Crack open almost any book about Iceland and you will find an author breathlessly describing the country as a fantastical wonderland filled with dancing elves, healing hot springs, and clean Nordic living. While there is some truth to this idealized view of modern Iceland, for most of its 1140-year history, the country clung to economic survival with bone-raw fingers. Were it not for an unlikely hero, this wind-bitten nation in the middle of the Atlantic would never have survived the Middle Ages.
Shortly after the end of the first millennium, misfortune brought Iceland to its knees. In 1000 CE, Iceland converted to Christianity, curbing the barbarous tendencies of this powerful Viking nation. However, the rape-and-pillage-free peace that followed didn’t last long, and the country devolved into a brutal struggle for power. In 1262, in an effort to quell this violence, the commonwealth was dissolved and the keys to the island handed over to the Norwegians—and later the Danes. The Icelandic subjects were kept on the brink of poverty by a harshly imposed trade monopoly. In the late fifteenth century, the Black Plague wiped out more than 60 percent of the population. Three centuries later, Iceland’s largest volcanoes erupted, choking the already minimally arable land with poisonous ash: citizens resorted to eating their shoes and much-beloved books to stay alive during the famine that followed. After eight centuries as one of the poorest nations in Europe, Icelanders finally regained their economic footing when they wrested themselves free from Danish rule during World War II while Denmark’s king was otherwise preoccupied.
What kept them alive through the centuries, beset by plague, famine, mercurial weather, and war? The humble Icelandic sheep.
Outnumbering people nearly two-to-one (even today), the Icelandic sheep is a long-fleeced, sturdy beast that resembles—after a summer of wandering the high moors and deep valleys—a wild, dirty, ill-tempered mop. The Icelandic sheep’s coat is the very thing that makes it unique and valuable; instead of a single layer of downy fleece, these sheep are dual-coated. The outer layer (tog) is coarse, long, and water-repellent. The inner layer (Þel) is soft and insulating.
A combination of tog and Þel is used to knit lopapeysur sweaters. Despite being a beloved national symbol, lopapeysur are a relatively recent addition to the Icelandic wardrobe. Inspired by traditional Greenlandic women’s costumes and Incan design, Auður Laxness (second wife of Icelandic literary giant Halldór) is said to have originated and popularized these now-ubiquitous fluffy garments in the mid-twentieth century.
The yarn from which lopapeysur are made—lopi—is terribly tricky to work with (particularly for English-style knitters), as it is traditionally unspun, the tog and þel fibers held together by a tenuous agreement and luck. Knitting with unspun wool is an invention of necessity: too busy eking out a living in the unforgiving landscape, homemaking women dispensed with the tedious and time-consuming step of spinning and got straight to making warm clothes. Luckily for the modern knitter, lopi is now manufactured in spun and unspun varieties.
Lopapeysur may be recent to the Icelandic identity, but sheep and wool are mentioned frequently in the Sagas. Vaðmál (homespun, a coarsely-woven textile made from domestically spun woolen yarns) was valuable enough to have been included in dowries and used to settle bloody vendettas. The importance of knitting is revealed in other legends, including that of Jólakötturinn (The Yule Cat). Never a nation to shy away from the grim and horrific, this giant and fearsome beast is said to devour any child who doesn’t receive a piece of newly knitted clothing on Christmas Eve.
Though not as prominent in their national identity and popular imagination as knitting, Iceland does have a rich heritage of free-style and counted-grid embroidery dating back to pre-Reformation medieval times. Traditional Icelandic embroidery is not dissimilar from its Nordic neighbors; darning stitches and patterns are nearly identical to those of the smøyg tradition in Norway. Cross-stitch (invented as soon as people learned how to fashion needles from bone) is ubiquitous across needle-working traditions, but is used sparingly in early Icelandic needlework. More common is the long-armed cross-stitch fléttusaumur or gamli krosssaumurinn (the braid stitch and the old cross stitch, respectively), a variant popular in medieval Germany that yields a plaited, knit-like texture. Refilsauamur (filled-in stitch), a multi-step, multi-stitch technique of freestyle embroidery, is the same as used in the eleventh century English masterwork, the Bayeux Tapestry. Patterns and motifs, collected in ten extant manuscripts dating from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, known as sjónabækur (pattern books), can be found in handcrafts from across continental Europe (including Slavic countries like Ukraine).
What makes the body of extant traditional embroidery pieces unique is the prevalence of that essential Icelandic material—wool. Simple economics drove the reliance on domestically-produced woolen fabrics and threads; during the period of the Danish trade monopoly, the import of goods—including fabrics and threads—was incredibly expensive. It was a lucky needleworker indeed who had the opportunity to work with imported linens, silks, or metallics.
Rivaled in importance only by the sea and its bounty, Icelandic sheep have played a pivotal role throughout the nation’s history. But as Iceland leapt—with enthusiastic bravado—into the modern twentieth century world, the idyllic and quintessentially Icelandic tradition of sheep farming faced existential threats. Following World War II, the rural population began to abandon the countryside for the bustling capital, now home to more than a third of the entire country. Icelandic tastes changed; consumption of chicken, pork, and beef has surpassed that of lamb. Because of these cultural shifts, the number of sheep farms has been continually declining: 20 percent disappeared between 1993 and 2008.
Whatever the future holds for the Icelandic sheep and her farmer, the country is deeply indebted to this humble and hardy animal. Meat and leather gave the Icelanders a fighting chance in their harsh home; wool, the raw material for handicrafts that shaped Icelandic culture and identity. On your next visit, be sure to raise a glass in praise of the Icelandic Sheep.
Justin Allan-Spencer's article on Icelandic sheep first appeared in Nordic Kultur 2019. Grab a copy of the magazine on your next visit or avoid the Jólakötturinn by adding some of our splendid knitted sweaters and other items to your shopping at Julefest or in the Museum store.