Published May 5, 2014
There are not many things that scream “cultural heritage” as loudly as the humble Icelandic woollen sweater or “lopapeysa” as us natives refer to it. Having one on is like wearing knitted Iceland.
It resembles the country’s rugged nature and reminds us of the history of farming and fishing when it provided its wearer with a vital shield from the disastrous weather one can encounter in the wild. Furthermore it appeals greatly to the disillusioned and globalised 21st Century traveller. It’s as close as one can get to the source without shovelling shit in a sheepfold. It is purebred-organic-free range-locally produced and whatnot and therefore the perfect piece of clothing for the buzzword conscious, artisan coffee sipping twenty-something or other.
But, funnily enough, the Icelandic woollen jumper is neither very old, nor is its design particularly Icelandic.
Actually, the one thing that does make the lopapeysa uniquely Icelandic is the material used in its making. “Lopi,” as opposed to the more common yarn, is simply wool that hasn’t been spun, and whilst its designs and patterns have constantly evolved since lopapeysa’s inception, the material hasn’t changed much. “If I was to describe what a lopapeysa looks like,” says Soffía Valdimarsdóttir, ethnologist and author of a thesis called “Ull er Gull” (“Wool is Gold”), “I’d say it’s a long-sleeve, straight cut sweater with a circular pattern over the shoulders. That is in no way an exhaustive description, as they all vary in design, but what does unify them all is the material.”
The tradition of knitting out of lopi is a touch older than the actual lopapeysa, but nobody seems to know exactly when people started knitting unspun wool. “Folk traditions never have a set beginning, and besides, we’re talking about female culture which was never particularly well documented,” she says before giving another interesting explanation for the lack of documentation.
“People have been knitting spun wool or yarn since the country was settled. It was a massive part of each household’s daily routine, but as the social structure started to change and people started moving from farms to the fishing villages women just didn´t have the time to spin their wool anymore” she says. “It would have been considered shameful if people heard you weren’t spinning your wool. It would have been equivalent to not cleaning your house.”
The tradition of knitting unspun wool comes from women’s survival instinct and ingenuity when faced with rapidly changing roles in the first couple of decades of the 20th Century. Or put more simply, Iceland’s cultural heritage was born out of time constraints.
Auður And The Inca Empire
Turns out, lopapeysa’s origins are just as hazy as the origins of its material lopi. “I had always been under the impression that this garment was a few hundred years old, but it turned out I was wrong,” says Guðný Gestsdóttir, managing director of Gljúfrasteinn. Now a museum, Gljúfrasteinn was the home of Nobel Prize in Literature winner Halldór Laxness and his wife Auður Sveinsdóttir Laxness for the best part of the 20th Century. I’m speaking to Guðný in order to gain some clarity on one of the more persistent theories of lopapeysa’s origin, which attributes its pattern’s design to the aforementioned Auður.
Auður did in fact claim to be the originator of the patterned knitted sweater in an interview with Vikan magazine in 1998, but the rather bold claim has been widely disputed, and even Guðný says she is fairly hesitant to confirm Auður’s story. “What we do know though,” Guðný says, “is that in 1947, Halldór brought her a book on Inca culture when returning from a trip to USA and the designs in that book inspired Auður to knit a sweater with a circular pattern over the shoulders.”
Auður’s Inca inspired sweater was actually knitted out of coloured yarn, so it certainly wasn’t the first lopapeysa, but the story goes that it may have been the first one to sport this circular pattern we’ve come to associate with the lopapeysa. “Women’s creations weren’t particularly visible at the time,” Guðný continues, “and Auður may have assumed the role of a representative as she was both a public figure and very vocal about knitting traditions and designs, but despite her insistence that hers was the first, I know there were many women in the area doing similar things with patterns inspired by both Swedish and Greenlandic traditions.”
“We’re actually about to delve a bit further into this,” she says. “We’re teaming up with the Museum of Design and Applied Arts and the Textile Museum to research the lopapeysa’s origin.”
From Modern To Traditional
So, whether or not an individual can stake a claim in having invented the humble lopapeysa remains to be seen, but it is clear that in the ‘50s and ‘60s enterprising women all over the country were starting to mould what would later become such an inseparable part of Iceland’s cultural tradition by experimenting with various designs inspired by imported knitting catalogues and magazines. But how did it manage to become perceived as both “Icelandic” and “traditional” in such a short space of time?
Soffía Valdimarsdóttir argues that tradition can be old or new, but what makes it stick is the fact that it always looks to the past. “The Icelandic sheep is so deeply engrained into this nation’s history. It’s been instrumental in keeping us alive since we settled here,” she says. “It’s interlinked with both of our historic industries, farming and fishing.”
And the sheep continues to keep us alive. Turnover at Istex (the country’s biggest wool manufacturer) has tripled between 2007 and 2011 and the company now manufactures more than twice the amount of wool as it did seven years ago. Most of that boom is attributed to growing tourism in Iceland, but Soffía says globalisation can also be thanked. “Icelanders have had to redefine their identity in times of globalisation. The lopapeysa has been handy in that respect as the wool reminds us of the local and national.”
Despite the lopapeysa having originally been a child of modernisation and foreign influences on Icelandic fashion, it has gone full circle and now provides a shelter from globalisation and reminds us of history and tradition. Deceitful little garment isn’t it?