The Icelandic sheep is an integral part of Icelandic society. Not only is lamb one of the most popular meat in Iceland, but the Icelandic wool has been keeping Icelanders warm for centuries. It is a magnificent fabric. It’s warm, waterproof, flame retardant, and self-cleaning. What more could you ask for?

In this article we’ll introduce you to the Icelandic wool and tell you why it’s so special!

Read also: The History of the Icelandic Lopapeysa.
Icelandic wool
Photo by Berglind Jóhanns

It’s is Older Than You Think!

The Icelandic sheep are direct descendants of the sheep brought here by the settlers in the 9th century. Much like the Icelandic horse, they’re a unique breed, carrying characteristics long disappeared from their relatives on the continent.

Like their ancient forefathers, the Icelandic sheep have fleeces that are divided into two layers. This is an integral part of what makes Icelandic wool so special. The long and coarse hair of the upper layer is called tog. It works in a similar way to an overcoat and repels water. The lower layer is called þel. The Þel hairs are shorter, softer and fluffier, making them perfect for insulation.

Comprehensive Guide to Icelandic Wool
Photo by Berglind Jóhanns

That doesn’t Mean There Hasn’t Been Any Progress!

For a long time, these two layers were separated by hand and used for different purposes but that process was very labour-intensive. During the 1920s, new, faster methods of wool production were invented and the lopi was born. Lopi (the word originally meaning unspun wool) consists of the two layers mixed together, producing a thread that’s light and warm, but also tough and waterproof.

Icelandic sheep have always been bred in a variety of colours, and some farmers even pride themselves on preserving specific colours. This, of course, means that Icelandic wool comes in as many colours as there are sheep. The most common ones are black, white, with various shades of brown and grey rounding out the selection. Besides these basic “sheep colours”, Lopi (the Icelandic wool) is also dyed various beautiful and vivid colours as well.

Comprehensive Guide to Icelandic Wool
Photo by Golli

The Icelandic Wool is Great For Knitting!

Lopi is popular for knitting because of the dual-fibre structure that makes lopi garments warm, waterproof and light. Whether you intend to make a hat, scarf or the famous Icelandic lopapeysa, Icelandic wool is easy to knit with, light and makes a beautiful fabric.

Because of the special, loose way the Icelandic wool is spun, when the yarn breaks it’s easily fixed as two yarn ends can be attached by twisting them together. It also felts easily, making it great for felting projects. Lopi isn’t great for clothes that are worn closest to the skin since it can feel scratchy (although washing the garment with hair conditioner will help with that), but if you can get your hands on lambswool, that’s a different story.

Comprehensive Guide to Icelandic Wool
Photo by Golli

It’s Magical!

It’s self-cleaning! Lopi fabric needs to be hand-washed, but luckily, it almost never needs to be washed! Due to the structure of the hair fibres, bacteria doesn’t stick to wool like it does to cotton or synthetic materials. The only times you need to wash your wool garments is when they get stained (which is rare, since they’re also mostly waterproof). Otherwise, airing them out will usually do the trick.

Fun fact:

Wool doesn’t burn. It will light up if you put it directly in the flame, but will also self-extinguish as soon as you take it out of the flame (that said, we don’t recommend doing this at home)

Comprehensive Guide to Icelandic Wool
Photo by Berglind Jóhanns

It’s Pretty!

Not only does Icelandic wool keep you warm, but as an added bonus, it looks pretty darn good as well. If you’re not interested in knitting yourself, there are all sorts of knitted woolen products available, everything from simple hats and mittens to the beautiful scarves and blankets by Vík Prjónsdóttir.

The most popular wool garments in Iceland are the Lopapeysa. They’re sweaters made with Icelandic wool that have decorative borders around the shoulders and can be zipped, buttoned, or whole. They differ in design and colour so you should always be able to find one to fit your tastes.

The term ‘Icelandic sweater’ (Icelandic: íslensk lopapeysa) is now a legally protected product name, having received a Designation of Origin status on March 10, 2020 from the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority.

Try the Farmer’s Market products for great design but if the classics you’re looking for, nothing beats The Icelandic Handknitting Association. You can even order one made to your specifications!

Comprehensive Guide to Icelandic Wool
Photo by Berglind Jóhanns

Knitting with Ragga – Workshops

The Culture and Craft knitting workshops are run by a woman called Ragnheiður Jóhannsdóttir, or Ragga. She has been knitting since her childhood and knows everything there is to know about wool and knitting in Iceland.

Most knitting designs in Iceland rely on circular, seamless knitting, which makes it easy to do (no purling required), and knitting a pattern with multiple colors is not very hard either, after some practice. Finishing one simple project should be enough to get you acquainted with the wool and knitting techniques. Knitting a hat successfully, for instance, should give you enough confidence to take on the Lopapeysa knitting challenge.

The lopapeysa is knit in the round and doesn’t have any seams. It is knit from the bottom up; the sleeves are knitted separately and then joined together with the body of the sweater to form the yoke. There are some stitches at the armpits and at the neckline on the inside, but that’s pretty much it. Because of the knitting technique, making a lopapeysa for yourself is actually much easier than it seems.

Comprehensive Guide to Icelandic Wool
Photo by Berglind Jóhanns

Go Forth and Knit!

At both The Icelandic Handknitting Association and Álafoss shop you can get Lopi and knitting needles to start your knitting projects along with ready-made handknit items.

The Icelandic wool is an amazing material and Ragga is a great teacher. She’s attentive to the knitters in her class and tries her very best to make sure they learn as much as humanly possible. The workshop is recommended, not only for dedicated knitters but also for those who just want to glean an insight into the Icelandic culture through that fabric that’s kept Icelanders warm (and alive) through many a dark winter.

We’d recommend the workshop to people of all ages, sexes and occupations, but for the hardcore knitters, Ragga also offers 4-day workshops and knitting and craft walking tours in Mosfellsbær.
For more information on the knitting workshop, visit her website.

Please contact us if you have any questions regarding this article or anything you can think of! 
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