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Fiber from Musk Ox

Natural Hair Fiber

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The musk ox, also known as Ovibos moschatus, is an ancient species of arctic mammal currently found in remote areas of the far north, including Greenland, Alaska, Canada and Siberia. During the Pleistocene, musk ox wandered across the Bering Land Bridge to populate North America with the likes of the woolly mammoth, saber-toothed cat, and giant ground sloth. They provide us with Qiviut fiber.

Qiviut is very rare and one of the finest fibers in the world. It compares favorably with Cashmere and Vicuna. Qiviut has no barbs and does not scratch like wool. Qiviut does not shrink like most wools because it is a hair rather than a wool. The fine Qiviut fiber has good tensile strength but does not hold up well under friction.

The raw musk-ox hair contains about 8% fat and possibly yield in the clean material.

the affinity to wool dyestuffs is equal to any other wool. The brightness of the shades is limited because of the natural gray of the wool. Through bleaching, this natural color can be lightened to a very light tan, but not entirely removed. The fiber is more sensitive to chemicals, alkalies, and acids than wool due to the high fineness.

In the wild, this fiber falls to the ground as it is shed, and is quickly destroyed by the harsh forces of nature. The domestic animals are combed, which makes it possible to harvest the fiber at its best.

Musk Oxen

The musk oxen are large animals that look a lot like bison or buffalos, but are significantly smaller than cows and provide wool like sheep. Its long, brown fur hangs almost to its feet. It is peaceful animals that only eat plants and are full-grown at the age of six.

Musk oxen are one of the oldest species of mammals still living today. About one million years ago the ancestors of these bovines roamed the steppes of Northern Asia, along with the mammoth. They have acclimatized the barren arctic deserts with its extreme cold and food with low nutritive value.

Males (bulls) typically stand 4½ to 5 feet at the shoulder and can weigh up to 800 pounds. Females (cows) are much smaller, averaging approximately 4 feet in height and weighing up to 500 pounds.

The stocky musk ox has a cold-resistant, dark brown or black fur. Its coat contains thick guard hairs that nearly touch the ground and protect a very dense, wooly inner layer called qiviut (pronounced kiv-ee-ute), which sheds in the spring.

The male has thick horns that almost meet on top of its head in what is called a “boss.” The horns curve down around his face and out at the ends. The female has considerably smaller horns, without a boss. Instead, the top of her head is covered with whitish hair.

In the middle of the 18. century musk oxen were extinct in North America and only lived in  Greenland. Species from Greenland were moved to Canada, and today they live wild in Canada and are farm-raised in Alaska, Canada, and Montana. There are experiments at certain farms with a growth hormone, methionine, which should make the wool longer

In Greenland the Musk ox lives as it has always done, in the wild, forming small herds in the arctic desert land. It is fully grown at the age of 6 and there is strict hunting quota to ensure the population.

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The musk ox sheds its fleece once a year, typically in spring, and grows a new layer each fall. It usually bears only one calf every two years. The fleece yield is five to seven pounds per musk ox, which is cleaned and de-haired.

In Greenland, some Inuit collect the wool from shrubs and rocks, but that wool is used only in the family. Every year a number of animals are hunted by local hunters, the meat sold in the local market. The hides are now sold to my supplier, the wool is cleaned and dehaired, sent to England to be cleaned again, and finally shipped til Denmark to be spun – and become the yarn I sell.

Life Span/Social Structure

Cows may live more than 20 years, but the average lifespan is much less. On average, bulls die at a younger age than cows because of the increased risks of injury during fights over females.

Social by nature, muskoxen live in medium-sized groups of 10 to 20 individuals during the winter. During the summer, a dominant bull drives out the other males, forming a harem.

Bulls fight for dominance with threats, loud bellows, and ferocious head-butting during the breeding season, which occurs late summer. Two males will engage in a ritualized display designed to intimidate each other, including pawing at the ground, walking stiff-legged, and aggressively swinging their massive horns. Following the displays, the bulls will face-off and back up 100 feet or so before charging together at speeds close to 35 miles per hour. The head smashing may continue for up to a dozen times before one bull quits and submits to the other.

Gestation lasts eight to nine months, and a single calf is born late spring or early summer. Twins occur but are extremely rare.

When threatened, muskoxen form a defensive formation around their young.

They will first run to a higher location, then turn and stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a circle facing their enemies. With their heads lowered, they form an impenetrable wall.

The Arctic wolf is the muskox’s only serious predator.

Musk Ox – Properties

  1. Classification

    The musk ox is related to other bovines like antelopes and cattle but is more closely related to the goats and
    sheep (subfamily Caprinae).

    • Class: Mammalia
    • Order: Artiodactyla
    • Family: Bovidae
    • Genus: Ovibu
    • Species: moschatus
  2. Distribution

    A circumpolar species found in the Arctic tundra of North America from Alaska to Greenland and most arctic
    islands. There are small introduced populations in Russia, Scandinavia, and Svalbard.

  3. Habitat

    Musk oxen live north of Timberline on the arctic tundra.

  4. Physical Description

    • Musk oxen are about eight feet (2.5 m) long.
    • Males average 650 pounds (292 kg) but can weigh up to 900 pounds (405 kg); females are smaller
      averaging 400 pounds (180 kg).
    • They stand about four and a half feet (1.4 m) at the shoulder.
    • Their dark brown fur consists of a thick undercoat of wool covered by long, silky hair reaching a
      length of six inches (15 cm) along the back and up to three feet (90cm) at the neck and shoulders.
    • Both males and females have horns but males have thicker horns that meet at the top of the head
      forming a helmet-like “boss.” Females do not have a boss.
  5. Diet

    What Does It Eat?

    • In the wild: Sedge and willow in summer, and sedges in winter. They scrape the snow aside to get
      down to vegetation.

    What Eats It?

    • Arctic wolves, grizzly bears, and humans prey on the musk ox.
  6. Social Organization

    Musk oxen live in herds of 10-20 animals. In winter the herds consist of adult males, females and young. In the spring, the sexes separate into groups. During the mating season in July and August, males and females come together again and the males compete for dominance. The dominant male drives other adult males out of the herd. Non-breeding males may form all-male groups of three to 10 animals or may wander alone.

    After the mating season is over, mixed groups form again. In winter, musk oxen head to higher altitudes where winds blow the snow off the ground and they can reach vegetation.

  7. Life Cycle

    Females are sexually mature at two to three years and males at about five years. Adult bulls butt heads to establish dominance and breeding rights. The dominant male drives other males out of the herd during the mating season. After a gestation of eight months, females give birth to a single calf weighing 15-25 pounds (7-11 kg). Newborn calves can stand within an hour. They nurse on their mother’s rich milk for up to a year but begin grazing when they are only a week old. Musk oxen live about 15 years in the wild and up to 24 years in captivity.
  8. Adaptations

    Winter Warmth

    The dense, soft undercoat of the musk ox is shed every spring. This extremely warm wool coat that helps them survive in the harsh tundra environment is re-grown in August in preparation for the severe winter weather. Calves are born with much shorter guard hairs and no undercoat, although it starts to grow almost immediately. Complete adult coats are fully grown by three years of age.

    Non-Skid Traction

    The hoof of the musk ox splits to a spread and has a sharp edge that grips the ground to give them
    non-skid traction. When necessary they can run 15-20 miles per hour for a considerable distance
    across loose rocks and frozen ground without tiring. They are very nimble when climbing slopes.

    Musk Ox Maneuvers

    When faced with danger, the musk ox herd will run together, forming a crescent or circle with their
    flanks and rumps backed against each other and their formidable horns facing out. Calves are
    huddled into the center or hidden under the curtain of their mother’s long hair. From time to time,
    an individual will dash out of the circle to attack the enemy. With a single sweep of the pointed
    horns, a musk ox can cripple or kill a predator. This strategy works well with wolves or bears but
    the bunched herd makes an easy target for modern hunting weapons.

  9. Conservation Connection

    Musk oxen were on the verge of extinction in the late 19th century due to the introduction of rifles and unregulated hunting. In 1917 the musk ox became a protected animal in Greenland and in 1926 Canada granted full protection to its herds. Musk oxen were reintroduced into Alaska in the 1930’s and have been reintroduced into Russia and Scandinavia. Musk oxen are thriving now with population estimates of 66,000-85,000 worldwide. Nearly 3,000 animals live in Alaska.

  10. Factoids

    • No other hoofed animal lives as far north as the musk ox.
    • Eskimos called the musk ox “oomingmak” which means “bearded one”.
    • The wooly undercoat of musk ox hair is called qiviut (pronounced: Kiv-ee-Ute). It is the warmest of all natural fibers. It is eight times warmer than wool, very lightweight and as soft as cashmere. The undercoat is shed each year and Native Alaskans gather the wool and knit it into clothing. Birds also collect the wool to line their nests.
    • There are two commonly recognized subspecies of musk ox: Barren Ground musk ox and Greenland or ‘white face’ musk ox.
    • Inuit populations have utilized musk-oxen hide, meat, and horns for centuries.
    • The species common name refers to a strong odor that males emit from their facial glands during the breeding season.
    • Although musk oxen may resemble bison, they are closely related to goats and sheep.
    • Surprisingly agile, musk oxen also have impressive vision and hearing.
    • Qiviut (kiv-ee-ute), a layer of extremely fine under wool, is 8 times warmer than a sheep’s wool by weight and is hand-knitted by Alaskan natives into some of the most luxurious garments in the world. It can protect the animals from temperatures down to 100 degrees F below zero.
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