Arctic Wool: A Connecting Thread


It all began with a small piece of soft brown wool entangled in the delicate branches of a dwarf birch. I was a new Master's student starting my fieldwork, spending days crouched over the tundra in Nunavik, Northern Québec.


By Rachel Guindon, Master’s Student, Université Laval


While my task was to identify plant species every ten centimetres along a transect, I consistently discovered fine wool fragments in the subarctic vegetation. This would become an additional connection to the subject of my study, the mighty umingmaq, or muskox in English.

This large Arctic herbivore was introduced to Nunavik in late 1960s as part of a farming project near Kuujjuaq at Old Chimo. When the farm closed, authorities gradually released 55 animals into the wild between 1973 and 1983. Over a few decades, the species colonized the Ungava Bay coast, becoming a thriving population of 4,500 individuals. Inuit communities voiced concerns about the effects of this new and increasing muskox population, especially as caribou, a central species in Inuit culture, was experiencing a steady decline over the years. My study aimed to investigate whether muskox presence was changing plant communities on the Ungava Bay coast, leading to weeks spent meticulously examining plant plots.

The wool I found was named qiviut, the fine underwool shed by muskox every spring. It is considered one of the most precious natural fibers in the world due to its exceptional softness, warmth, and lightweight properties. A single muskox hide can yield approximately two kilos of qiviut. While qiviut is not very well known in Nunavik, its significance and value are recognized in other Arctic regions where muskoxen are prevalent.

My vegetation data collected, I left Nunavik with pockets full of the warm and soft fiber, uncertain how to use it. My journey led me to a year-long internship at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway. Little did I know that this was where I would encounter the right people to guide me in utilizing this precious resource! The friends I made were fellow biologists but also knowledgeable fiber artists who introduced me to the fascinating world of spinning wool and knitting. Studying abroad offered me a fantastic opportunity to establish valuable connections and friendships, and to acquire new skills and perspectives.

Upon returning to Nunavik for additional fieldwork, I wore my knitted neckwarmer made of handspun qiviut. The garment generated a great deal of interest among Inuit women who asked me to return, this time to teach qiviut spinning to the community as they wanted to benefit from this newly available resource. That unexpected request transformed into a rich collaboration with Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, the school board of Nunavik. Indeed, I was asked to set up workshops on qiviut through an Inuit culture program for adult education that would travel across the fourteen communities of Nunavik.

During these workshops, I share information and techniques on every step of qiviut spinning: collecting, washing, spinning, and even dyeing techniques. Local women enthusiastically participate in these gatherings. The workshops quickly evolved into spaces for open dialogue and mutual sharing where Elders and kids would often join. Discussions not only revolve around fiber knowledge but also delve into ecological insights and behavioral observations of this new hairy animal in their land. Before long, we also shared laughter as we sat together in a circle for hours, combing through a dried muskox winter hide, using a dog brush to gather the wool. I also teach how to use qiviut as insulation layer in parkas, similar to eider down parkas Inuit women are already sewing. Being expert seamstresses and crafters, they often share and adapt ideas on qiviut use for their community. Those moments are opportunities to discuss a variety of topics such as climate change effects in the Arctic, traditional plant uses, or muskox history in Nunavik. While I teach the workshops in English, the participants often speak Inuktitut, allowing me to listen, learn, and immerse myself in the melodic tone of the language.

I have had the privilege of visiting seven communities so far: Kuujjuaq, Tasiujaq, Umiujaq, Kangiqsujuaq, Quaqtaq, Kuujjuarapik, and Kangiqsuallujjuaq. Each workshop not only enhances my skills as a scientist of northern ecosystems but also enriches my vision and my connection to this territory and to the communities living on it. I am always deeply inspired by Inuit women's profound knowledge of the land and wildlife as well as their remarkable crafting skills. They have been generous and welcoming mentors to me, and I am confident that they will become Nunavik’s guardians of the qiviut and muskox knowledge. What began with a small piece of wool found in the tundra has evolved into a unique collaborative initiative, connecting the North and the South, connecting researcher and communities, and, most importantly, connecting women for a sustainable future.