The Oomingmak Musk Ox Producer’s Co-op has been a Better Business Bureau Accredited Business for over 25 years. They produce one of the most uniquely Alaskan items: clothing knit from Qiviut – the soft, very fine, undercoat hairs from the Arctic musk ox. The musk ox is more closely related to goats and sheep than oxen. Owners of the 250-member cooperative live mostly in the coastal villages in Southwest Alaska.
BBB’s Michelle Tabler sat down with Marie Texter, the Executive Director of the Co-op to learn more about their fascinating story.
Tell us about the history of knitting with Qiviut.
The founder of the Co-op, Dr. John Teal, was an anthropologist who did studies in the Alaskan villages. He saw the beautiful, traditional handiwork that the women did with Qiviut, a renewable resource, and thought knitting these items could be a way for the villagers to continue their subsistence lifestyle and stay in their village, but still earn an income. This evolved into the Co-op as it is today. The Co-op purchases most of the fibers from subsistence hunters in the villages (where approximately 4000 wild musk ox roam) allowing for another source of income for people in the villages. There are also about 100 musk ox located on two farms where they are combed for their Qiviut.
The Co-op requires 1,000 pounds of raw fiber to send out to be spun into yarn once it is scoured (washed to eliminate the dander and dirt) and de-haired (excess thick hair is taken out leaving the downy layer). The fibers are then sent to mills Outside to be spun, so the original 1000 pounds loses 40-60 percent of its weight. This process can take up to a year. Once back from the mill, the yarn is sent out to the active members.
Members have no quotas or time limits. Of the 250 members, about 150 were active knitters in 2017. The youngest member is now 18. Family members can apply to become part of the Co-op but must knit a test pattern to be judged for quality. Elder knitters tend to use patterns on a graph, but the younger members have been using written patterns. Knitters are paid right away – payment is by the number of stitches in an item. For example, an average smoke ring (cowl) is about 20,000 stitches.
What is Qiviut and how is it different from other types of wool?
Qiviut is a fine fiber which is very warm, trapping body heat, without being thick or bulky like wool. It’s more like a fine straight hair. And it also doesn’t shrink in hot water.
Standard patterns have been developed for each village area. The inspiration was based on traditional patterns or artifacts used in that area of Alaska.
How many products are produced yearly?
In 2017, almost 2600 items were produced including hats, scarves, shawls, headbands, cowls (called smoke rings or the native word, Nachaq) and tunics.
Smoke rings are the most popular item sold. These can be worn around the neck or pulled over the head. Clothing items such as gloves, socks, and sweaters are not conducive to Qiviut as the fiber would wear through due to rubbing.
About 80 percent of the hand knitted items are sold at the Anchorage store. The rest are retailed through the website or by phone. Often, those purchasing online are repeat customers who visited the store and want to buy additional items.
The Co-op has been BBB accredited for more than 25 years. Why do you feel it is important to maintain BBB standards?
People need to see that we are interested in producing a quality product. I always felt that there should be somewhere to review businesses and make complaints. The Co-op has been in good standing since we joined BBB.
What are the challenges with operating such a large group?
We deal with the remote villages in Alaska so turn-around time is a challenge. When there’s bad weather in a village, there’s no planes or mail in and out. Also, because we are Native owned, we have non-English speaking knitters.
What do you enjoy most about the work you do with the Co-op?
I think it’s important that we are providing a way for villagers to earn extra money. In the past few years, some of the villages have been hit by the lack of fish and erosion of their townsites, due to global warming. I like the idea of helping, but it’s a big responsibility. I have to make sure I’m fair to everyone and that we’re answering the need that out’s there. I like that the members are able to earn money in their own time and stay at home.
We are fulfilling the original mission by offering a way for villagers to make money while maintaining the Native culture.
To learn more about the co-op, visit www.qiviut.com