While you might guess that the lopapeysa has been around for hundreds of years as it seems to be such a traditional and practical garment, the Icelandic sweater only dates back to around the middle of the last century.
Some believe that the design was inspired by the traditional costumes worn in Greenland, Bryndís Eiríksdóttir from the Handknitting Association of Iceland tells me, while others believe that the pattern is related to designs from southern Sweden. “You would think that because the sweaters only date back to the 1940s that somebody would remember how they developed, but nobody is sure,” Bryndís says.
The traditional shades in which the lopapeysa is knitted are brown, black, grey, white and beige as those are the natural colours of the sheep. But you can find wool in any colour imaginable. “We mostly sell sweaters to foreigners, as Icelanders still like to knit their sweaters themselves,” Bryndís explains. “Tourists have been buying a lot of wool too though, and we have been selling much more to them since the crash and the fall of the króna.”
Sweaters at the Handknitting Association of Iceland are handmade, and you can get them in the traditional or more colourful shades. They come in different styles, such as jackets with a zipper, hoodies and sleeveless vest ponchos. Prices range from 20,000 to 35,000 ISK.
If your budget is limited, however, you can go to the weekend flea market, Kolaportið. Apart from the second-hand sweaters you can find on offer in lots of the booths, Soffía Jónsdóttir sells new handmade sweaters for around 13,000 ISK. She and three other women knit the sweaters during the week and then come to Reykjavík to sell them over the weekend. One of the ladies still knits at the remarkable age of 102.
Soffía Jónsdóttir explains that there are a variety of patterns that come from different traditions. She heard that it was Iceland’s esteemed writer Halldór Laxness and his wife who travelled to Greenland and brought back the typical design featured on sweaters nowadays, but nobody is entirely sure.
Another cheaper option is the Red Cross second-hand shop on Laugavegur. They always have some Icelandic sweaters for sale, at reasonable prices starting at 4,000 ISK.
If you are in Iceland for an extended time, you can also get your sweater knitted according to your wishes. Jóhanna Gunnlaugsdóttir, who learnt to knit when she was five years old, is so passionate about knitting them that she only charges for material used. You can get in touch with her via Facebook (www.facebook.com/prjona.skjona).
In any case, whether you buy the sweater new, used or specially ordered, the lopapeysa is a piece of clothing that lasts for a very long time, as it is not only robust but also timeless.
It’s hard not to miss the Icelandic sweater or ‘lopapeysa’ on your visit to the country. This wool is not only so resistant because it comes from arguably the best sheep in the world, but also because it is not spun, which makes it light but solid. Made from Icelandic wool, or ‘lopi’, it is perfect for Icelandic weather conditions, keeping you both warm and dry.