Most people have never even heard of qiviut, the astonishingly warm undercoat of the musk ox. It’s so warm, in fact, that it successfully insulates these Arctic creatures from the howling winds and sub-zero temperatures that descend upon the Far North each winter. And if you’ve got some (serious) money to spend, it’s remarkable properties can keep your head and neck oven-toasty warm all winter long.
Soft, luxurious, and scratch-free, qiviut (kiv-ee-ət) is commercially produced in the U.S. in only two places, both in Alaska—the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer and the Large Animal Research Station at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Some qiviut is also collected in the wild after the animals have shed it in the spring. (Musk ox only produce high-quality qiviut in very cold conditions—attempts to raise them in warmer locations have been unsuccessful.)
Musk ox grow a new qiviut undercoat each winter, then shed it entirely during a short period in the spring. Workers at musk ox farms can actually comb out almost the entire undercoat as one giant fleece, as demonstrated in this video:
I acquired a qiviut hat some years ago while living in Alaska and I can attest to its remarkable warmth—it’s what I pull out during the coldest stretches of Northeast weather. The second I put it on, I can actually, tangibly sense the heat being trapped around my head.
Qiviut does have one significant drawback, however. Wind goes straight through it, which means that in windy conditions its insulating ability is pretty poor. This means a qiviut hat works best either in calm conditions or underneath a wind-proof hood. (I actually wear my qiviut hat over a thin wind-proof fleece hat, which works well.)
As you would expect, qiviut is pretty rare stuff and its price reflects it. A qiviut hat will run you around $200 and a scarf up to $300. It’s definitely a special purchase. Qiviut is pretty durable stuff, though, and can easily last several decades with care. Alternatively, if you’ve got some knitting skills, you can also purchase qiviut yarn from places like Arctic Qiviut.
If you do purchase a hat or other garment, by far the best place to go is the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers Co-operative. It’s a wonderful operation that provides remote Alaskan villages with crucial economic support—all of its garment are knitted by residents (and co-op members) in Native Alaskan villages throughout the state and all of the co-op’s proceeds are returned to its members. (I have long coveted a qiviut “smokering” from Oomingmak, which looks like perhaps the single best neck gaiter ever made.)
For more on qiviut, check out this recent article from Modern Farmer, The Season’s Hottest Fiber