Lopapeysa are about as linked to the cultural identity of Iceland as skyr and the Icelandic horse. As the temperature drops and the wind begins to pick up, these sturdy wool sweaters will become more and more ubiquitous on the streets of Reykjavík and around the country. Naturally, this is the perfect time for a lesson on the origin, use and importance of these iconic sweaters.
For the uninitiated, lopapeysa is a style of wool sweater most recognisable for their detailed and differing yoke designs, fancying up the shoulder and neck area of the garment with a wide circular pattern from the chest around to the upper back. Sometimes, but not always, the wrists and bottom of the sweater are also adorned with a matching pattern.
The word lopapeysa comes from the word ‘lopi’ which is a kind of unspun yarn, and ‘peysa’ meaning “sweater”. One might imagine a traditional garment so inextricably linked to the identity of a country must have a centuries-old history, however the lopapeysa has only been around since the early- to mid-20th century. At the time, these sweaters were created to make use of the abundant wool from the country’s plentiful native sheep.
With such a recent history, it’s a surprise that the actual inspiration for the piece is so shrouded in mystery. Some think the design is related to traditional Greenlandic clothing while others believe the pattern is related to one found in southern Sweden. Regardless, it’s safe to say the Icelandic lopapeysa has eclipsed these potential inspiration in terms of international recognition.
Due to the use of unspun wool, lopapeysa sweaters are lighter than they appear, yet are quite durable and warm. This is also due, in part, to the unique nature of Icelandic wool. For their part, Icelandic sheep are disparate from other sheep around the world. They’ve been evolving on the island for centuries without influence from other breeds of sheep, much like Icelandic horses and cattle.
The main individualistic feature of Icelandic wool is the difference between the inner and outer layers, each of which offer their own benefits. Inner layers are often fine and insulating, while the outer layers are tough and water resistant. The variety of natural colours of this wool is also special, ranging from black, grey and brown to the usual white.
Keeping it local
These days many of these sweaters found for purchase around Iceland aren’t made locally, or even using Icelandic wool. Luckily, The Handknitting Association of Iceland acts as a one-stop shop for local wool products.
Founded by mostly women in 1977, this company creates all of their lopapeysa from Icelandic wool in Iceland by members of the association. Their styles and colours are as unique and diverse as Iceland itself. They even offer a sweater in celebration of the ongoing Fagradalsfjall eruption.
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