If Iceland had a national garment, it would surely be the ubiquitous Icelandic sweater, or lopapeysa. Any visitor to Iceland will surely have noticed the rough wool sweaters, with their earthy tones and distinctive geometric designs radiating from the collar. They’re earthy, comfy, and are synonymous with Iceland.
But what makes the lopapeysa so popular, anyway?
Origins of the Icelandic sweater
The lopapeysa is a relatively modern tradition, and rose to popularity as recently as the end of the Second World War. Around the time, Iceland became independent from Denmark, and searched for a new symbol of national identity.
The design of the patterned band was created by designers who used a wide range of external influences. While there’s no definitive answer, there is speculation that the design origins lie in South American, Turkish or Swedish patterns.
Characteristics of the lopapeysa
The sweater is a yoke collar design, a large decorative circle that surrounds the neck, which is the same in the front and back. A specialised unspun wool called lopi is used, which comes from Icelandic sheep. Because it is not spun, it contains more air and has better insulation properties than spun wool.
The wool uses the thel, the light, airy and insulating inner layer, as well as the sheep’s long, glossy and tough guard hairs, tog, giving the sweater extra waterproof properties. Because of these characteristics, the lopapeysa can be comfortably worn without a jacket over the top.
The black, grey and brown of Icelandic sheep give the sweaters their distinctive colour scheme, which reminds one of the earthiness and natural aesthetic of Iceland, its landscapes, and its farming pedigree.
The Lopapeysa is made using only natural energy sources in its production, and the genuine articles are 100% made in Iceland. Beware of ripoffs made in Asia!
Buying a lopapeysa
Lopapeysas are more and more popular with tourists, and almost every clothing store or tourist shop will stock them. Varieties with hoods, and zippers exist, and they can be worn by men, women, even babies. They’re generally not cheap though; a real lopapeysa will set you back about $200USD.
Taking care of a lopapeysa
So, you have a lopapeysa that you want to wash.
Wait a minute!
Unless you dropped ketchup down the front, it’s unlikely that it needs to go into the machine. It’s said they only need washing once a year. But if you do want to remove a stain, they’re to be handwashed in soapy lukewarm water for five minutes, before rinsing and squeezed, and dried flat. Voila!
The Icelandic sheep
Now that you’re wearing your lopapeysa, let’s meet the source of the lopapeysa wool, the Icelandic sheep!
Origins of the Icelandic sheep
The Icelandic sheep were brought to Iceland by early Viking settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries, and have spent a millennium adapting to the cold and harsh climates of Iceland. They are northern European sheep, smaller than modern sheep, and with small, stubby tails. They are primarily raised for their meat, which makes up 85% of the sheep-related revenue. But, as we just learned from their amazing double-layered fleece, they also have very valuable wool for sweaters!
The Icelandic sheep is a valuable commodity, and introduction of diseases and cross-breeding ideas are strictly controlled. In the past, both of these events unmanaged have resulted in large populations of Icelandic sheep having to be culled. For this reason, importing any other sheep varieties to Iceland is illegal.
More sheep than people in Iceland!
So, how many sheep does Iceland have? In summer, just before the sheep are slaughtered for their meat, half a million sheep roam free-range around the island (almost double the human population of Iceland)! For travellers making their way around Iceland, it’s not unusual to see groups of these cute animals bounding and stumbling across the road in little groups.
Wool for lopapeysa is shorn in the autumn, when the fleece is softer, while the tougher spring coat is used for making carpets. In May, the sheep begin lambing. Ewes just one year old can begin to have lambs, and a ewe can have up to four lambs per season.
For the first four months, the farmer is very busy as the new lambs stay close to their mothers are adapt to their surroundings. Struggling lambs are cared for by the farmers, and fed by bottle. The sheep are earmarked, and spend the rest of the year up in the mountains, coming back home again in autumn.
Ístex wool company
Just outside of Reykjavik, Iceland’s only industrial wool spinning mill, Ístex, processes the 1000 annual tons of wool. It is sheared by 2000 farmers around the country, and send to the factory. Of that, 400 tons is used for knitting.
Huge washing machines clean, dry and sort the wool into different colour mixes. The wool is sent through big dryers, and are boxed up in their multitude of colours for knitting.
Lopapeysa – A great Icelandic souvenir
So, the next time you’re wandering around the streets of Reykjavik, make sure you pay attention to all of the great lopapeysa Icelandic sweaters all around you, and try and find an authentic one for a typically Icelandic souvenir!