EDITOR’S NOTE: All I’m gonna say about Jess’s column this month is it’s so beautiful I can’t even stand it. Iceland 2017 or bust—
One of the great ironies of my twenties is that I went to Iceland before I was a knitter. I knitted a little bit – mostly hats and fingerless gloves and things like that – but didn’t know anything about Iceland’s knitting history, its iconic yoke sweaters, the fuzzy skeins of lopi. But when yarn is being sold in grocery stores and sheep are everywhere you look, you quickly get the idea that understanding knitting’s place in Iceland is central to understanding the country itself.
This was back in 2012, shortly after the country’s financial crisis, and that striking yoked sweater known as a lopapeysa seemed to be the uniform for all Icelanders — a source of national pride and identity. Ragga Eiríksdóttir (raggaknits on Ravelry) was interviewed during the recovery about just that, saying that following the collapse in 2008, “suddenly everyone started to knit Icelandic sweaters like crazy” as both a return to their roots and as backlash against the banking and globalization that had seemingly brought the country to this place. This isn’t just a casual observation – Ístex, the country’s biggest wool manufacturer, is now producing twice the amount of wool yarn as it did nearly 10 years ago. This quote from Árni Árnason in The Reykjavik Grapevine sums it up well:
It resembles the country’s rugged nature and reminds us of the history of farming and fishing when it provided its wearer with a vital shield from the disastrous weather one can encounter in the wild. Furthermore it appeals greatly to the disillusioned and globalised 21st Century traveller. It’s as close as one can get to the source without shovelling shit in a sheepfold.
This resurgence in knitting had me wondering (like with the Aran sweater from last month’s post) about the origins of the lopapeysa. As you drive through the country, sheep are clustered in nearly every valley and mountainside. They seem as ancient and integral to the landscape as the moss or the waterfalls. Surely, I thought, Icelanders have been knitting for centuries, right? But the recent digging on Arans gave me pause before assuming that the iconic sweater had been around for just as long.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ICELAND
Vikings began arriving to Iceland between 870 and 930 CE, first settling in what is now Reykjavík and then moving on to settle the remaining arable pockets of countryside. In 930 CE, the Alþingi (pronounced “Althing”) formed to regulate the Icelandic Commonwealth, the oldest national parliament in the world. Leaders from across the island met at Þingvellir (pronounced “Thingvellir”), a huge rift valley that marks the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the meeting between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It’s now a national park, just a short drive northeast from Reykjavík, and is stunning and awe-inspiring to see in person.
By any measures, life has never been easy on Iceland. When it was first settled, the North Atlantic was in the middle of the Medieval Warm Period, when temperatures were warmer than usual – a period that lasted until about 1250 when Iceland fell into the Little Ice Age until the mid-19th century. Within the first few hundred years of Vikings’ arrival, the country transformed from a lushly wooded landscape to arctic desert – mostly due to deforestation, overgrazing by cattle and sheep, and farmers pushing the land to the brink of what’s possible to survive.
After the Icelandic Commonwealth fell apart in the 13th century, the island was controlled by a mix of outside powers – the Norwegian Empire, the Kalmar Union (a united Norway, Denmark and Sweden), and later Denmark. For centuries, Iceland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. It was ravaged by two outbreaks of the Black Death in the 15th century; a smallpox epidemic in the 18th century; and continuous natural disasters and volcanic eruptions made survival a constant struggle.
But through it all, Icelanders remained committed to their history and identity. The sagas and eddas, written in the 9th, 10th and early 11th centuries, are some of the greatest accomplishments in world literature. They detail the history and genealogy of early Icelandic settlers and many Icelanders can trace their family lineage back to figures in these stories. The literacy rate is near-universal and has been since the end of the 18th century, and I remember speaking with an Icelander while I was there who credited this high literacy rate with Iceland’s ability to rise out of poverty in the 20th century. During and after World War II, the country prospered substantially, driven by the industrialization of the fishing industry and the Marshall Plan, receiving more aid per capita than any other country in Europe. In 1944, they gained independence from Denmark.
I’m telling you this not because it’s related to knitting, but because it’s central to understanding who Icelanders are. They have been living for centuries in one of the most remote and unforgiving landscapes in the world, and have somehow risen above those odds to become one of the most prosperous, highly educated, creative and independent people of anywhere. These are some of the qualities that I admire most in Iceland and its people, and ones that I see come through in their knitting.
KNITTING ON ICELAND
When the Vikings first arrived, they brought sheep with them. Bred in near-total isolation for centuries, Icelandic sheep have become one of the purest livestock populations in the world. Icelanders have relied on them for centuries for meat, milk and fiber (and still do), but now the rest of the world knows them primarily for their fleece. Their fleeces are dramatically double-coated. The outer coat, called tog, which has a mohair-like quality, is most suitable for outerwear. The inner coat, called þel (pronounced “thel”) is fine and incredibly soft. These two fibers can be spun separately, but they’re often spun together.
The word lopi simply refers to roving, but Icelandic knitters realized that they could knit with lopi instead of spun yarn to create a light but durable sweater. Traditional lopi can be found in a plate or disk, called a plötulopi , which is harder to find outside Iceland. Most commercially-available lopi is a lightly spun yarn that can be found in aran, bulky and superbulky weight.
The oldest piece of knitting found in Iceland is a mitten excavated at the Stora Borg farm in southern Iceland, dated to early 16th century, but written sources about knitting suggest it’s likely been around much longer. All people knitted, both men and women, and children were taught to knit very young. Everyone was expected to complete knitting tasks that were equal to their age and ability. For women, that might be a pair of socks each day, and for kids, a pair of mittens each week. Other objects have been found on other farms across Iceland too, but as you may suspect, the lopapeysa is not one of them. The story of that iconic garment is a much more recent one.
There are a few things that unite all lopapeysas. First, they’re always knit in lopi, usually a bulky weight. Second, there’s usually no shaping, so most designs are unisex. Lastly, there’s a unified pattern or design sweeping across the yoke.
As for the origins of the sweater, there are a few theories. But maybe the most convincing theory (and also most surprising – for me, anyway), suggests that the yoke pattern was inspired by the Greenlandic nuilarmiut. I had never heard of this garment before, but after a quick Google image search, you’ll see the connection. A nuilarmiut is an intricate, brightly-colored beaded yoke that’s part of a traditional Greenlandic woman’s costume for an important ceremony, such as a wedding or national holiday, and has become a powerful symbol of Greenlander identity.
Greenland and Iceland share a long history, shaped in part by their close geographic proximity but also their history of Danish rule. Laurie Bertram, a history professor at the University of Toronto, writes that the nuilarmiut/lopapeysa connection was likely fostered by a 20th-century Norwegian land claim campaign and handknitting revival movements in both Iceland and Norway. She then points to Kate Davies and Harpa Hreinsdóttir’s book Yokes for more of the history.
Davies writes that a Norwegian knitter and activist named Annichen Sibbern Bøhn drafted the first knitting pattern using the nuilarmiut as inspiration around 1929, basing her pattern on the beaded collar depicted in George Schnéevoigt film, Eskimo. (Davies writes about this a bit on her blog if you want to see photos.) Annichen named her pattern Eskimo, and combined the structure of the circularly-knit Norwegian sweater with the patterning of the Greenlandic nuilarmiut. Annichen was a pretty rad woman – she spent 1927 traveling around Norway and documenting traditional knitting patterns, which were compiled in her landmark book, Norsk Strikkemonstre. During WWII, she and her husband were active in the Norwegian Resistance. If you’re interested in learning more about her, you can check out a PDF of an article that Terri Shea wrote for Piecework Magazine here, and thanks to Terri, now order Annichen’s reprinted book here.
Davies and Hreinsdóttir argue that the adoption of a Greenlandic pattern by a Norwegian woman was a political act, a deliberate stance of independence in response to a scramble between Norway and Denmark over Greenlandic resources and territory at the time. The pattern was published in several magazines and eventually spread to Iceland, where Hreinsdóttir suggests that the pattern and its roots took on new meaning for Icelandic knitters. Following Iceland’s independence in the 1940s and the Cod Wars of the ’50s and ’70s, the lopapeysa — a hard-wearing sweater made from Icelandic lopi — symbolized Iceland’s independence from foreign powers. The sweater took on a life of its own and went on to become a cornerstone of the Icelandic handknitting and tourism industry and the icon we know today.
Knitting with lopi was obvious for this swatch, but the design options were seemingly limitless! I picked up a copy of Védís Jónsdóttir’s book “Knitting with Icelandic Wool” from my local library for some pattern inspiration, and was struck by the tree design in Jóhanna Hjaltadóttir’s pattern Ár trésins. It was originally published in the 1960s or ’70s, but the design looks geometric and fresh, as if it could be designed today.
I’m also not sure how this happened, but I had never knit with lopi before! It’s light, lofty and knits up super fast. It’s also pretty affordable compared with other bulky yarns (under $10 per skein), which is great if you’re going to make a big, cozy colorwork sweater with it. Since the colorwork yoke of any lopapeysa is worked in the round, I knit the swatch in the round as well.
Yarn: Álafosslopi in Black, Light Grey Heather and White
Needles: US9/5.5mm metal needles
Gauge: 16.5 stitches / 18 rows = 4 inches in colorwork pattern, below
ME T H O D
For the colorwork chart, please see Védís Jónsdóttir’s “Knitting with Icelandic Wool.”
PREVIOUSLY in Swatch of the Month: Aran sweater legends