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Words of Interest: The Peysa of the Peysan

Words of Interest: The Peysa of the Peysan

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Published March 9, 2017

There is a peculiar story about the origin of the Icelandic word for sweater:

A French fisherman saw an Icelandic farmer wearing a sweater and pointing to him, he called out “Paysan!”—the French word for farmer. Due to the language barrier, the farmer thought the fisherman was commenting on his sweater, and thus the Icelandic word for sweater, peysa, was born.

It’s probably not a true story, but the actual origin of the word (likely from Dutch or German roots) is not quite as cute.

lopa by Eunsan Huh

If you’re asked to think of an Icelandic sweater, you will likely imagine the lopapeysa, a knitted wool sweater characterized by a patterned yoke, hem and wrists. The name lopapeysa just means a sweater made from Icelandic yarn, or lopi.

Although synonymous with Icelandic knitting, the lopapeysa was only introduced to the country in the mid-20th century. Professor Gudrun Helgadottir notes that the sweater’s popularity peaked during the years following independence from Danish sovereignty, and again following the economic collapse of 2008. Both periods saw an upswing in nationalism and a return to traditional values, and what’s more traditional or more Icelandic than sheep, wool and knitting?

Practically everyone in Iceland owns one of these lopapeysas, likely handknitted by someone in their family. Although Icelandic grandmothers are best known for knitting, the craft is taught to both boys and girls in school.

Nowadays lopapeysas can be easily found around tourist shops in 101, but if you are looking for something a little more authentic or possibly handmade by a real Icelandic grandmother, or amma, visit the Handknitting Association of Iceland on Skólavörðustígur. If you are a seasoned knitter, you can purchase lopi and patterns and knit one yourself!

Every Single Word in Icelandic is a pictographic exploration of the Icelandic language. I find an interesting compound word, then deconstruct and illustrate it as icons. The goal is to express how Icelandic can be deadpan literal and unexpectedly poetic at the same time.


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