FROM a gentle Arctic beast has come one of Alaska's success stories. Beneath the long, coarse outer hair of the musk ox, or oomingmak, as the Eskimos call it, comes a wool softer and rarer than angora or cashmere. This ash-brown fleece is called qiviut - which neither shrinks nor sheds - and is worth about $600 a pound when spun. In the early part of the century, the musk ox was hunted to near extinction. But the vision of one man, the late John Teal, an anthropologist, changed the fate of the musk ox and helped found a cottage industry for Alaska's native peoples.
In order to begin a breeding station, 33 calves were captured in 1964 from Nunivak Island (off the Alaskan coast), under the direction of the Institute of Northern Agricultural Research, when it was headed by Mr. Teal. Ten years earlier, Teal had established and studied a small herd of wild musk oxen on his Vermont farm. The animals were intelligent, playful, and easily domesticated.
The Musk Ox Project had begun. In addition to breeding the animals for their fine ``underwool,'' Teal had a dream of creating a self-supporting co-operative for the Eskimos of Alaska.
Teal, who died in 1982, was ``a very idealistic, dynamic person,'' says Sigrun Robertson, manager of Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers Co-operative. ``With this type of project, it's usually little funds and lots of enthusiasm. John was certainly the driving force behind this.''
With a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, breeding and husbandry of the musk ox have been made possible for a nonprofit group called the Musk Development Corporation. The organization owns and operates the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, a city about 50 miles north of Anchorage.
Each spring, from April to June, these bison-like animals shed their precious qiviut - an adult shedding an average of three to six pounds a year. Compare that with the angora goat's annual three ounces of pashm. Unlike sheep's wool, qiviut is pure, clean, and low in lanolin. No shearing is required - the handlers just remove the fleecy puffs by hand. Because qiviut is so fine and light, one pound can be spun into a 40-strand yard that is almost 25 miles in length.
The fleece is shipped to Rhode Island to be spun by the Forte Cashmere Company and then sent back to the co-op, which sends the yarn out to its 150 to 200 knitters, who live in various remote villages in the tundra of western Alaska. Each pays two dollars to join the co-operative and be trained in knitting this ultra-fine wool.
Each village group has a different lacy pattern, based on traditional Eskimo designs, seven in all. For example, the island of Mekoryuk uses a harpoon motif, styled from an ancient ivory harpoon head. Another hamlet, Marshall, bases its design on a grass basket, and Unalakleet, on a wolverine mask.
Knitting is not an indigenous craft of the Eskimos, but the co-op knitters seem to enjoy their work and the extra money they make in their spare time. They are paid for each item knitted.
``This is supplementary income,'' says Mrs. Robertson, ``not a high-impact thing. John Teal's whole plan was that this would add income to the Eskimos, so they would not have to change their traditional way of life.''
As for its popularity, Robertson says that the knitters want to knit more yarn than is presently available.
Because of the very limited amount of material, the co-op basically produces 60 percent of its products for its own retail store in Anchorage. The remaining 40 percent is for smaller wholesale outlets and specialty shops, with very little surplus.
Major department stores have expressed interest, but ``when they hear about how small our inventory is, they wouldn't touch us with a 10-foot pole,'' says Robertson. ``This is really much more a form of art rather than factory-type work.''
And the handknits are, indeed, beautiful. The most popular item is the nachaq, also known as a ``smoke ring.'' With its ashy-brown natural color and lightness, it resembles a lacy Spanish mantilla, that is worn like a cowl. The items range in price from $60 for a baby's hat (earflaps and all), to $350 for a tunic. Other products available are shawls, scarves, and hats - from berets to cloches.
By definition, handmade items are unique, and this sentiment is very much apparent even in the order form. It states, for example - on a rare pattern - that delayed deliveries are to be expected, and that sizes vary according to individual knitters! Qiviut also passes the ``cashmere test'': a four-foot-long shawl can pass through a wedding ring with ease.
There are approximately 100 of the qiviut-producing musk oxen on the farm in Palmer. The name ``musk ox'' is really a misnomer, revealing the confusion of early scientific observers. The musk ox doesn't produce musk, nor is it related to the ox at all. It does resemble the bison, but is more closely related to the goat family than to cattle.
Eskimo ancestors may have hit on a more appropriate name for these woolly creatures - the word oomingmak means ``the bearded one.''
Nomenclature aside, those who have worked with the animals come back charmed. ``They are perfectly delightful animals,'' says Dolly Connolly, a photographer who worked closely with Teal on the Musk Ox Project in the early years. ``They don't have an evil part in their natures.''
When asked if the co-operative is a success, Robertson answers that it is. She believes they've met Teal's goal of becoming a self-supporting enterprise.
``The animal breeding and raising are the trickier side of the operation, but I think we've got the kinks out of it.'' She feels the production end is going quite well. ``But we can always do better.''
For more information, contact Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers' Co-operative, 604 H Street, Anchorage, AK 99501. Tel. (907) 272-9225.