It’s very old
While Iceland’s horses get all the attention for being unique to the island, modern-day Icelandic sheep are also direct descendants of the livestock that arrived with settlers in the 9th century. As such, they boast some characteristics that have long since disappeared from their relatives in Europe. Like their ancient forefathers, the Icelandic sheep are double-coated, with an outer layer of long, coarse hair called ‘tog’ that repels water, and a short, soft and fluffy undercoat called ‘þel’, which is a perfect insulator. This is a big part of what makes Icelandic wool – and the garments made with it – so special.
… but it’s not old fashioned
There have been innovations in Icelandic wool. For instance, the two coat layers used to be separated by hand (a very labour-intensive process) and used for different purposes. In the 1920s, however, quicker new methods of processing the wool were created and Iceland’s famed ‘lopi’ – consisting of the two coats spun together to produce strands that are simultaneously light, warm, tough and waterproof – was born.
Icelandic sheep have always been bred in a variety of colours, and some farmers even pride themselves on preserving specific colours. The result is Icelandic wool being produced in as many colours as there are sheep, with the most common colours being black, white, various shades of brown and grey. Besides these classic “sheep colours”, lopi can also be found dyed in every colour of the rainbow.
It’s great for knitting
That double coat mentioned above gives lopi its dual-fibre structure, making it perfect for knitting garments that are warm, waterproof and light. Whether you intend to knit a scarf or try your hand at the intricate patterns of a famous Icelandic lopapeysa, lopi is ideal. Not only is it beautiful, it’s also easy to knit with (the loose-spun wool can be twisted back together if broken) and it felts easily. As any Icelandic child will tell you, lopi can be very scratchy when worn right against the skin, so it’s best used for outer layers of clothing – unless you get your hands on some lambswool, that is.
It’s magical stuff
By “magical” we mean it’s self-cleaning, which is just about as close to magic as it gets for any parent in an endless laundry cycle. Lopi garments need to be hand-washed, but it almost never needs to be washed. Thanks to the structure of the hair fibres, lopi doesn’t hold bacteria like cotton or synthetic materials do. So the only time you might need to wash your woollens is when they get stained (which is also rare, since they’re fairly waterproof). So just air them out and call it a day.
Another of lopi’s magic tricks – one we absolutely do not recommend trying indoors or while wearing the lopi in question – is that it doesn’t burn. It may light up if you put it right in a flame, but it will self-extinguish once you take it out. Amazing!
Icelandic wool looks great just about any way you knit it. And if you don’t knit yourself, just check out the range of products Icelanders have made with their wool as proof of its versatility – and its beauty. You can find everything from simple hats and mittens to the colourful scarves and blankets by Vík Prjónsdóttir. Of course, the most popular wool garment in Iceland is the Lopapeysa, the classic sweater with intricate and unique patterns around the yoke. An infinite range of classic lopapeysur can be found at the Icelandic Handknitting Association, while Farmer’s Market boasts a fashion-forward take on the classic.