You might wonder how Icelandic people stay warm in winter. Good heating systems and geothermally-heated swimming pools definitely help, but nothing beats wearing a lopapeysa, a woollen sweater. In this article, we will take a closer look at the history of the Icelandic lopapeysa.
What is a lopapeysa?
A lopapeysa is a woollen sweater made from wool of Icelandic sheep. The Icelandic lopapeysa is knit in the round so it doesn’t have any seams and it has a circular patterned border around the shoulders. They’re very popular in Iceland, almost everybody has one. For it to be a proper lopapeysa, you need lopi, a type of yarn spun from the wool of the Icelandic sheep. You also need a pattern. It can be as simple or complicated as you like but must be circular and sit around the shoulders (a yoke pattern). Patterns around the waist and wrists are optional. Then you just get to knitting, making the sleeves separately before connecting them to the rest at the shoulders. Colours and patterns vary greatly, so just find one you like.
The importance of lopi
The lopapeysa does not have a very long history, as they were first made around the 1950s, but they were an instant hit. Even though it doesn’t have a long history, the Icelandic knitting tradition goes back way further.
Knitting probably came to Iceland in the 16th century. Wool has always been abundant in the country, and with it you can make clothing suitable for Icelandic weather. Icelandic wool is more coarse than other wool, but also warmer. That’s why every Icelander used to knit, both women and men, young and old. People did not knit the specific lopapeysa sweaters yet, because lopi was not yet used.
Lopi has only been in production since the 1920s. Before that time, the two layers of which lopi is made up of were separated by hand and used for different purposes. During the 1920s, new, faster methods of wool production were invented and lopi was born. Lopi has a thread that’s light, but also warm and waterproof, and therefore is perfect for the popular lopapeysa.
What aided the rise of the lopapeysa was Iceland’s independence from Denmark in 1944. The lopapeysa was introduced as a new Icelandic tradition and symbol of national identity. The lopapeysa has known two peaks in popularity since its development. The first peak was in the first decades after the independence in 1944. The second peak followed the financial crisis of 2008 and the tourist boom that followed. These days, lopapeysa sweaters and products inspired by them are heavily marketed to tourists visiting the country.
Next to the yarn used for the sweaters, the patterns are what make them so loved. There are several theories about the origin of the patterns. One of them points to the Auður Laxness, the wife of Iceland’s Nobel Laureate in Literature, Halldor Laxness. She was said to be inspired by the design of Inca culture that she saw in a book that Halldór brought her from his travels.
Another theory envelopes Greenlandic designs, and states that Norwegians made knitting patterns based on the Greenlandic nuilarmiut, traditional formal wear with a beaded collar that covers the shoulders and bust, and has brightly patterned geometric designs. These patterns then made their way to Iceland via Norway. However, Turkish and Swedish textile designs have also been mentioned as sources. The consensus now is that the lopapeysa has a lot of foreign influences and that one originator cannot be pinpointed.
Even though the origin of the yoke pattern cannot be traced, Icelandic influences on what the yoke is made of are clearer. Icelandic flowers, leaves, snowflakes, horses, and traditional handicraft patterns are often used, adding to the nationalistic aspect of the lopapeysa.