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.

Iceland News Review: Music in the Countryside, Saving Our Sheep

INR

In this episode of Iceland News Review, a very special music festival is coming your way, more Palestinians with Icelandic residence permits have been rescued from Gaza, possibly the largest police sting operation in Icelandic history, how we may save our sheep from scrapie, and much more.

Iceland News Review brings you all of Iceland’s top stories, every week, with the context and background you need. Be sure to like, follow and subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode!

Have all the sheep been rescued from Grindavík?

Sheep in Iceland
After it became clear that about 250 sheep were confined in Grindavík after the eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula began on Sunday, January 14, many people were concerned for the animals. On Tuesday, January 16, following two days without water and feed, all of the sheep were moved out of the town and are in safety now.

No immediate permit to rescue the animals

About 250 sheep were left behind when the eruption started. After the first evacuation of Grindavík in November following a series of earthquakes, all remaining animals were moved out of town. 

The fact that some livestock owners decided to return their animals to Grindavík in December caused public criticism, also from the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority MAST. For some farmers, finding new shelter for their animals has been difficult. Sigrún Eggertsdóttir told the news outlet Vísir that she only found a temporary solution for her 30 sheep and did not have a choice but to bring the animals back to the town.

Initially, the animals left behind in a rushed evacuation just hours before the eruption were not designated a priority by officials. The Icelandic Animal Welfare Organisation started a campaign on social media, raising alarm after seeing that expensive machinery was moved out of Grindavík, but no permit for rescuing the sheep was issued. On January 16, officials finally allowed the livestock owners to enter the town and evacuate their sheep from the site of danger.

Siglunes Sheep’s Solo Journey Ends with Surprise Lamb

Sheep

A sheep from Siglunes in North Iceland evaded herders and later navigated a perilous ten-kilometre journey home. Initially presumed sterile, she surprised her owners by returning with a lamb, RÚV reports.

A pleasant surprise

Snjólaug, a sheep from Siglunes in North Iceland, found herself amidst a flock when herders approached in October. Disinterested in accompanying them home, she fled – which was what she had also done during an earlier roundup in September.

When Snjólaug decided the time was right, she embarked on her solitary journey home. The path, highlighted in a below graphic from RÚV, spans approximately ten kilometres and is known for its steep and often treacherous terrain.

Map of Siglunes
Screenshot from RÚV

Despite the risks, Snjólaug safely reached the sheepfold.

Adding to the astonishment was Snjólaug’s unexpected companion; previously thought to be sterile, her owners were pleasantly surprised to discover that she had returned with a lamb. Although exhausted from the trek, the lamb, named Hrafnheiður, has since thrived. When inquired about the fate of Snjólaug and Hrafnheiður, the owners affirmed that both would continue to live, stating that there had never been any other consideration.

Deep North Episode 25: Good Breeding

iceland sheep breeding

This April, sheep at Bergsstaðir farm in Northwest Iceland were diagnosed with the fatal degenerative disease known as scrapie. In accordance with regulations, the 700-some sheep were culled to prevent the spread of the disease to neighbouring farms. We revisit our 2022 article, Good Breeding, to see what’s being done to fight this deadly disease.

Read the full story.

deCODE genetics to Join Efforts to Eradicate Scrapie

Ólafur Magnússon og frú bændur á Sveinsstöðum Trú frá S

The biopharmaceutical company that helped Iceland process COVID tests throughout the pandemic is now set to join another important project: the battle to eradicate the fatal disease scrapie from the Icelandic sheep population. RÚV reports that this spring, deCODE genetics will begin analysing genetic material from sheep to determine whether they carry a genotype that protects against the degenerative disease. Scrapie was recently diagnosed at a farm in Northwest Iceland, in a region where it had never been detected before.

Scrapie is often described as the ovine equivalent of mad cow disease. If a sheep tests positive for scrapie, the entire herd is culled, the entire farm’s hay must be destroyed, and the farm and its implements must be sanitised, either chemically or through fire. Even despite these measures, the disease can remain dormant in the environment for decades. The disease takes both a financial and emotional toll on farmers.

Researchers have recently discovered two genotypes in the Icelandic breed of sheep that appear to protect the animals from scrapie: ARR and T137. Breeding programs with those sheep have begun in efforts to eradicate the disease from Iceland.

Read More: Good Breeding

Until now, Icelandic researchers have had to send genetic samples to Germany for analysis in order to determine whether sheep carry the protective genotypes. With the help of deCODE genetics, it would be possible to test the samples locally. Researchers hope to test the existing stock more broadly as well as, of course, the offspring of the sheep that have already been found to carry the genotypes to see whether they have been passed down.

“If this collaboration with deCODE genetics works out, then hopefully it will be possible to test these samples in Iceland,” stated Eyþór Einarsson of the Icelandic Agricultural Advisory Centre. “And they also have a large capacity, and can handle the project, because the number of samples that will need to be analysed will multiply in the coming years as we get more rams in circulation that carry these genotypes.” Eyþór stated that there could be as many as 40,000 samples that need analysis by next year, and further research into the existing stock would also be necessary.

“This is really exciting and gives us hope and optimism for the future that there is a sort of definite response to this scrapie issue.”

Scrapie Diagnosed in Northwest Iceland

Sheep in Iceland

The degenerative and fatal disease scrapie has been diagnosed in sheep at Bergsstaðir farm in Northwest Iceland, in the Húnavatnssýsla district, RÚV reports. In conformance with Icelandic health regulations, 690 sheep will be slaughtered as quickly as possible to prevent the spread of the disease to other herds. It is the first time the disease has been detected in the region, which will have an impact not just on Bergsstaðir but the entire district. Scrapie is not transmissible to humans.

Scrapie is often described as the ovine equivalent of mad cow disease. If a sheep tests positive for scrapie, the entire herd is culled, the entire farm’s hay must be destroyed, and the entire farm and its implements must be sanitised, either chemically or through fire, as the disease can remain dormant in the environment for decades. As a result, even after this deep-cleaning, farmers are not able to raise sheep on the land for a set time, and the scorched-earth policy may even affect neighbouring herds and farms.

The Miðfjarðarsveit area, where Bergsstaðir farm is located, will now face significant restrictions on sheep farming for the next two decades, including a ban on transporting sheep between locations and transport of other materials.

Researchers have recently discovered two genotypes in the Icelandic breed of sheep that appear to protect sheep from scrapie: ARR and T137. Breeding programs have begun in efforts to eradicate the disease from Iceland.

Read more about the goal of eradicating scrapie from Iceland in the article Good Breeding.

Icelandic Lamb Receives Protected Designation of Origin Within EU

lambakjöt lamb Páll Stefánsson

The European Commission approved the first ever Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from Iceland today for Icelandic lamb (ice. Íslenskt lambakjöt). The product name is applied to the meat from purebred Icelandic lambs, which have been born, raised, and slaughtered on the island of Iceland. The designation is the same type granted to champagne, and means that no product that does not fulfil the above conditions can be labelled as Icelandic lamb.

“Sheep farming has a long and rich cultural tradition in Iceland,” a notice from the European Commission reads. “The characteristics of ‘Íslenskt lambakjöt’ first and foremost consists [sic] of a high degree of tenderness and gamey taste, due to the fact that lambs roam freely in demarcated wild rangelands and grow in the wild, natural surroundings of Iceland, where they feed on grass and other plants. The long tradition of sheep farming passing down generations on the island has led to high standards of flock management and grazing methods.”

Sheep farming in Iceland stretches back over one millennium, to the settlement period. The number of sheep in the country peaked in 1978 at over 890,000, but dropped to 432,780 in 2018, the lowest number recorded since 1948. Consumption of lamb has dropped significantly in Iceland since the early 1980s but has remained relatively steady in recent years, at around 20 kilos per inhabitant per year. Icelandic lamb has also been exported to new markets in recent years, including China. The newly-bestowed Protected Designation of Origin may help Icelandic lamb on foreign markets in the coming years.

Icelandic lamb holds a similar protected designation within Iceland, as do hand-knitted Icelandic sweaters and perhaps soon, Icelandic whisky.

Gathering

ROUND UP  At just before 6:00 AM on a Sunday morning, I drove north to the Svarfaðardalur valley – to attend a roundup. This roundup had nothing to do with a certain carcinogenic pesticide, nor did it involve the hasty collection of suspects during a police raid. The word roundup, when translated from Icelandic, implies the gathering […]

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When and where are the September sheep roundups scheduled?

icelandic sheep réttir
As you may have noticed from driving around Iceland’s countryside, there are many sheep. Historically, sheep were put to pasture in the highlands during the summer and then, as the weather turned for the worse, they were gathered up to be housed in sheds on the farmstead.
Farmers still live by this seasonal pattern in Iceland, letting their sheep roam the countryside and then rounding them up in the middle of September, the end of Iceland’s summer.
These roundups, or réttir, will vary depending on the community, but they all generally happen around the same time. Your best bet is to check the agricultural and farmers’ newspaper, Bændablaðið.
Réttir are a time when an entire community comes together to pitch in. It’s a lot of hard work to collect and wrangle all of the livestock, but many communities will also have a big party afterwards, called a Réttaball. There tends to be plenty of singing, dancing, and drinking at these celebrations, since it’s the last gasp of summer fun before the winter!