Weaving a new business with qiviut

It's a bright, sunny morning and the Yukon Wildlife Preserve rings with the sound of clicking knitting needles. From within a cabin, a roomful of knitters ogles a herd of muskox. It's their wool they're interested in.

It’s a bright, sunny morning and the Yukon Wildlife Preserve rings with the sound of clicking knitting needles.

From within a cabin, a roomful of knitters ogles a herd of muskox.

It’s their wool they’re interested in.

There’s an urban legend among knitters that the Arctic harbours some of the best wool in the world.

Knitters make modern-day pilgrimages north just to get a chance to see muskox and work with their wool, known as qiviut.

There’s good reason why qiviut has reached legendary status among knitters.

It’s seven times warmer than your average ball of yarn and it’s softer than cashmere. It’s also stronger.

With this in mind, a Whitehorse knitting shop and local tour operator have joined together to offer weekend getaway packages for knitters.

They’re banking there’s enough knitters out there who are willing to jet north for a weekend to hang out with muskox and tour the Yukon.

Laura Williams, who owns Ewe Asked for It knit shop in Edmonton is one of those people.

She’s one of 11 knitters who flew to Whitehorse to see muskox at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve and create handwarmers from qiviut.

“It’s awesome, the animals are pretty big actually,” said Williams looking away from her knitting needles to the small group of muskox lounging in the sun.

Outside, the animals were oblivious to the women sizing up their fur.

The qiviut is hidden under the muskox’s coarse, shaggy outer coat. Underneath is the soft, light brown undercoat which protects the animal from cold, arctic temperatures.

“Qiviut is a knitting legend,” said workshop instructor Wendy Chambers who had a silver muskox pendant dangling between her collarbones.

Chambers used to operate tours through the Arctic with tourists from all over the world who wanted to collect qiviut from the tundra.

“People look for it because it’s a good product,” she said.

And they’re willing to pay for it.

A ball of qiviut wool at a store can cost about $75.

The Yukon has only about 100 muskox; most of them wandered in from Alaska. That’s compared to thousands of muskox that roam the Northwest Territories.

But that doesn’t stop people from coming to the Yukon and asking for it anyway.

During the tourist season, Marney Mitchell, owner of Knit Now, gets lots of people in her store looking for the specialty wool.

She realized last year there was an opportunity to organize tours to the Yukon for people interested in learning about qiviut.

Mitchell decided she would spring the idea on her long-time friend Spence Hill, who co-owns Tom’s Touring Company.

One Saturday morning while the two friends were walking their dogs, Mitchell asked Hill, “What do you think about driving a bunch of knitters around?”

And that was all Hill needed to hear before she was sold on the idea.

“To package something with people’s particular interests in mind is a win-win situation,” said Hill.

Tom’s Touring already does small day tours for visitors to the Yukon. It wasn’t too much of a stretch for the company to plan a weekend knitting tour, she said.

For just under $1,000, knitters get a return flight from Vancouver or Edmonton, hotel accommodations, meals and a qiviut workshop and knitting package. When they’re not knitting, they’re given a tour of Whitehorse and the Yukon Wildlife Preserve and soak in the Takhini Hot Springs.

Some of the women in the workshop even brought their husbands, said Hill.

The men were taken on a tour of Carcross while their wives were knitting handwarmers at the wildlife preserve.

The tour package went over better than Hill and Mitchell had expected.

“We were nervous at first and thought only six people would come,” said Hill.

“But when we contacted knitting shops in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver they were so enthusiastic about the idea. We’re happy with the amount of people that have come up.”

Even knitters from Whitehorse turned up for the weekend.

“I’ve always been interested in working with qiviut but haven’t had a chance to yet,” said Debbie Mauch who started knitting when she was in her late teens.

Her sister from Calgary was also interested in the workshop and Mauch took it as an opportunity to sign both of them up.

With the success of their first tour, Mitchell and Hill are planning to organize more knitting tours during the fall and spring.

From a touring company point of view, the biggest challenge is getting people up here, said Hill.

And qiviut does that.

“The idea is that you give them a taste of the Yukon and they’ll want come back in the summer.”

Contact Vivian Belik at