I found the following assertion on one of the websites dedicated to the Icelandic wool: ‘Wool is cool.’ Unchallengeable, indeed. Wool is a source of Iceland’s national pride, and flocks of sheep peacefully grazing on emerald pastures in summertime are among the most favourite tourist attractions. Icelandic wool escaped the country’s borders a long time ago and made the country actually known in the world, along with its geysers, the Blue Lagoon and Bobby Fischer.
Bryndís Eiríksdóttir, one of the senior members of the Handknitting Association of Iceland (Handprjónasamband Íslands) has been involved with the production of woollen garments for already 30 years, and knows about wool perhaps more than anyone else. She says that the wool used for all the knitted garments, such as ‘lopapeysa’, one can purchase in Iceland comes exclusively from sheep, as it can also originate from goats, rabbits and lamas.
The first sheep came to Iceland in the year 874 along with the first settlers. The sheep they brought along had a very different fleece, much thinner and milder, but the severe climate transformed it in order to give the animals the chance to survive. That is how the uniqueness of the Icelandic wool had been acquired. Now it consists of two types of fibres: the inner ones insulate cold and remove body moisture, they are very fine and soft and are used primarily for knitting babies’ garments. The outer fibres are long and glossy, and thanks to them water is repelled: snowflakes and rain drops slide down, and thus can’t get inside and make a sheep feel cold or uncomfortable. Clean air, crystal water, complete freedom, and the stressfree relaxing atmosphere of vast Icelandic pastures make the wool truly unique; later on, it communicates its uniqueness to the garments.
Bryndís says that it takes about 25 hours to knit a standard lopapeysa. Fleece may vary in colour from strawberry blonde to charcoal black, and although it is very easy to dye, Icelanders prefer natural colours as the rich pattern makes chemical dyeing unnecessary. Thanks to this, garments retain as much of their original nature as possible and never irritate the skin.
Although the history of lopapeysa counts barely decades, knitting has always been a traditional occupation in the Icelandic families, where both women and men would participate. The Industrial Revolution arrived in Iceland at the late nineteenth century, and until then all of the wool had been washed in the hot springs and processed by hand. Just imagine what standard of quality was maintained at that time! It appears that the Icelandic knitters of today set no less rigorous demands so that the garments they produce can be a source of pride for them and pleasure for us.