Our second full day camping at Elk Island was the one day we went out on some excursions in Edmonton. (It’s also the day we began by shearing the awning off the RV, but that’s another story, which I don’t intend to relive ever again.) We visited my friend Kelly, met her husband and held her baby, and we both forgot to take any pictures. ARGH! Oh well. Her hubby played Minecraft with our kids, and my dog played with her dog. It was pure loveliness!
Before we went up to Kelly’s, our first stop that day was an appointment at Qiviut Inc., just south of Edmonton. I had run across this small company one day while googling. Qiviut yarn companies based in Canada usually have to send their fiber overseas to be spun; I mostly hear about companies like Nunavut Qiviut sending their fiber to Peru. So when I heard that there was an Inuit-owned-and-operated qiviut mill just outside of Edmonton, I had to find out more. I scheduled a tour, and the whole family ended up going.
Tanis is a proud and talented Inuk from NWT, and she’s been running this business for about three years now. She welcomed our occasionally zany family and walked us through the entire process of making their yarn, from harvesting fiber to finished products. You enter the mill through this lovely little boutique.
You guys, I entered this tour fully expecting to see a dehairing machine. Dehairing is, for me, the most labor intensive part of prepping qiviut, and a dehairing machine is a large piece of equipment that spins the fiber to remove the guard hairs. But you guys? They do this entire operation with no dehairing machine. They start with stretched and dried skins harvested in Tanis’s home region in NWT, remove the qiviut with a fork just like Alide and I do, and then pick out any remaining guard hairs by hand. By hand. A dehairing machine, it turns out, costs about $25,000, and their business is not yet at the point to invest in one. If that’s their goal, I sure hope they can one day!
Our next stop was at the carding machine. It’s recognizable as a scaled-up version of what I might do at home on a drum-carder, and a scaled-down version of what you might see at a larger mill. The raw, dehaired fiber has to pass through this machine multiple times. The blend you see above is for their sock yarn; it’s a mix of qiviut, superwash merino, silk, and nylon. You can still see the different fibers above. This particular mix has to go through the carder seven times, and it takes forty-five minutes for a full belt to go through. You can do the math.
All of the green machines you will see were purchased from a mill in Alaska that was closing, and their former staff taught Tanis how to use them. They are older and require cleaning and maintenance, but they are built to last and specialized for this job.
On the other side of the carder, Robbie stands with a pair of tweezers, swiftly picking out any guard hairs that made it through. The wide batt feeds through what is essentially a big diz. The result is an incredibly well-blended, even roving, more smooth and ready to spin than anything I have ever achieved!
This roving then went into this noisy contraption, the pin-drafter. It was really cool. It takes the rovings out of the machines and gets them ready to spin. Below you can see inside the machine, where a couple of the several combs inside are visible. They each slot down and pull forward on the rovings a little bit, doing a very even mechanical version of what I do when I pre-draft my fiber. It goes fast.
This is what comes out on the other side, even and ready to put into the spinning machine.
This compact machine is where the actual spinning happens. The pin-drafted roving goes over the bar, through a hole just the right size, and is spun into yarn on the way to the bobbins down below. This is still very hands-on, with Tanis stopping the machine to pull out neps and guard hairs. The same machine is also used for plying.
There was more that I didn’t photograph: the skeining machine, which can be mechanically run, but which they turn by hand to do a final check for imperfections. They have a splicer, which is a super cool little device that does your spit-splicing for you. They strive for no knots, since this is a highest-end luxury product! They dye the yarn themselves at their dyeing station, with names all inspired by their culture and the land. They also have a knitting machine which they use to create finished products.
All in all, I was staggered by the amount of labor Tanis and her team put into making really excellent fiber and yarn. Machines are the tools of choice, but this yarn is made 100% by hand, with hard-won skills and labor. I took home four ounces of the Fingram sock blend (above), which should make a great contrast in my study of spinning for and knitting socks.
Of course, I forgot to take some pictures of the actual yarn, but you should click on over to their website and look for yourself. And if you find yourself in the Edmonton area, it’s definitely worth going out of your way to learn about what they are up to.
Thank you Tanis for your time and graciousness in sharing your story and your operation with us! We wish you all the best on your venture!