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Lopapeysa - Icelandic Wool Sweater

The Icelandic Wool Sweater: What it is and Where to Buy it?

A lopapeysa is a woollen sweater made from the 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 again after being out of fashion for a few decades until around the financial collapse of 2008. 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 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 many or even most Icelanders 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 Auður Laxness, the wife of Iceland’s Nobel Laureate in Literature, Halldór 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.

The lopapeysa is perfect for Icelandic weather, and many visitors may want to purchase one for their time here and as a practical souvenir. But the question is: where do you get one? 

The Handknitting Association of Iceland

Handprjónasamabandið, or the Handknitting Association of Iceland, has been around since 1977 and is one of the best places to purchase an authentic, handmade lopapeysa. As the name suggests, every article they make – whether it is a lopapeysa, blanket, mittens or anything else – is handmade with Icelandic wool that comes from Icelandic sheep. You can find a huge variety of patterns, colours, and sizes. They even have two locations: Skólavörðustígur 19 (on the way to Hallgrímskirkja church from the city centre), and Borgartún 31 (a block east of the Borg 29 food hall). The Handknitting Association is arguably the best place to get your lopapeysa. You can even buy your own Icelandic yarn and some pattern to make your own! The lopapeysas here are, however, expensive. Quality this good is not cheap!

The Icelandic Store

Travelling from the airport to Reykjavík, you pass through the charming town of Hafnarfjörður – a town of elves and Christmas cheer. But it is also a town with a great Icelandic wool store. Simply named The Icelandic Store, this family-run business offers a beautiful collection of pullovers and cardigans with delightful patterns and colours. The prices are again high – but it is Iceland, what do you expect!? The lopapeysa will last for years, so it’s well worth the cost. Hafnarfjörður is a 15-minute drive from the Reykjavík city centre. You can also take the no. 1 bus. While you are there, be sure to explore the town

Second-Hand Shops

If you want to own a lopapeysa but maybe don’t want to pay full price, a great option is to check for deals at some of Reykjavík’s second-hand shops. The flea market, Kolaportið, may have some lopapeysas tucked away in one of its many booths. There are two Red Cross thrift stores on Laugavegur, one near Hlemmur and another next to Center Hotel and across from the Tiger store. You are bound to find a used lopapeysa in one of these shops. Keep in mind that these are used, so, even if the price is more agreeable, the quality is bound to be worse than if you purchase them new. 

Icewear & The Nordic Store

You might see a lopapeysa for sale in a more tourist-oriented shop, like Icewear or The Nordic Store. Be very cautious! Look at the tags first to make sure that these are actual lopapeysas, and that they are made in Iceland using Icelandic wool. Many tourist shops import sweaters that imitate our beloved lopapeysa that have been made in other parts of the world and not with lopi. Some of these lopapeysas may indeed be authentic; but these stores are looking to make a quick buck (or krona) rather than sell something of real quality. That is why it is always best to go first to The Handknitting Association or The Icelandic Store!

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