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Icelandic Context

Local wool characteristics and typology

What does your local wool look like? (PICTURE) Wool and wool production has been a part of Icelandic history since the time of the first settlers. Wool kept the nation warm and dry and houses isolated. It was used as currency, both the raw material as well as woven and knitted products. For centuries, wool products were one of Iceland's main exports.

Today, wool is considered a byproduct of the meat industry. Since 1980, the number of sheep has decreased significantly, which can be largely attributed to the low price of sheep products and difficult farming conditions. According to the 2020 yearly autumn reports of Statistics Iceland, there are now 401.022 sheep in Iceland, and approx. xxx sheep farms. This number continues to drop.

The characteristics of the wool

Iceland wool has outstanding breathability and thermal insulation. Over 1,100 years in the northern climate and isolation has given the Icelandic wool a distinctive characteristic. The wool is dual-coated with a combination of inner and outer fibers. The soft inner fibers, þel, keeps the sheep warm and is highly isolating. It is used for soft fine wool yarns in undergarments and baby clothes.

The outer fibers, tog, are strong, long and working as an outer coat providing weather resistance for the sheep. Tog is used traditionally as a sewing thread, in rugs and embroidery yarns. When spun together, they create a high-quality wool that is lightweight, water-repellent and highly breathable.

Icelandic sheep come in many different colors. There are, however, only three categories of fleece color: “Color”, “Pattern” and “Spotted”. The first category, color, has two basic colors; black and moorit, including a range of hues. The second category, “Pattern” is sectioned into 6 types: White, Gray, Badgerface, Mouflon, Solid, Grey Mouflon. The third category, “Spotted” is sectioned into 32 different types, which will not be listed here!

Traditional ways of working the wool
Most Icelandic sheep are shorn twice a year, i.e. in the autumn and spring. Given that sheep spend the summer roaming free in the highlands, the autumn wool has the best quality. It is clean and fluffy, with good fiber length. Spring wool contains more lanolin, but is considered less valuable due to (natural) fleece contamination. It is well suited for stuffing or in non-woven applications.

Traditional handicrafts made from wool

Wool production has played a major role in Iceland since the time of settlement. It’s fair to say that until the 19th century, the whole nation wore handmade woolen clothes. Most commonly, the wool was hand-spun into yarn to be knitted or crocheted. Traditional handcrafts include hats, mittens, socks, blankets, shawls, and undergarments. The now famous Icelandic sweater “lopa peysa”, made from unspun wool, was actually not around until the 20th century.

Garments were typically knitted three sizes too large and then felted down to size to make the clothing windproof - Icelandic fleece has long been famous for its excellent felting properties. The outer fibers, þel, were used for sails, rope, sewing thread, belts, rugs, wall hangings, saddle clothes, lace shawls and shoes. Weaving played a major role, and woven goods were used as currency or locally in the form of clothes, blankets, rugs, and wall blankets.

Key actors and active locations in the field

Sheep farmers

Ístex wool washery and spinning factory

After the farmers shred their stock mostly it is sent to wool production company Ístex, processing around 99% of Icelandic wool, where it is both washed and produced into a product. They categorize the wool into classes and around half of it is used and is mostly spun into woolen yarn, after being combed and sometimes dyed. Other more special wool products Ístex has developed include blankets and duvets.

Mini mills

In the mini mills the process is more intimate and personal, as it becomes possible for the farmers to have their stock wool washed, dyed and spun per request. It is likewise possible to request a specific color and other qualities.

dye studios

Knitting factories

Varma is one of two knitting factories in Iceland who knit out of the Icelandic wool and are open to collaboration with designers and innovators

Kidka is the other knitting factory based in hvammstangi, northwest Iceland

Innovative projects working with wool:

Ístex has started producing products using the second class wool that is not used and thought not to be not usable for yarn making. The products are a duvet, pillow and mattress in different sizes. “Sleeping surrounded by wool will improve your sleep, and there are scientific reasons for that. The wool regulates your body temperature. The wool fibres in our duvets are nonwoven, which means there is volume between the fibres. This allows for air to be trapped between them (air is a great insulator). This structure maximises the efficiency of the wool as thermal insulator.”

Ró is a collaborative project between three women based in Seyðisfjörður Iceland that strives towards enriching life with physical well-being. Using Icelandic wool both as fillers in mattresses and duvet as well as outer fabrics.

Last update: June 25, 2022