It’s 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 are 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.
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 is also dyed various beautiful and vivid colours as well.
It’s 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 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.
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)
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 woollen 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 Lopapeysas. 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. 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!