The Destruction Of An Icelandic National Treasure

11.7.2012
Words by Jessica Emory


From the Vikings' landing in 871 to the modern day, the sheep permeates Icelandic culture. The wool is known throughout the world for being one of the most luscious, luminescent, lovely fibres available to work with. To a fibre-nut, Iceland is a sort of Mecca for wool.

As the Icelandic sheep is a national treasure, the health of the flock is of prime importance. Animal import laws make it extremely difficult to bring in livestock because of the isolated, disease-free nature of the island’s animal populations. The vast majority of wool shorn in Iceland is processed in one main spinning mill, Ístex. This mill buys up nearly 100% of the wool generated in Iceland, and processes it into a line of yarns ranging from very lightweight to bulky.

From the outset, the wool processing procedure is questionable. Because a premium is paid for white wool, the mill actually selects out genetic diversity in the sheep population. As the mill selects for white, genetic diversity drops, but this is “nothing to worry about” in the company’s opinion. Once the wool is purchased, it is scoured in Blönduós before being dyed.

After being scoured, the wool is carded and dyed. Ístex provides both natural and mixed colours. According to Hulda Hákonardóttir, a marketing manager at Ístex whom I spoke with, the natural colours produced by the mill are only dyed “a little bit.” This includes dyeing blacks and greys. Yes, they are dyeing the wool a natural colour so that the mill can sell wool in ‘natural colours.’ It is understandable to dye white wool to make magenta, blue, yellow, green, or purple, but to dye natural colours?

Hulda tells me that they dye the wool in order to be able to produce consistent colours among the different batches of yarn. Perhaps on the surface this makes sense. Consider that Icelandic wool comes in spectacular whites, greys, browns and blacks. To over-dye these colours with chemical dyes damages the integrity of the fibres, and ruins the natural variety that exists in wool.

Ístex emphasises that it wants to keep the process as 'green' as possible, yet they continue to take a spectacular natural product, with wonderful natural variation, and use European chemical dyes and an energy-expensive process (dyeing occurs at high temperatures) to make a more uniform, lower quality product. Thinking about the luxury products that can be found on markets across the world, it is clear that knitters everywhere are always on the lookout for the unique, natural, back-to-basics, exotic yarn. Before the dyeing process, this is exactly what Ístex has. Instead of marketing an authentic, glorious product, they ruin it in the name of consistency.

Ístex explains, “The market for Icelandic wool is very small and for a little spinning factory like ours, it would be too expensive to produce quality like this for the market. Like all producers we concentrate on production for the majority.” It is important to remember that this mill that has a near-complete monopoly on a product in international demand. Change is never easy, but such shallow-minded dismissal is an insult to Icelandic wool, its history and the artists around the globe that use it.

To change and use un-dyed natural coloured wool would not only lead to more revenue for the company, but also a more environmentally friendly, farmer-supporting, Icelandic heritage- perpetuating process. Iceland's sheep have always been multicolour, knitters have always worked with diverse greys, whites, peat reds and blacks; lopi-lovers always prefer non-scratchy sweaters.

Quit hiding behind empty claims of small business challenges and processes that damage a national treasure, Ístex. Stop being satisfied with a sub-par product that is a laughable excuse for Icelandic wool, fibre enthusiasts. ENOUGH with contentment for the way things have always been! Get with the program and start celebrating Icelandic wool and the way it was meant to be!

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