Fiber Fest brings knitters, spinners and fiber enthusiasts together
The “golden fleece” left behind by shedding musk oxen around Nome is a prized commodity that has sparked the interest of knitters in Nome for its exquisit softness and warmth. But how does one go about turning the raw ‘qiviut’ found on the tundra into usable yarn? Kirsten Bey, owner of Qiviut Fever and the yarn store Sew Far North, helped inquiring minds and brought Kate Wattum of Coyote Trail Farm and Fiber Mill from Fairbanks to Nome for the third annual Fiber Festival held in Nome’s XYZ Center on August 24 and 25.
Wattum came with loads of fleece, fibers, yarns and specialty products that she processes in her small fiber mill in Fairbanks. Her mill, she explained, is a mini-mill that she had for two years now. She processes small batches of sheep, qiviut, alpaca, lama, goat, even dog and cat, and reindeer fleece.
Upon entering the Fiber Fest Wattum’s father greeted guests by handing them a supersoft brownish hat and asked, “What do you think this is?” Every self-respecting fiber-knowing Nomeite responded non-chalantly, “Well, of course this is very fine qiviut!” The answer was: No, it’s reindeer.
“I went out to the large animal research station and they let me try out a batch with a bag of theirs. We were just doing some testing and then we came up with the percentages of what we were able to get and then I got a larger batch from another reindeer ranch in Fairbanks and it was just, it was really successful. It was a lot of work, but it was really successful.”
Wattum said that 80 percent of reindeer fiber is the long hollow hair, but about 20 percent is the fine, downy undercoat that is then processed into yarn. But how is the fleece cleaned and the hairs separated? “I have what’s called a fiber separator and it's a pretty large conveyor belt machine that has two different speeds on it and the fiber is run very slowly over these machines and it agitates and separates the fiber out into chambers. Vegetation and the dirt that’s leftover and the long heavy hairs will fall out of the machines. So with reindeer, we have to send it through the machines four, five, six times to get all of that long fiber out.”
The surprise of the new fiber was shared by organizer Kirsten Bey.
“I don't think there’s anybody here in town who had any idea that there is some kind of fiber in a reindeer hide that can be spun,” she said.
Bey explained that this is the third Fiber Fest that she organized. The first featured Vivienne Osborne, who also had a qiviut fiber mill in North Pole.Last year’s fest featured presentations on dying fibers with natural plants. “This year we decided instead to just have fun and learn some new things,” Bey said. The different activities offered were loom work, sock machine knitting, weaving, spinning, round loom hat knitting, crocheting and spinning yarn on different styles of spinning wheels.
Asked if the speciality knitting of precious fiber such as qiviut could become a viable little nice industry for Nome, Bey said that it would be hard to turn it into some kind of profitiable, big business. However, she said, it brings in a little spending money on the side and “covers your knitting addiction.”
How about well-heeled tourists who arrive on the exclusive cruise ships? Bey said that in her experience, the tourists are surprised about the steep price tags attached to handmade qiviut items. “Qiviut is such a unique item,” Bey said. “Most people don’t know about it.And so when they look at something made out a qiviut, they say ‘What? I’m not going to pay $250 for some little knitted scarf.’ It’s hard to give them all of the information right then and there. You have to educate them first, you know, so that they understand the uniqueness and the value of the qiviut fiber.”
Wattum specializes in small batches for individuals or small farms that send smaller amounts of fleece to her mill than a commercial mill would take. “I'm the only fiber mill in Alaska that does work for other people,” she said. “There is another mill. They buy fiber and process and have their own marketing plan. My marketing plan is I want to process the fiber for you to have and then you can sell it,” Wattum said.
Back to the reindeer. She said she was excited about the discovery that it actually works. She said the reindeer shed their fleece like a ‘sausage,’ but it’s still very labor intensive.
“Well, yeah, I am excited. It’s like something that hasn't been done and it hasn’t been tried and they haven't tried it because quite frankly it’s pretty ridiculous. I mean it’s just a huge quantity of long hair that you have to deal with, but it’s fun enough and it's unique enough and it is a luxury item enough that it’s worth it for the small batch here and there that somebody can have these nice exotic one of a lifetime, one of a kind presents.”
She said her mill can take some of this and some of that. “Let's have a good time and play and everybody has something fun,” she said.
Another specialty item she processes is dog hair, running it through her cleaning devices and then mixing it with merino or other fibers. That way, she said, mushers with sled dogs — when they brush out their dogs and save the hair — can have their own ‘team wool’ for projects.
She said that most of the small batches of reindeer yarn she produces are also used to be sold at fundraisers to raise money for special purposes.
More information on her mill can be found at www.coyotetrailfarmandfibermill.com