Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Guest Post: Donna Druchunas on Qiviut

A warm, Go-Knit-In-Your-Hat welcome to Donna Druchunas, author of the newly-released Arctic Lace.

Donna is my first-ever guest blogger, and she's going to talk about that spectacular fiber, qiviut. Thanks, Donna!

Knitting and Spinning with Qiviut by Donna Druchunas

Thanks for having me as a guest on your blog! I've been talking a lot about my inspiration for Arctic Lace and my research in Alaska during this tour. But today I'd like to talk about knitting and spinning with qiviut.


Qiviut yarn comes only in fine weights. Sport weight is the heaviest I have ever seen on the market, and cobweb, or extra-fine lace weight is the thinnest. Because the fiber is so warm -- often said to be 8 times warmer than sheep's wool -- you wouldn't want a heavier yarn anyway. Qiviut blooms when washed, and gets a halo that reminds me of mohair, and it feels a lot like mohair to wear. That is, it's lightweight and warm. Unlike mohair, qiviut is never scratchy. When washed, qiviut
develops a furry texture that gets more exaggerated over time but, in my experience, does not pill. Because of the furry halo that develops, you can often knit qiviut at a looser gauge than you would other yarns of the same girth.

There are two main types of qiviut yarn on the market today. The first is 100% qiviut. Most of this is very loosely spun, and it has little or no elasticity. It does not stretch as you knit with it, and it does not draw in after knitting. This makes it very nice for lace projects that will be blocked to have a soft drape. But it does not work well for ribbing, as it will not hold its shape. It can even stretch out over time, the way cotton does. I have run into a couple of tightly spun qiviut yarns that seem to hold their shape better than the loosely spun
yarns, but these are hard to find.

The second common type of qiviut yarn is a blend with merino and silk. There may be as much as 75% qiviut in this yarn, or as little as 45%. The yarn with the least amount of qiviut and the most amount of wool will have more elasticity during knitting and will hold its shape better for ribbing and fitted garments or accessories.

Before you start knitting anything with qiviut, which costs about $70US per ounce, you should swatch your pattern stitches with a less expensive yarn. If you are knitting lace, I always suggest working a swatch in sport or worsted weight wool on size 5 or 7 needles. This will let you concentrate on learning the stitch pattern before you start working with the fine yarn and small needles. If you are a new
lace knitter, you might want to make a second swatch with inexpensive lace weight yarn before starting to work with the qiviut as well.

This doesn't mean you can skip making a qiviut swatch, however. Because the yarn has such an unusual hand and texture, and because it blooms, you may find you need to use larger or smaller needles than usual. I haven't found any hard-and-fast rule for this. Some knitters find that their stitches look very sloppy and the fabric has no body at all when they knit qiviut with needles that are too large. Other knitters find that the fabric is too dense after it is washed when they knit with smaller needles. You may get the same stitch gauge with several needle sizes, but a different row gauge or a different appearance to your stitches. I suggest you try 3 different size needles before casting on for a project. For regular lace weight qiviut, I suggest US sizes 1, 2, and 3 for testing. (Go up or down as appropriate if you are working with sportweight or cobweb yarn.) Cast on 16 or 20 stitches, and knit 1 inch with the smallest needle you want to try, then work a garter
ridge. Don't cast off, but change needle sizes and knit 1 inch in each size, going up one size after each garter ridge. Wash and block the swatch in the same way you will dress the finished project, and then decide what size needle you want to use.


Qiviut is the under down of the musk ox that sheds naturally every spring. The animals also grow coarse guard hair that does not shed, and continues to grow throughout their lives, sometimes reaching down to their ankles at a length of 2 feet. There are a few captive herds of musk oxen that are combed each year for fiber collection. The Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, Alaska, sells all of its fiber to the Oomingmak knitter's co-op in Anchorage. The Large Animal Research Station in Fairbanks combs their research herd and saves some of the best fiber for hand spinners. (Check out their website for a great photo of a musk ox being combed!) A few other small farms may sometimes have clean spinning fiber available.

Most other fiber comes from wild herds in Canada, where Inuit hunters take the animals for meat and sell the hides or fiber to yarn companies. Sometimes you can find raw qiviut for sale, but it usually is from shorn hides and contains a LOT of guard hairs. The long guard hairs are not difficult to remove, because the fiber is not greasy. But the sheer quantity of guard hair makes preparing raw qiviut for
spinning and arduous task. If you do buy raw qiviut, you can use the guard hair to spin a sturdy yarn for knitting or weaving rugs or other hard-wearing accessories.

When spinning knitting yarns, the same considerations should be taken into account as when purchasing millspun yarn. 100% qiviut has little give and almost no memory, while blends with wool are much more elastic and will hold their shape better in fitted items. Remember that qiviut is incredibly warm, and don't be tempted to spin lofty, bulky yarn. It'll be so hot, you'll never be able to wear anything made from it.

Normally you do not need to card qiviut or clean it in any way after you remove the guard hair. Any stray plant matter or flecks of skin and dander will fall out as you are spinning. If you are blending the fiber with wool, you can card it by hand or you can try using a drum carder with an extra fine carding cloth. I've never carded qiviut. The only spinning I've done is directly from the raw fiber, and I haven't had the need to process the fiber in any way.

For more information on spinning with qiviut, try to get a copy of the Summer 1993 issue of Spin-Off magazine. It contains several articles on spinning qiviut and musk ox guard hairs.

Caring for Qiviut

Qiviut fibers do not have protruding scales like wool. That makes the fiber incredibly soft and also makes it resistant to felting. I have had people tell me that they have washed qiviut items in the washing machine with hot water. Oh my! While I don't doubt them, I would treat my qiviut items with more care. I hand wash them, or soak them in the washing machine with no-rinse wool washing soap, and then gently squeeze out the excess water. If I'm washing a lace item, I will block
it each time I wash it. Other items, I leave to dry flat, being careful not to stretch any areas of ribbing out of shape.

For sources of qiviut yarn and fiber, see the appendix in Arctic Lace
or Sheep To Shawl.


Unknown said...

First of all, Donna is a perfect complement to your writing Carol, both in style and in topic (chock full of useful information).

Second of all, Donna's book is available on Amazon for under $18. After reading this, I have to buy it.

Mental note: Don't ever guest-blog for Carol, I could never compete.

Big Alice said...

Thanks, this was really interesting to read.

mindy said...

I passed the booth at Stitches, but I was on a mission and told myself I would stop back. Since I was working, I never made it back, so after reading this I am now kicking myself. A friend made an exquisite giviut shawl last year. Thanks for all the info you shared here. Now back to kicking...

Carol said...

Thank you for the ever informative read today! Qiviut is nothing to play with ($$) and this info is most helpful to know!

Donna D said...

Hi All, thanks for your comments. I do have a section about yarn substitution in the book and I wrote about it earlier along in the blog tour (I think, I'm kindof brain dead from the tour already and there's still another week to go!). But all of the projects in Arctic Lace can be made with less expensive yarns and with beautiful results. I mean, someone in a class I am teaching is making the fingerless gloves with $4 worth of Zephyr Wool Silk, and in the same class another knitter is making them $22 worth of cashmere and a thrid with $70 an ounce qiviut. They are all elegant and gorgeous. So don't be intimidated if you can't afford qiviut. It's nice, but part of the cost is just because there are so few musk oxen and a limited supply of yarn, not because it's infinitely nicer than the other yarns on the market.

Anonymous said...

That was so interesting. I doubt that I will ever get my hands on any due to quarantine, but if I do I will be prepared. One thing though, how do you pronounce it?

Donna D said...


It's pronounced KIV-ee-yoot

Where do you live that you can't get qiviut because of quarantine? There is one place in Europe that sells the yarn, if that helps. Otherwise it's mostly from Canada, and some from the US.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post! It made me nostalgic - while I've never knit with qiviut, I learned to knit while living in Alaska. I'll definitely have to check out your book.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Donna. I live in New Zealand mostly although I am in Australia at the moment and both these countries are very fussy about any animal products. I could probably import the processed yarn, but I mainly spin my own yarns and I like to experiment. I would love to see how it compares with alpaca as I have a herd of them. That brings me to another question, what colour does Qiviut come in naturally? I assume a sort of fawn?

Donna D said...

Hi Geraldine,

Hmmm. I'm not sure about Australia so you would know better than I what you can import. Bummer if you can't at least try a bit of qiviut!

The natrual color is indeed a fawn, or taupe, color. You can see a photo here (scroll down):


As you can see, the darker shades are the 100% qiviut. As you add more wool and silk to blends, the yarn becomes lighter.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again. It is a pretty colour naturally but I do love the multi-colour yarns although it seems almost a sacriliege to dye such a rare fibre! It must take courage!

I shall be looking out for your book and I think a lot of members of my fibre guild in Rotorua would be interested, and I shall certainly be looking into whether I can get hold of some of the fibre without getting it confiscated! That would be a disaster.

Anonymous said...


Your book is high on my list. It is reassuring to know that
other (cheaper) yarns will give good results, too.


Thank you for introducing us to Donna!

Jude in obscureknitty

rebecca said...

Timely info as I just was given some Buffalo that I think is quite similar. The down is so soft and so hard to spin I can't wait to get ahold of the 1993 spinoff to get some more idea.


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