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

Icelandic Wool and Lopapeysur

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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.

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