They are shaggy, big-shouldered, almost prehistoric-looking beasts. At a distance they appear to be relatives of the buffalo, with their long, dark coats and curving horns. But here’s the first surprise: they stand only chest high to a human. What’s even more amazing is that beneath the hairy exterior is a layer of fleece so luxurious, it’s eight times warmer than wool and keeps its occupants warm even at minus-50 degrees C (-58 degrees F).
No wonder that qiviuk (kee-vee-ook), as the Inuvialuit of the Northwest Territories call it, is one of the knitwear world’s most expensive raw ingredients, selling for three times the price of cashmere. Supply is extremely limited, since wild Arctic muskox shed their undercoats just once a year — in May, when warmer temperatures arrive and the tundra becomes littered with tufts of grey-brown fleece. It’s harvested sustainably — by hand, the old way. Hunter-gatherers for centuries, the Inuit collect it where it falls or strip it from hides during hunting season. (Inuvialuit officials say it’s sustainable because the population is large and healthy, and native hunters slaughter only a fraction of the herd each year.) Inuvialuit hunters in Sachs Harbour on Banks Island, NWT, keep some of the wool for their families. Mittens made of 100% qiviuk can sell for up to $250 a pair in Yellowknife. The surplus wool ends up much further south.
An Alberta design firm and manufacturer, Jacques Cartier Clothier, purchases the rare fibre yearly. At the company's Qiviuk Boutique in Banff, AB, visitors can’t help but stroke sweaters, cardigans, scarves and other high-end cozies made from the remarkably soft, silky fibre. New York City designer Christina Oxenberg of Oxenberg LLC uses qiviuk in her clothing line, too, sometimes blending it with other rare wools. Her company provided a custom-knit qiviuk cardigan to Queen Elizabeth; other celebrities with Arctic muskox wool in their wardrobe include the Dalai Lama, Hollywood director Francis Ford Coppola and Vogue editor Anna Wintour.
As Oxenberg points out, “No one is going to spray paint you for wearing it.” www.irc.inuvialuit.com www.qiviuk.com www.oxenbergllc.com www.ffdp.ca