Kugluktuk HTA spins dreams of musk ox mill

Luxurious yarn commands a price 30 times greater than sheep’s wool



The Kugluktuk Hunters and Trappers Association has completed a feasibility study and business plan to begin operating a mill to spin the under fur of musk oxen into yarn.

The yarn, which commands a price 30 times greater than sheep’s wool, is used to make expensive garments that are sold in high-end retail outlets in the South.

Agnes Egotak, executive director of the Kugluktuk Hunters and Trappers Association, said the business plan is in the hands of the association’s board of directors for approval.

“For sure we’re going to go ahead with it, but I’m not sure when we’re going to start,” she said. “The plan is there, so we can create employment in Nunavut and have the mill up here.”

Egotak said there was talk of building the mill in Cambridge Bay, but a final decision hasn’t yet been made. The question of funding is also unresolved.

“We’ll have to do it ourselves, I guess,” Egotak says. “I’m trying to get government funding, but I’m having problems.”

Egotak has been sending musk ox hides to a mill in Prince Edward Island since March 2000. There, the soft under fur, called qiviut, is removed and spun to make yarn. The KHTA receives $150 per hide, but the cost of shipping the hides to the East Coast has been expensive.

Egotak estimates it costs about $170 to send four hides in the mail.

“They’re bulky,” she said.

So are the wallets of those who buy items made with qiviut.

Good resource

“It is the most valuable fibre in the world,” says Larry Sutherland, who owns Mini Mills, the Prince Edward Island company that processes the qiviut and designs mills to spin the yarn. “And it’s a very good resource for the people of the North if they want to use it. The question is, ‘Do you have people who want to work and make a good go of it?’”

Mini Mills sells the qiviut in yarn form and pulls in about $300 per pound at the retail level. A pound of sheep’s wool yarn would sell for between $10 and $15 per pound. Some Internet retailers command about $1,000 for the qiviut yarn.

Much finer and softer than sheep’s wool and cashmere, it’s the best luxury fibre in the world available right now, Sutherland says, with sweaters selling for about $2,500 in London, England.

Not only is it luxurious, it is also extremely warm and lightweight — and a rare Northern commodity. Even here it is in limited supply because although the animals shed qiviut in the summer, the majority of it is harvested from hides of animals killed for meat.

A limited number of animals are killed each year based on the Department of the Sustainable Development’s quotas. But Egotak says the region isn’t even coming close to its quota.

If hides weren’t being sent to PEI, they wouldn’t be used, she says. “Traditionally, [the hide] was used for sleeping mats, or on the sled for travelling,” she added, but not for spinning into yarn.

Agreement reached

In 1999, Sutherland visited Nunavut and struck up a joint-venture agreement with the KHTA to buy skins and to process and design a mill that the association could eventually buy and transport back to Nunavut.

“We enhanced the machines to handle qiviut and we’ve been developing the market for sales,” he said from his mill outside of Charlottetown. “The understanding all along was this could move back to the North if they wanted to create jobs.”

Because musk oxen have long, coarse guard hairs, de-hairing equipment had to be built to separate the long hairs from the very fine under fur.

“If you look at a hair from your own head, this would be a fraction of that in diameter,” he said. “It’s so light that when you have it piled up on your hands, if you don’t have your eyes open you don’t know it’s there.”

Sutherland guesses a mill could create “well in the double figures of employment” in Nunavut. In addition, all the contacts and knowledge of the qiviut market he has gathered over the past two years will go to Nunavut if the KHTA purchases a mill.

Christine Stanley, a weaver in PEI who has worked with raw qiviut, says it takes an experienced spinner with a delicate touch to use the fibre. “It is also expensive to buy at $40 for four ounces for unspun fibre, which barely is enough to weave a scarf,” she says. “But it is worth every penny.”

Egotak is banking on the hope others will agree. But for now, she has to wait for final approval of the business plan before she can go ahead.

“There have been so many requests, but we’re going to hang on to this idea and try and get it going in Nunavut.”

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