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Icelandic Wool and Lopapeysur

Two farmers herding sheep. The one on the right is wearing a lopapeysa.

If you’ve travelled around Iceland during spring and summer, you’ll no doubt have noticed that sheep can be spotted nearly everywhere in the countryside. While the weather is at its best, they roam mostly free and are often seen alongside roads. Their wool, a product of enduring harsh conditions for centuries, is one of the things that made Iceland livable before modern-day housing and heating came along. In the present day, it might not be the key to survival, but it’s still a big part of the Icelandic culture. A great example of that is the iconic Icelandic lopapeysa, which received protected status in 2020 and is a staple in most locals’ closets.

History of the Icelandic wool

Brought along by the first Viking settlers, the Icelandic sheep have been with the nation for more than 1200 years, providing us with necessary warmth in harsh weather conditions. For the longest time, wool was the only fibre used for textile production in Iceland, a job done by men, women and children alike. These textiles were not solely made for personal use. A coarse wool fabric called vaðmál was, for example, the most common currency used in the period 930 to 1262, and in the 17th and 18th centuries, knitted wool textiles were one of Iceland’s biggest exports. 

Unique properties 

The wool of the Icelandic sheep has been shaped by the country’s challenging conditions. With isolation, cold weather and extreme natural conditions, it developed into a unique combination of inner and outer fibres. The inner layer, called þel, is soft and short with outstanding insulating qualities, while the outer layer, called tog, is coarse, long and water-resistant. This combination is what gives the wool its highly unique natural protection qualities. The yarn made from the wool is called lopi, and in addition to providing excellent shielding from cold weather, rain and snow, it’s also highly durable, lightweight and breathable. 

Lopapeysur and other wool products

The wool market experienced a steep decline in the 90s, after a 20-year period of blooming business, but wool producers are now reporting a significant increase in wool demand. With fashion labels like Varma, Magnea, and Katla producing and selling Icelandic knitwear, you could say that Icelandic wool is back in style. Several companies have also started experimenting with using wool in ways other than traditional knitwear. Among available products are Lopi Draumur wool duvets, Icewear jackets with wool fill, and Kormákur og Skjöldur’s Icelandic tweed clothes

The rising popularity of the traditional Icelandic lopapeysa is also a part of the growth. It’s a hand-knitted sweater made from lopi, with a circular pattern across the chest and upper back called bekkur. The collection of patterns is ever-growing, and although a few have become classics, such as the eight-petalled rose, there are no rules about what should or should not be done. The sweaters are made in all sorts of colours and styles, but the most typical ones are closed in the front and made in natural sheep colours—brown, grey, black, and white.

Three lopapeysur, each with different colours and patterns.
Photo: Golli. Three lopapeysur, each with different colours and patterns.

Although Icelanders have been knitting for centuries, the tradition of knitting what is known as the traditional lopapeysa only started in the mid-20th century. The sweaters have become a hallmark of Icelandic culture, which most locals consider a necessity in one’s wardrobe. During fall, winter, and spring, it keeps you warm and toasty, but it also comes in handy for cool summer days (or nights if you’re chasing the midnight sun). No matter the time of year, a lopapeysa is a great item to have on your travels around Iceland, and due to its popularity with tourists, you can easily find it both in the capital area and the countryside.

What can you tell me about this Icelandic sweater seen on Iceland Review’s website?

This particular sweater belongs to Iceland Review’s German correspondent. Knitted 30 years ago and given to them when they moved to Iceland, it is the product of a knitting kit purchased in Germany. The pattern (18-07) is designed by Gréta Björk Jóhannesdóttir and is still available on Lopi design’s website.

This kind of woollen sweater is called a lopapeysa and is made from unspun wool of Icelandic sheep, called lopi. The Icelandic lopapeysa is knit in the round, so it doesn’t have any seams, and it has a circular patterned border around the shoulders. The yoke patterns range from simple geometric shapes to elaborate patterns such as the one pictured above but patterns around the waist and wrists are optional.

There are several theories about the origin of the patterns. One points to Auður Laxness, the wife of Iceland’s Nobel Laureate in Literature, Halldór Laxness, who knitted lopapeysur inspired by Inca culture. While Auður knitted her fair share of the first lopapeysur created in the 20th century, she wasn’t the only designer.

Another theory points to Greenlandic designs and that Norwegians made knitting patterns based on the Greenlandic nuilarmiut, traditional formal wear with a beaded collar that covers the shoulders and bust, and has brightly patterned geometric designs. These patterns made their way to Iceland via Norway. However, Turkish and Swedish textile designs have also been mentioned as sources and the sweaters are also inspired by knits from the Shetland Islands and the Faroe Islands. The consensus now is that the lopapeysa has a lot of foreign influences and that one originator cannot be pinpointed.

Even though the origin of the yoke pattern cannot be traced, Icelandic influences on what the yoke is made of are clearer. Icelandic flowers, leaves, snowflakes, horses, and traditional handicraft patterns are often used, and many of the early designs are inspired by Icelandic folklore.

Read more on Icelandic wool (subscription required):

Homespun

The Colourful Oddissey of Icelandic Wool Dyeing

Men of the Cloth

Icelandic Wool Export Up 70% in Pandemic

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Icelandic lopi wool export has shot up by 70%, RÚV reports. Lopi is the yarn used to make Icelandic traditional sweaters, or lopapeysur, and is known for being both warm and waterproof. While several European countries have been importing Icelandic wool in larger quantities, it seems that knitters are picking up their needles in Iceland as well.

It’s not surprising that the pastime of knitting has grown in popularity this year, thanks to social restrictions and lockdowns imposed due to the pandemic. Yet an increase of 70% is quite a rise for Iceland’s main wool processer. “We are almost sending out one or two forty-feet containers of hand-knitting yarn per week,” says Sigurður Sævar Gunnarsson, director of Ístex, which processes about 99% of all Icelandic wool.

In order to meet demand, Ístex has hired more workers to cover evening shifts. The company hopes to increase production by 100 tonnes by next year. While Icelanders, Germans, Swedes, and Norwegians have all shown an increased appetite for Icelandic wool and knitting patterns, Finnish knitters have shown a particular enthusiasm.

Sigurður says Ístex has been receiving calls from lopapeysa knitters who can’t find a particular colour when it has been sold out in shops.

Hand-Knitted Icelandic Sweater Receives Protected Status

lopapeysa Icelandic sweater

The term ‘Icelandic sweater’ (Icelandic: íslensk lopapeysa) is now a legally protected product name, having received a Designation of Origin status today from the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority. The Icelandic hand-knitted wool sweater is a traditional Icelandic garment. By receiving a Designation of Origin, the sweater becomes the second product name to receive such legal protection in Icelandic, following in the wake of Icelandic lamb meat.

The Handknitting Association of Iceland (Icelandic: Handprónasamband Íslands) formally applied for the designation of origin with The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority. The application stated that the sweaters are an original design unique to Iceland, which has origins in Icelandic knitting- and pattern traditions from the middle of the 20th century. The craftsmanship in the sweaters when it comes to making them, as well as the patterns, are derived from Icelandic cultural traditions.

Conditions to be met for the designation of ‘Icelandic sweater’

Certain conditions have to be met for sweaters to officially receive the designation of origin connected to the term ‘Icelandic wool sweater’, including that the wool in the sweater comes from Icelandic sheep, as well as having to be handwoven from virgin wool. The main conditions follow:

  1. The wool used to make handcrafted Icelandic sweaters shall be cut from Icelandic sheep.
  2. Only virgin wool shall be used as material for the sweater (wool that has not been recycled).
  3. The sweater shall be knitted from unspun wool, such as unspun plötulopi wool, thinner léttlopi wool, Álafosslopi wool, etc..
  4. The sweater shall have a circular knitted yoke with pattern shapes and/or pattern benches from the shoulder area to the neck.
  5. The sweater shall be handknitted in Iceland.
  6. The sweater shall be knitted in a circle without stitches.
  7. The sweater shall have an open front or be whole.

Designation of origin

In December 2014, the Icelandic parliament enacted the Product Names Protection Act, which allows for the protection of product names on the basis of origin, territory, or traditional uniqueness. Such laws, often manifested as Designation of Origin, are widespread in Europe, where they are often applied to artisanal products such as French cheese and Spanish ham. The first product name to receive such protection in Iceland was “Icelandic lamb,” which was protected last year.

The proposal suggests that increased demand for Icelandic sweaters has led to the widespread production of the traditional design with its decorative collar. “Increased foreign production of ‘lopapeysa’ sweaters made of foreign wool or synthetics also makes it urgent that buyers have the possibility to differentiate between ‘Icelandic sweaters’ and imitations,” states the proposal.