In the heart of the North Atlantic, the land of fire and ice draws curious travelers from across the globe. Volcanic landscapes, natural geysers, and cascading waterfalls call adventurers to dive into Iceland’s raw and largely untouched beauty.
From this incredible natural destination, a cultural icon has emerged that defines Iceland just as much as the breathtaking scenery.
The humble Icelandic sweater, known as the lopapeysa, is not as historic as you may think. But it is a genuine symbol of national pride and makes a great souvenir from your trip. Of course, it will also serve a practical use if you visit Iceland in the winter, when temperatures can plummet.
A modern tradition
Contrary to what you may first assume, the Icelandic sweater doesn’t have a history spanning hundreds of years. In fact, it made its first appearance on the Icelandic cultural scene as recently as the 1950s. Even so, there’s still a delightful murkiness about its exact origins.
Some say Auður Laxness, wife of Iceland’s Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, was inspired by a Greenlandic sweater. Others point to influences from other parts of Scandinavia.
Regardless of its beginnings, this unique piece was birthed from a passion for hand-knitting and a desire to utilize the abundant wool from the sheep of Iceland.
Icelandic wool, or lopi, is harvested from sheep that roam freely around the island. The Icelandic sheep, direct descendants from those brought over by 9th-century settlers, have two distinct layers of fleece.
The inner layer, or þel, offers insulation, while the outer layer, known as tog, is water-repellent. Together, they produce a yarn that’s lightweight, incredibly warm, and resilient against harsh Arctic climates.
‘Wearable art’ and beyond
Aside from the wool, the most distinguishing feature of the lopapeysa is its round yoke design—a wide decorative circle emanating from the neckline often featuring a triangular pattern at the top and bottom of the yoke.
Inspired by elements from Icelandic nature including clouds, mountain peaks, and lava flows, the patterns capture the country’s rugged beauty. While some artisans dye the wool, others prefer natural shades, showcasing earthy browns, greys, blacks, and whites in their designs.
Beyond its aesthetics, the Icelandic Sweater also holds surprising social significance. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, tourism to Iceland soared and production of the sweater became an important economic pillar for many families.
The lopapeysa offers a chance for tourists to connect with a culture that melds rural traditions with hardy resilience.
As Icelandic writer Árni Árnason aptly put it, wearing a lopapeysa “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.”
Where to buy an Icelandic sweater
If you’re passing through the capital city Reykjavik on your Icelandic adventure, it’s not hard to find one for sale. But don’t buy the first one you find.
Numerous stores offer everything from the more ‘traditional’ yoke pattern in muted colors through to brightly-colored modern interpretations with hoods and zippers.
Just be aware that cheaper alternatives, manufactured abroad using Icelandic patterns, are also available. If the price seems good to be true, check to see the item’s place of origin.
To be sure you’re getting the real deal, check out the Kolaportið flea market or the oldest shop in Reykjavik, Thorvaldsens Bazar. If nothing grabs your eye, you could even speak to a local to have one custom-made—if you’re prepared to pay.
Not traveling to Iceland any time soon? You needn’t miss out. The global interest in the Icelandic sweater means there are several places to purchase the authentic product online. Typical prices range $150-$300 from Icewear or Icelandic Store, amongst others, but be sure to check the wool’s origin and the production methods.
To be considered an authentic Icelandic sweater, the product must be hand-made from 100% Icelandic sheep wool.