Fire And Ice

In our current Craft issue of Selvedge, we travel to Iceland to explore the textiles of the North Atlantic. Expert Hélène Magnusson takes us on a tour of the island to unearth the history of knitting in Iceland's culture today...

The volcanic island of Iceland can be found far from any sight of mainland in the North Atlantic Ocean. Resting on a landscape of sand, lava fields, mountains and glaciers, this country is widely known as the most sparsely populated in Europe, and has in fact one of the richest textile histories that lives on in Icelandic culture today...

If there is such a thing as a knitter’s paradise, Iceland is it. Icelandic wool has been a staple in the history of this remote island for centuries and without it, the people that came from Norway at the end of the 9th century would never have survived. The sheep they brought with them, now known as Icelandic sheep, have a uniquely versatile double coat of wool: the ‘thel’ are the very fine, soft inner fibres that are highly insulating. The outer fibres, called the ‘tog’, are much longer, shinier and water repellent. Combining the two allows for a vast array of yarns; from pure tog – which makes a strong, twisted yarn used for ropes, belts or rugs – to pure thel, which makes the finest shawls, mittens or underwear.

With their sheep, the Vikings brought a whole textile tradition to Iceland, including working the wool and tanning the skins, loom-weaving, tablet-weaving, braiding, embroidery and dying with plants and lichens – all of which remain part of Icelandic culture today. Of all the crafts, however, knitting is the most popular. It came to Iceland much later, with German and Dutch merchants in the 16th century. Quick, simple and portable, knitting spread throughout the country and in the 17th century became a big export. Everyone knitted, regardless of age or gender. At the start of the 20th century however, handknitting began to decline, but refused to become extinct completely.

While in Iceland, be prepared to be overwhelmed by knitting: there are lopapeysur (yoke sweaters knitted with lopi), hats and mittens everywhere, wool sold in supermarkets and in gas stations, and knitting corners found in public places like coffee shops, libraries and even hospitals. The must-see destination for lopi wool and lopi sweaters is the Handknitting Association of Iceland in Reykjavik city centre. Probably the biggest representation of Icelandic knitting today, the lopapeysa is a fairly recent invention dating back to the 1950s, and became immensely popular in the seventies. The unspun lopi with which the sweaters are knitted is a bit older, and dates back to the 1930s when women began to experiment with knitting without spinning the wool into yarn first, knitting directly from the lopi and mixing both tog and thel...

You can read this article in full in the current Craft issue of Selvedge.

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