Friday, March 7, 2014

Fiber enthusiasts get up close and personal with UAF muskoxen

It was a time of mutual admiration March 6 when a Wild Fibers tour visited with Assistant Research Professor Jan Rowell. As the participants pawed over raw qiviut, there was nothing but expressions of delight.

Wild Fibers magazine editor and publisher Linda Cortright and Rowell first met a decade ago.
Linda Cortright in her qiviut sweater and lamb gloves.

Rowell is a fan of Wild Fibers, affectionately labeled “The National Geographic of fibers.”  She enjoys the magazine’s extraordinary blend of photography, culture and environment, all focused on fiber.

And Cortright had only glowing words about Rowell. “Jan is one of the few qiviut experts,” she said. “She has so much knowledge; I’m a fan of her research. It is a great privilege for our group to have private time with her. She is a champion and a hero. I’m thrilled to meet her.”

When the tour group, made up of 14 fiber enthusiasts from across the country, arrived at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Large Animal Research Station on a bright sunny morning, Rowell first introduced her guests to the muskoxen that provide the qiviut.

“The animals tell the whole story,” Cortright said. “This group is aware of the rarity of the fiber. Alaska is the only opportunity to see these animals in a domesticated environment.” The one-week tour started at the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer and included dog mushing and a trip to Chena Hot Springs to view the northern lights.

“Our group has a strong interest in natural fibers,” Cortright said. On previous trips, she has taken travelers to places that have not been rubber-stamped by the trappings of the modern world, sleeping in yurts, riding camels and spinning cashmere. “Most of all, we learn about a way of life that is held together by one very long, long thread,” the Wild Fibers website proclaims.

Cortright has observed in her years of study and travel that experts now have vast knowledge about sheep, alpaca and goat fiber, but the research on muskox fiber is in its infancy. “The muskox is a fiber dinosaur,” she said. “It has a strong meat component and that’s part of our understanding that people use every bit of it. We’ll do anything that we can to protect and respect the role this animal has.”

Gazing out the window at the muskoxen resting on snowbanks and around the room full of qiviut samples, Cortright said, “This is as close to heaven as it gets for fiber people. We have an absolute reverence for this.”

Jan Rowell, center, shows qiviut to visitors.

One of the travelers, Betty Fitchett of Ontario, Canada, said, “With Linda you get to see behind the scenes. You’re right in there where it’s natural. It’s not putting on a big show. I don’t come just for the fiber; I come for something I don’t get with other tours.”

View from the classroom window at LARS.

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