The importance of knitting to the Icelandic economy and culture is evident to any visitor when they see rows of stores in downtown Reykjavík selling Icelandic sweaters. While knitting in Iceland does not date back to the days of the Vikings, there is evidence that it has been a staple of the island’s economy for over 500 years.
Historical documents from as early as the 1600s indicate that Icelanders were knitting and exporting hundreds of thousands of hand-knitted goods per year, including sweaters, socks, and mittens, no small feat when you consider that the population was likely around 50,000. About 20% of Iceland’s population worked in the wool trade for six months each year, mainly through the winter months, and wearing thimbles made from sheepskin to prevent fingers from blistering and soreness. Women knitters were expected to produce a pair of socks in a day. Some worked in pairs to produce sweaters, in which case a woman was expected to knit four sweaters per week, or six sweater bodies. And not only women did this work: even young children had quotas to meet, with smaller children expected to complete a pair of two-thumbed mittens per week. Even while herding animals, walking from one place to another, people would continue knitting. Of course Christmas season was the busiest time of year for knitters, as they produced more inventory to sell for gifts while at the same time making enough to keep family members and farmhands outfitted through the winter months.
By the 19th century, industrialization was changing the business as knitting machines and appliances were set up in homes and workshops. The automation enabled faster production, but unfortunately at the same time, wool-based Icelandic textiles and knitted goods became less popular as an export. Towards the end of the 19th century, wool factories were established, one in 1896 in the town of Mosfellsbær, and one a year later in the town of Akureyri. By 1900, Iceland was exporting only wool and not knitted goods. Automation changed not only the lifestyles of Icelandic people and their means of making a living, but it also changed the type of wool and woollen cloth made as machines were unable to replicate the wool separating processes formerly done by human hands.
The 20th century brought the world wars and the Great Depression, which forced Icelanders to return to a lifestyle of self-reliance. Knitting in the home was revived as a source of income. As finances began to improve in the 1950s, knitting emerged as a hobby with the development of printed knitting patterns inspired by traditional Scandinavian dress. The dip in the textile industry throughout Europe in the late 1970s led to the closure of the original Icelandic wool factories. It was during the 1970s that, despite the downturn in the market, Icewear began producing its first Icelandic wool sweaters.
Today, Icewear continues this tradition of producing woollen products from Icelandic yarns. In addition to our retail locations, we oversee wool and garment production at various locations in Iceland, including sewing rooms at Asbru and Hvolsvöllur. Visitors to Mýrdalur in the south of Iceland are invited to visit the Icewear Víkurprjón factory shop and observe the process of producing woollen garments in action. We continue to use Icelandic wool in our knitted goods, using the Plötulopi and Létt-lopi varieties for for our hand-knit garments. We use "loðband", or industrial yarn, for machine-knit goods.
Ranges from the article
Icelandic Wool Sweaters
Icelandic Wool Sweaters
You may also be interested in the following articles