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.