| Iceland and
wool have been bound together since the first
Vikings settled the island. As much livestock
farmers as they were warriors, Iceland's first
settlers took their sheep and other animals with
them when they sailed to their new homes.
sheep is the direct descendant of the Viking
sheep. Its closest relative is the Norwegian
Spelsau, which is descended from the same
original stock. The Icelandic sheep's fleece is
complex. It consists of a long outer hair called
tog in Icelandic, and a short, fine underhair
Woolen cloth was
an Icelandic trading staple during the Middle
Ages. The Sagas tell of young Vikings taking
their Inheritance in ells of va6mdl (see Knitters
Glossary below) , as they set off to seek their
fortunes in the markets of Europe.
spinning came to Iceland in the late nineteenth
century, most fleeces were separated. The two
kinds of wool were used for very different
products. Tog, which can be up to fourteen inches
long, was combed and drawn (lyppao in Icelandic),
and spun into strong cord for sewing, for weaving
canvas for bags, and occasionally plied for rope
and twine. The finest tog, which is similar to
mohair in texture and lustre, was used for
knitting lacy shawls, for embroidery. and
sometimes for durable household fabrics such as
Pel was the fiber of
choice for garments. Brown and gray sheep produce the
softest pel which was preferred for underwear. Handknit
woolen underwear was common in Iceland until after World
Sheep were both a boon and
a burden for Iceland. At the time of settlement, the
island had no native large herbivores. None of the plant
life had any defenses against being eaten. When the
livestock was set loose to graze, they ate everything.
The fragile sub-arctic ecology could not recover from
this onslaught of hungry animals. By the end of the
Middle Ages, the birch forests which once had covered the
island were virtually gone.
Now you have come to your fourth
year Your work you will begin- That is
learning the three arts:
To read, to knit, to spin. -Icelandic
The shortage of wood
for fuel and for building houses and ships had a
devastating effect on the Icelandic economy. The
once-independent island was reduced to being a poor
colony of Denmark. Iceland regained its independence only
Knitting did not appear in
Iceland until late in the Middle Ages, near the beginning
of the sixteenth century. The consensus among Icelandic
scholars is that knitting was introduced from England or
from northern Europe.
Knitting spread quickly
across the island. Knitted woolens displaced the woven vaomal
as Icelands principal export. By the eighteenth
century, an Icelandic servant girl was expected to be
able to produce one long stocking, or to card. spin. and
knit a pair of short socks each day. (Sara Bertha
Porsteinsd6ttir and Valger6ur, Kristin Sigur6ard6ttir.
'Pij6n,' Hugur og H6nd. 1984 p. 10.)
Because knitting requires
no major investment in equipment, even the poorest
Icelanders, outlaws, and people who lived on isolated
farms on the fringes of the habitable land, knitted. In
folktales the most rural (and often dangerous) characters
often wear knitted clothing.
Knitting needles were
treasured possessions. During courtship a young man might
present the object of his affections with a long,
elaborately carved knitting needle case. called a prj6nastokkur.
Today these needle cases are precious heirlooms, as are
spinning wheels and other artifacts of the textile trade.
People knitted constantly.
During the evening working hours, the kvoldvakt,
one of the household would read aloud, often from the
Sagas, while the rest pursued some kind of handwork.
Carding, spinning, and knitting filled these hours, for
men as well as for women.
Most Icelandic knitting
was strictly utilitarian. Warm socks and mittens,
fishermen's sweaters, and snug caps comprised the bulk of
the islands export knitting. Icelandic woolens were
traded all over the Atlantic basin. Icelandic socks and
sweaters were part of the trade goods that Dutch settlers
brought to New York. New Jersey, and Delaware during the
early years of American settlement.
Although knitting and
spinning were mostly commercial activities, they also
provided a source of creative expression, extra money,
and even amusement for people whose lives were spent
eking a living out of a demanding and arduous land.
Workers on farms kept the goods they produced between
Christmas and New Year's. These were sold or bartered for
luxuries and services. Sometimes there were knitting
contests between farms, or among workers on a farm.
Some charted patterns for
color-stranded knitting survive from the eighteenth
century. These patterns were for small squared designs.
They were used for men's vests and for shoe insoles. Many
of the same designs were used for embroidery. (Elsa E.
Gu6j6nssoti. Notes on Knitting in Iceland, 198-5.
Iceland's older knitting
tradition involves fine work. Most knitting needles which
survive from the nineteenth century were only one or two
millimeters thick, and the yarns used were similarly
delicate. For warmth and durability, socks and mittens
were sometimes knitted about three times their intended
size and then felted and shrunk.
Lace knitting, listapij6n,
(literally "artistic knitting"), seems to date
from the middle of the nineteenth century. Two kinds of
shawls were common, the langsjal, a long
rectangle worked in one or several colors, and the
triangular prihyrna. The lace figures used in
Iceland are similar to the knitted laces that can be
found throughout Europe and America-at the time.
Probably the most
Icelandic of Icelandic lace knitting is the klukka.
These elegant dresses are derived from women's knitted
woolen underwear. The klukka (the name actually means
'clock') is composed of twelve long narrow gores joined
with a lace stitch. Today klukkur are knitted with
sleeves, in all lengths from tee shirts to long evening
dresses. Klukkupjj6n is usually done on size two
or three needles, using a fine singles woolen yarn called
eingirni. It is common-non to use graded tones
of a natural color-either black to gray or brown to
tan-in bands at the hem, neck, and sleeves, with a
Knitting with roving, or lopi,
is relatively new. The first documented use of unseen
lopi on a knitting frame was published in an Icelandic
craft magazine in 1923. Handknitting from lopi is
probably no more than about fifty years old. (Gu6j6nsson
1985. pp. 10-13.)
Icelanders knit with the
soft unspun lopi using the Continental technique, which
puts much less strain on the yarn than the American
technique. Much Icelandic yarn sold in America is plied
and slightly twisted to accommodate the American knitter.
However, twist is not necessary, to keep an Icelandic
sweater together, as the wool's extremely long fibers are
longer than a stitch.
Knitting is still an
important part of Icelandic culture. Children as young as
seven are taught the rudiments as part of their regular
school curriculum. Throughout Iceland people still spend
evenings and spare hours knitting the popular yoke
sweater, the lopapeysa, mostly for the tourist trade.
Every snack stand and gas station in rural Iceland sports
a selection of handknit sweaters, mittens, and caps
produced by the people in the neighborhood.
The Icelandic knitting
tradition is much deeper than the famous yoke sweater.
From delicate lacy klukkur to practical two-thumbed
fishermen's mittens, even to lamp shades, knitting has
been an integral part of Icelandic culture for 400 years.