The furry reality of musk oxen

July 9, 2014, 1 p.m.

The Woolly Truth

Musk oxen don't often get praised for their uniqueness. They're commonly compared to bison, though they are actually far smaller and, of course, far furrier. And while their name implies otherwise, they're more closely related to sheep and goats than they are to oxen. Where musk oxen get a chance to stand apart is with their long, shaggy coats, which make it possible for them to weather the freezing winters of the Arctic tundra.

Underneath the long guard hairs of a musk ox coat is a layer of very fine wool. Called qiviut or qiviuq, it is this undercoat that is gathered and used as a fiber for textiles. Qiviut is an Inuktitut word which originally referred to the down feathers of birds, but began to be used for the undercoat of musk oxen for obvious reasons — the fiber is among the world’s softest wools. But more importantly for a creature living where temperatures are well below the freezing point for much of the year, qiviut is stronger than sheep wool and eight times warmer. An important aspect of the fiber for people who gather it to make garments is that it doesn’t shrink in water at any temperature, so it won’t felt by accident. On the other hand, it won’t felt on purpose either. But considering how warm it is, that isn’t such a big detractor. The prized fiber is expensive and a single scarf made from it can cost several hundred dollars.

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Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer and photographer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Google+, and Facebook.