a sheet.

She expects the YouTube audience will be fiber artists, teachers, students and anyone else interested in animals. Rowell is researching muskoxen as an agricultural species. “We want to see if it is a feasible species for Alaska,” she said.

The animals, which were native to the state, then went extinct and were reintroduced, are completely adapted to the climate. “It never gets too cold for them,” Rowell said.

While muskoxen are sometimes raised for meat, they are valued much more for their fiber, so much so that yarn made from qiviut sells for up to $90 an ounce. It is perfectly suited for hats, gloves and scarves. “It’s an amazing fiber,” Rowell said. “It’s like cashmere or a super fine merino. It’s light, incredibly soft and warm.”
Yarn made of 70 percent qiviut and 30 percent merino wool is beautifully dyed and ready to be made into hats, scarves and gloves.

“It’s not easy to process and it’s challenging getting quantities of it to market,” Rowell said. The university sells qiviut through a website and at the gift shop at the Large Animal Research Station where the muskoxen live. Proceeds help support the program.

The current herd consists of 22 animals. Adults produce four to six pounds of qiviut each year.

Rowell is not done with YouTube, as she is planning to produce several more videos, including an instructional one on how to spin the fiber. “YouTube clips are excellent educational vignettes,” Rowell said. “It’s the way we learn now.”

LARS will host an open house June 1 with free admission. Tours are offered from June 1 to Aug. 31 at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Cost is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors and $6 for students. Children 5 and under get in free.

Rowell expressed appreciation to Andrew Cassel, UAF Marketing and Communications multimedia coordinator; Emma Boone, LARS research technician; and Scarlett, the "star" of the video (16-year-old muskox).
Freya, a 1-year-old yearling, was orphaned in the wild and raised at LARS. She will be combed for qiviut this spring for the first time.

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