What is so fascinating about Iceland? An island nation at the edge of the Arctic Circle, Iceland is known for its long, dark winters, active volcanoes, thermal baths, and warm, colorwork sweaters. At once forbidding and romantic, it’s easy to imagine elves residing within the dramatic rockscapes and ancient vikings breaching its craggy shores.
Perhaps we feel an affinity for Iceland because we’re also residents of a northern island—surrounded by deep, frigid waters and volcanic mountains (though ours are thankfully much quieter). We, too, were settled by Nordic peoples (though significantly later) searching for new lands and seeking to engage in the thriving logging and fishing industries of the Pacific Northwest. But, naturally, what draws us most is the rich tradition of Icelandic textiles and knitting—the sheep, the yarn, those glorious yoked sweaters! We cannot get enough.
Icelandic wool, or lopi, continues to gain traction in our fiber community. It has a rustic, natural look and a satisfying hardiness—and reminds us of those thick, woolen sweaters our mothers and grandmothers bundled us into to go out and play in the snow. A little scratchy, but perfectly warm and endlessly durable.
What makes lopi so special is the Icelandic sheep itself. Raised on the island nation in isolation for thousands of years, the sheep have one of the world’s purest bloodlines. Just as the Icelandic language is the closest of all Nordic languages to Old Norse, Icelandic sheep are quite close to the Northern European sheep that were brought to the island by its first settlers.
Hardy and self-sufficient (rather like the Icelanders themselves) the sheep spend the summers freely roaming the tundras and craggy mountains of Iceland. In these months, sheep in Iceland can outnumber humans three to one! At the end of the summer, herders (and many volunteers) set off on horseback, accompanied by sheepdogs, to gather up the wandering herds and bring them back in for the autumn shearing. They’re then kept stabled for the long, dark winter months ahead.
Icelanders rely on sheep for many things. Mutton, horn, bone, hide, milk—everything is made use of and nothing is wasted. Of course, of particular interest is the Icelandic sheep’s peculiar double coat. Short, soft hairs comprise a fine inner coat called the þel (pronounced ‘thel’), while long, coarse hairs make up the protective, water-resistant outer coat called the tog. The tog holds all the fibers together—which means it can create a knitable strand without being spun.
Ístex sources its wool directly from the Icelandic farmers. It’s then scoured in the small, northern town of Blönduós and made into wheels (or plates, hence the name plӧtulopi, plötu = plate, lopi = wool) in Mosfellsbær, near Reykjavík—where a mill has been in operation since 1896. It’s the country’s only industrial spinning mill—co-owned by a cooperative comprised of 1,800 sheep farmers.
Which leads to the beautiful lopapeysa—the gorgeous yoked sweaters knit from lopi. Lopapeysa literally translates to wool sweater (lopa = wool, peysa = sweater) and is perhaps one of the most visual symbols of Icelandic national identity.
Knitting reached Iceland as early as the 1600s, but the iconic lopapeysa is actually a much more recent development. Iceland became an independent nation in 1944, when it threw off the yoke of Danish rule. As imported garments became increasingly popular, Icelanders endeavored to create something uniquely Icelandic. Borrowing from traditional knitting and imported embroidery patterns, the lopapeysa was born!
The Freyja Cardigan (named for the Norse goddess of love, beauty, and fertility, many times used as a poetic symbol of Iceland) is a stellar example of the Icelandic yoked sweater. It uses an eight-petaled rose motif, which was pulled from the Sjónabók—a compendium of Icelandic textile patterns found in arts and handcrafts throughout Iceland’s history.
Though the knitting traditions are our favorite things about Iceland, we couldn’t help but be drawn into the delectable taste of the Traditional Icelandic Chocolate from Nói Síríus. Nói Síríus, a family-owned chocolate and confection manufacturer founded in the 1920s, uses an old Nordic recipe for chocolate that’s incredibly smooth and silky. As Iceland’s oldest chocolate factory, they estimate their delicious confections have climbed each mountaintop in Iceland! Perhaps the Cascades and Olympics are next…
Speaking of volcanic mountain ranges, Iceland is well known for the volcanic activity that shakes its shores. The island rests on a geological hot spot (sometimes theorized about as the ‘Iceland plume’) on the divergent boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. In the midst of all the resulting earth-shaking, the Icelandic people have learned to make the most of their island’s unique geology. Geothermal energy is a large part of Icelandic culture. It’s used to heat everything from homes to streets—to public baths and pools. Thermal baths are an essential part of the Icelandic social life—they’re as regularly attended as cafés or pubs.
Even volcanic ash—a natural cleanser—and herbs growing among the geothermal lava fields are made use of. This is evidence of the distinct knack that Icelanders have to look for the silver lining in all things.
Alda Sigmundsdóttir, author of The Little Book of the Icelanders, writes, “Even though they live on the edge of the inhabitable world with engulfing darkness for several months of the year, the Icelanders measure as being among the most optimistic folks in the world.”
Maybe rather than the Nordic heritage, the chocolate—maybe even than the wool!—the sturdy optimism and cheerful practicality of the Icelandic people is what appeals to us most. It encourages us to let go of our worries and go for it (whatever ‘it’ is) or, as the Icelanders say,
‘Bara að slá Þessu upp í kæruleysi.’