Published June 21, 2018
With the advent of tourism, Iceland’s national treasures have risen to worldwide fame. These include unpredictable volcanoes, majestic waterfalls, and, of course, the ever-present puffin. While those are not exclusive to Iceland but can also be found in other countries, there is one resource that nothing compares to: Icelandic wool.
The wool adventure
What makes Icelandic wool so special in the first place? Þórir Kristjánsson, the founder of Víkurprjón, explains that there are two layers of wool on the Icelandic sheep. The first layer, closest to the skin, is soft. The second layer is made of longer and rougher hair and because of that structure, it protects the skin from water. “It’s like the sheep’s own raincoat,” Þórir says with a smile. In the times before mass production, those two layers were often separated but with the use of knitting machines, this is not common anymore.
Icelandic wool is therefore very efficient in protecting the skin from water and that is what makes it so special. Whereas softer wool such as angora wool would immediately get cold when wet, Icelandic wool keeps warm even then.
Þórir is a wool legend. Being involved in carpentry ever since he was a child, he soon expanded into manufacturing socks, still mostly from cotton or nylon. “The wool adventure began around 1970 when the first knitting factory was founded here in Vík,” he remembers. Þórir founded his own wool factory in 1980, called “Víkurprjón”, and soon took over the wool production in Vík completely. A new building was constructed with the goal of uniting the wool production in Vík under one roof—along with a tourist store where visitors from all over the world could purchase products directly from the people who made them. “Apart from meeting many interesting people, this way we could also see which products were popular and which weren’t,” Þórir says.
Thus, Þórir also helped develop tourism in the little town of Vík, with just around 350 inhabitants. “We exported Icelandic wool products mainly to the USA, Germany and Russia,” he remembers. “It was such a huge amount that the wool export was its own category in the economic statistics of Iceland.” Þórir has always been interested in tourism, was part of work committees and even today, he is in the board of Kötlusetur, the main tourist information center in Vík. “I think we are the most multicultural society in Iceland,” he says proudly. “I think that around 30% of the population are immigrants.”
An organic raincoat
“I once met a guy who was a rower and bought clothes made of Icelandic wool from me,” Þórir remembers. “He told me that after trying all the artificial fabrics he is now back to wool. There is just nothing that compares to it.”
In 2012, Þórir sold Víkurpjón to Icewear, who consequently expanded the factory. Whereas still a lot of clothes are being knitted there, most of the sewing work is now done in Hvólavöllur and in Keflavík to keep up with the demand. However, even today you can find Þórir’s old house inside the new one—complete with the wool factory in the middle of it. If you go onto the second floor, you can look directly into the workshop and see how the products are made in real time. One of the machines that was built by Þórir to press socks is still in use today. Somehow, even six years later he is still part of the factory.
Today, the retired Þórir finally has the time to focus on his favourite hobbies—photography and filmmaking. His works include music videos, time lapses of auroras, and nature documentaries of foxes and puffins. In the tourist shop that you can still find in the Icewear factory, you can purchase a DVD or USB stick with Þórir’s work.
“I know too many people that just sat down in front of the TV set when they stopped working and have done nothing else since,” he finishes. “The is impossible for me.”