History of Icelandic wool

Knitting in Iceland has been a traditional and important craft until the middle of last century.

Sock Knitting

The settlement of Iceland began in the 9th century by Norwegian, Scottish, and Irish pioneers. Although knitting was only introduced in the 16th century, it quickly spread across the country. In fact, it became so important to island life that everyone was 'tied up' in it - women, men, and children. This is illustrated by this old Icelandic poem:

The most obvious reason for the rapid proliferation of knitting in Iceland is the versatility and practicality of its products. Another is the abundance of raw materials on the island. Iceland continues to be populously inhabited by a long-haired breed of sheep that was brought over by settlers in the 9th century. This breed has its own distinct genetic pool because importation of animals to the island is and has long been prohibited.

The tradition of knitting in Iceland evolved during a very difficult time for Icelanders. From the late 14th to the mid-19th century, the island was in a period of "Long Nights" - a dark era dominated by Danish rule, economic isolation, and catastrophic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. During this time, people knitted often and everywhere: in almost complete darkness, sitting in their huts of turf, as they walked down the street, and while they did other tasks. Homes were built with special knitting rooms and families gathered around the fireplace - all knitting - as they listened to the reading of the Psalms and the old Sagas. Knitting speed was determined by the number of lines read. Because of limited daylight hours, small windows, and dim oil lamps people were often knitting in the dark.

Sock Knitting

As a rule, socks were knitted on the same day as shearing. Wool was treated during the day and socks had to be ready by the evening. Often, sock knitters competed in knitting-speed contests, sometimes propping their eyelids open with rods to overcome fatigue. An average knitter of that time produced 4 to 5 pairs of socks per day. So it comes as no surprise that knitted goods were Iceland's top export. For example, in 1624, Iceland exported 72,230 pairs of knitted socks and 12,232 mittens! Unfortunately, no woolen goods from those days remain, but it's most likely that they were rough-spun, simple, and monochromatic, intended for the working class in Europe.

The unique qualities of Icelandic wool, namely insulation, water repellency, high wear-resistance and easy care, made wool clothes so popular abroad. But knits that were made for Icelanders were likely of higher quality than those exported. Particularly because all of the clothes that Icelanders wore at the time were knitted: hats, socks, pants, jackets, undergarments, shoes, suspenders. Knitted material also replaced other materials and was used to create many things, from pillows to tents.

The early 20th century brought social change and a betterment of living conditions; Icelanders finally obtained political independence and were introduced to many new technologies that changed the peoples' way of life more profoundly than they had in any other country. Consequently, ceasing to be vital and replaced by new technologies and industries, hand knitting began to decline.

At this time there was a well-known and internationally popular Icelandic sweater Lopapeysa - a godsend for tourists visiting Iceland. By the end of the 20th century, hand-knitted exports no longer made up any significant portion of the state budget.

But in the early 21st century, largely due to the economic crisis of 2008, hand-knitting again gained popularity among Icelanders as well as lovers of natural and environmentally friendly products everywhere.