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.

Record Sales of Icelandic Yarn in 2021

wool yarn

Sales of knitting yarn grew by 50% last year at Ístex, the company that processes about 99% of all Icelandic wool. Ístex is considering introducing night shifts at their factory to increase production. The company’s CEO hopes to invest more in the company in order to reach bigger markets in Asia, the United States, and Russia.

The year 2021 was a record year for Ístex both in revenue and profit, Viðskiptablaðið reports. The company’s revenue grew by 44% between years, to ISK 1.2 billion [$9.7 million, €8.5 million] last year. The company made a profit of ISK 93.4 million [$751,000, €661,000] last year, especially impressive compared to the year 2020, when Ístex reported losses of ISK 67.5 million [$543,000, €477,000]. In 2021, the company saw a 50% rise in sales of lopi knitting yarn.

Read More: Icelandic Wool Export Up 70% in Pandemic

Ístex CEO Sigurður Sævar Gunnarsson says last year’s sales of knitting yarn are likely a historical record for Iceland. More people have taken up their knitting needles in the pandemic, which has led to increased sales both in Iceland and abroad. “We expect continued demand despite the fact that the effects of the COVID pandemic are decreasing. In this light we can mention that after the banking collapse of 2008 there was a big increase in hand knitting, especially in Iceland, that really never decreased.”

Ístex has introduced evening shifts to its factory, but is still not managing to meet demand. The company is now considering introducing night shifts as well. Sigurður would like to see increased investment in the company so that it can pursue larger markets. “There are certain opportunities fr us now and we have to fish for them. There are certain markets where we haven’t been able to gain ground.” He particularly mentions the United States and Asia, though Russia is another market that is likely to grow quickly.

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

As a US citizen, can I bring my guns and cars over?

While the most difficult part of bringing a car over from the states is shipping, importing guns is more complicated. Icelandic legislation requires gun owners to hold a firearms permit, unless the weapon has been permanently deactivated by a gunsmith.
To own a gun in Iceland, you must be at least 20 years old with no criminal record. You must pass a mental and physical health check and get recommendations from two people to attend a course on guns, gun safety, and gun and hunting laws. After passing a written test, you’re issued a permit for smaller shotguns and rifles. For larger rifles (up to 30 calibres) and semi-automatic shotguns, you must wait an additional year.
It’s prohibitedto import automatic or semi-automatic handguns to Iceland; automatic or semi-automatic rifles; automatic shotguns; and semi-automatic or manually loaded multi-cartridge shotguns with chambers for more than two cartridges, unless the weapon has been modified to comply with these conditions. Importing firearms without a manufacturer’s serial number is prohibited, but this condition can be waived when a firearm has a collectible value. Collector permits can be issued for the possession of collectible firearms with historical value.
As for cars, all imported vehicles must be cleared through customs and examined in an accredited inspection facility, and finally registered with the Icelandic Transport Authority.

You may also find the more recent Ask Iceland Review on importing guns to Iceland to be useful!

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.

Ýrúrarí Takes Tongue-in-Cheek Approach to Face Masks

Textile artist Ýr Jóhannsdóttir, who designs under the name Ýrúrarí, is making headlines for her playful and unorthodox face masks in the time of COVID-19. The artist and her “trippy” 3D knitwear masks were recently featured in Vogue.

Twenty-seven-year-old Ýr, who learned how to knit as a child in school, began to pursue her craft in earnest at Scotland’s Glasgow School of Art. She’s built a strong following on Instagram, largely through repurposing second-hand sweaters that she then knits eye-catching—or perhaps better said, mouth-watering—decorations onto.

Ýrúrarí, Facebook

See Also: Breaking the Pattern: Tongues are wagging over Ýr Jóhannsdóttir’s mouthy sweaters

Ýr favours tongues and mouths in her sweater décor, so it seems only natural that she’d leap to lippy, tongue-dangling knit masks. “…[I] love knitting with my hands,” she told Vogue, “and I always go back to strange faces.” She gravitates to tongues and teeth she said, “Maybe because they are kind of rude, sticky, and strange.”

There is no government requirement to wear masks in Iceland as a COVID-19 precaution, and Ýr emphasizes that her creations are strictly art pieces, and “not made for safety.” It took her two days to make her first mask, noted Vogue—or rather, a “mouth plug” featuring a long, stuck-out tongue that could be used as a “cheeky add-on to a regular mask.”

Ýrúrarí, Facebook

Ýr’s approach is certainly tongue-in-cheek: “Idea for a knitted add on to your face masks,” she wrote in her first mask-related Facebook post. “[M]ight also encourage people to stay away from you…”

Request Protected Status for Hand-Knitted Icelandic Sweaters

lopapeysa Icelandic sweater

A group of Icelandic sweater producers hopes to legally protect the product name “Icelandic sweater” (Icelandic: íslensk lopapeysa). The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority has received a request from a group of traditional lopapeysa manufacturers to protect the term with a designation of origin. This means that sweaters with the traditional decorative pattern could only be labelled “Icelandic sweater” if they are knitted by hand in Iceland using Icelandic wool.

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 suggest that an increased demand for Icelandic sweaters has led to 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. Any opponents of the proposal are invited to submit comments by email via [email protected] by June 29, 2019.

Icelandic Sweater Patterns Sell Like Hotcakes

Online sales of knitting patterns for traditional Icelandic sweaters are growing by about 25% per year RÚV reports. The traditional Icelandic sweater, known as a lopapeysa, is a popular souvenir for tourists visiting Iceland. Now more and more of its fans are opting to knit their own.

Lopapeysur (the plural of lopapeysa) are made of unspun Icelandic wool and are characterised by a yoke design – a wide, decorative pattern around the neck opening. The design originated in the early or mid 20th century and has since become a symbol of Icelandic national identity. “Icelandic wool forgives everything, you don’t even have to be good at knitting, it hides all mistakes,” says lopapeysa designer Védís Jónsdóttir.

Nearly one quarter of lopapeysa patterns sold online go to the US market, though they are also popular in Germany and the Nordic countries. Ístex in Mossfellsbær, Southwest Iceland, buys 99% of all Icelandic wool, or about 1,000 tonnes per year. Sales of the product have increased by 120% over the last 10 years. “Right after the crash there was a sharp increase in wool sales,” says Sigurður Sævar Gunnarsson, Ístex’s CEO. “This increase continued until 2014, 2015, when the currency started to drop. But there is still considerable growth in certain areas like the Nordic countries, in Germany, and in the United States.”

Védís says there are many reasons for the sweaters’ continued growth in popularity. “It’s a very flattering shape and it’s very fun to knit them because they are seamless,” she states, adding that consumers’ growing desire for natural, sustainable materials is also contributing to the lopapeysa pattern sales. “This is a natural material. It isn’t plastic.”