Spend a little time with the knitting community and sooner or later you’re bound to come across Ístex Lopi. It’s a big call, but we’d say it’s one of, if not the most famous yarn brand in the world. But let’s be honest. When it comes to Lopi, it’s not all sunshine and roses. This bulky, crunchy, 100% Icelandic wool has a reputation. This reputation divides the yarn community in two: either you love it or you don’t love it yet. This latter group is usually made up of people who are used to softer, more cushy yarns and who often have a history of being so traumatised by their grandmother’s itchy handmade sweaters that they’ve written off yarns like Lopi before trying them. If you’re one of these latter people, never fear. At Ja, Wol, we LOVE this deliciously crunchy yarn and we’re here to tell you why you should love it too!
Let’s start at the beginning. When Viking settlers first arrived in Iceland in the 9th century, they brought sheep with them. Today’s Icelandic sheep are the direct descendants of those Viking sheep and their unique characteristics have been shaped by the centuries of sub-artic weather braved by their forebears. These sheep have never been successfully crossed with any other species of sheep, which means their pure breeding is now such an important part of Iceland’s natural heritage that it is illegal to import other sheep onto the island! This is partly because Icelandic sheep have a fleece that distinguishes them from the rest. Those centuries of freezing cold weather have given them a two layered coat made of an outer, strong, weather-resistant fibre (tog) and an inner, soft, insulating fibre (þel). Together, these result in the light-weight but super warm Lopi wool.
Ístex was established in 1991 and is a unique yarn company in that it is 80% owned by the 2000 or so sheep farmers who produce and sell their wool directly to the company. Icelandic sheep farms are usually family-run affairs and have an average of 2-300 sheep. This means that many farmers can identify their sheep by name! Sheep farmers in Iceland follow strictly monitored national regulations on animal treatment, which means Icelandic sheep are rarely exposed to antibiotics, hormones or chemical treatments and mulesing is strictly banned, as is unnecessary dehorning. There is no chemical treatment for lice as sheep lice don’t exist in Iceland! During the summer months, Icelandic sheep wander freely across the grasslands and mountains and after being shorn in the winter months, they are sheltered inside until they have grown back their warm wool coats.
Ístex has a scouring plant in Blönduós on the north coast of Iceland and a spinning mill in Mosfellsbær, near Reykjavík. Roughly 99% of all Icelandic wool is processed at these facilities. They only use environmentally friendly cleansing agents and warm geothermal water. All their dyeing processes are certified according OEKO-TEX 100 standard.
But enough about all that magical, environmentally friendly goodness. Let’s not forget to talk about the yarn. This is a family heirloom kind of product. If you lovingly handwash them, your Lopi projects will last longer than a lifetime. It’s not unusual for knitters to hand down their Lopi sweaters across the generations! This is because Lopi yarn is hard-wearing, it doesn’t really pill (true fact!) and it improves with washing. Each wash relaxes the outer tog fibres, letting the inner þel fibres fill the gaps and making it softer. (Pro tip: use a lanolin soap to speed up this process!) As well, Lopi felts easily, so it’s perfect for those of us (read: all of us) who resent having to weave in ends – just splice as you go and leave the wool needle in its case!
Lopi yarn comes in a dazzling range of colours from a stunning selection of undyed whites, beiges, browns and blacks to a veritable rainbow of dyed options. It’s wonderful as an inner layer or if you’re more sensitive to scratchy yarns it so warm that it makes the perfect outer layer. Remember, if you’re concerned about it being itchy, you don’t have to wear this yarn against your bare skin! A long sleeve top or thin merino underlayer will keep you feeling itch free and enjoying its gorgeous halo from the outside. We love Ístex Lopi for sweaters and mittens and everything colour-work!
Written for Ja Wol with information and photos sourced from istex.is.