It takes a firm grip to rake a muskox’s soft undercoat out from beneath the coarse hairs of a dried hide. The fluffy, mouse-brown tuffs that comb loose protect the burly northern mammal from the elements. In your hand, the raw wool looks like a loose ball of cotton, but feels like cashmere. When spun, qiviut yields one of the warmest materials to come out of the North. “Even just handling it makes you sweat,” says Helen Iguptak, who is teaching a group of artists and Iqaluit community members how to pull and work the down into yarn.
While she is acclaimed for her crafting of Inuit dolls, the Rankin Inlet artist says she is a novice at spinning qiviut because muskox mostly live in the western Arctic. “I only know the basics of spinning,” she says, trying to recall the artisan who had taught her a few years back, during a trip to Inuvik. Still, for this week she’s leading three workshops on qiviut spinning, as part of the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association’s annual festival. “I’m learning as I go, it’s all coming back to me,” she tells her students—and learn as you go is the cornerstone of the day’s lesson, because Iguptak also teaches as she goes.
She knew a hunter who once fell through the ice but never got wet feet because he was wearing long socks made from qiviut. But you don’t have to spin the wool to use it. “You can take a little piece of it and put it in your mitt and it will keep your hands warm. You can even put it inside your socks,” she says.
After pulling qiviut from a hide, the students learn to run the wool through a round wooden carder. That’s a bristled wheel that pulls all the fibres in the same direction—working the way two brushes would when scraped together. The same is done for sheep’s wool. The carding machine works faster, and is easier on the wrists, says Iguptak.
Joanna Taptuna, from Kugluktuk, tries her hand at it, gingerly pulling the brushed fibres out of the carder with a spiked tool to avoid picking her fingers. Across the table, Mary Qingnatuq, a tapestry maker from Gjoa Haven, laughs as the spinner speeds out of her control. Monica Ittusardjuat, an Inuktitut language specialist, pulls stray coarse hairs from a handful of qiviut. Annie Petaulassie keeps the conversation going, while a teen, Siku Rojas, helps her use the spinner to make yarn the way she’s just watched the elder artist do.
Iguptak starts off by winding a short piece of thread into the spinner's mechanism to create a starting point for the first qiviut fibres to catch hold of. She starts the spinner with a foot pedal, and adjusts the speed knob. She’s got plans to teach a group of middle schoolers in Rankin how to use a traditional treadle, with no electronics. A retired teacher, Iguptak has a knack for running her own project, while keeping an eye on the progress of each student around the table. She moves about the room, watching and helping and answering questions.
The artists are quick to pick up on her lessons, even in this unfamiliar medium. But that doesn’t mean making qiviut is easy. Much of what’s spun today comes out lumpy and uneven, as the first-time spinners struggle to keep an even pace, not to pull their stands too tight, or feed too much wool into the machine. It’s clear that spinning enough for socks or mitts would take ages. But everyone has to start somewhere, and there’s no rushing when you’re working with material as fine as muskox.
“This is gold to Nunavut,” Iguptak says.