Bike panniers may seem an unlikely entry point to the world of Icelandic wool, but that is exactly what led to my first encounter with the singular fiber. My first impression wasn’t altogether positive. I loved the look of the rustic skein but the feel, or what yarn professionals call the “hand” reminded me of steel wool. It had a dry, wiry crunch that I could never imagine wearing next to my skin, but it made sense for the Norah Gaughan pattern I’d spotted in an issue of Vogue Knitting.
I never did finish those fancy panniers, which may have made more sense in theory than in practice, but I have since learned to love wearing Icelandic wool, and it wasn’t until I learned its origin story that I finally understood the esoteric fiber....
Icelandic sheep haven’t been crossbred since Vikings settled the island country in the 9th century. The fiber on their backs is uniquely suited to the frequently harsh climate. There is a Scandinavian belief that “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing,” and this becomes glaringly clear in Iceland where cold winds blow even in summer. Garments made with Lopi have a lightness that belies their protective capabilities. Airy like cotton candy, the yarn is a balanced blend of tog and thel, weather resistant guard fibers and the softer down found below. Spun together, they resemble a wool/mohair blend and it’s available in a wide range of weights from lace ready einband to bulky rope-like lengths.
I once read that famously fuzzy and tangle-prone mohair is easier to untangle when you put it in the freezer for a few hours first. I also remember reading that rinsing hair with cold water seals the outer cuticle, making it more reflective and shinier. I have to believe that the brisk weather in Iceland is what renders the wool suddenly soft and wearable. The “itchy” fiber I’d first encountered in a humid summer was not the same thing I wanted to swaddle myself in to guard against the drizzle and gusts.
The patterned yoke lopapeysa is a relatively new addition to the Icelandic wardrobe, but it has taken hold completely. The lore is that it is a simplified version of the highly decorated yokes found on sweaters from Norway, Sweden, Greenland and warmer climes in South America and beyond. Whatever the lineage, natural sheep shades are a constant, the most popular and versatile option. Icelandic sheep have the widest range of naturally occurring colors of any breed, and dyed colors tend to stick close to nature for inspiration, with the exception of recent neon additions.
The simple tubular construction and a generally oversized fit make the lopapeysa the perfect showcase for the insulating properties of fluffy Icelandic wool, and it works amazing well in nearly any sartorial context. All ages, all genders and every fashion ilk can find a way to rock a ‘peysa, adding warmth and a timeless folk edge at the same time.
Creativity with this wool isn’t confined to yokes. Everytime I visit, I encounter the wondrous stuff in new and exciting contexts. Flat knitted tubes are stuffed and contorted into Notknots, yarn is hand-dyed and knit into high fashion shrugs, thin strands are machine knit into animal print jacquard or geometric tech cases. Freeform intarsia adorns the coolest toddler togs, and well-loved ‘peysa are saved from thrift stores and “pimped” for a new lease on life.
I love that Iceland doesn’t confine its textile history to museums. I never need to trot out my list of pro-wool factoids when I’m around people who know in their bones that wool is one of the very best materials on the planet. Pick up a skein and keep an open mind, you may find yourself enamoured.
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