Lopi and I go way back. Growing up, I was always clothed in thick, rugged Icelandic sweaters knit by my maternal grandma. The sweaters (in the Lopapeysa style) were bulky yet surprisingly light, and they always kept me warm. They were all knit from Iceland’s distinct “Lopi” yarn, made from loosely twisted fibers of the Icelandic sheep.
How fitting that the country with the oldest Parliament, established in 930, should also have some of the oldest sheep. Only a few times did people attempt to “improve” them, and the results were so catastrophic that all the crossbred sheep had to be killed. Today, it is illegal to import any sheep onto the island.
As a result, Icelandic wool is a sort of genetic time-capsule back to the 8th and 9th century, when early Norse settlers first brought them to the island. Back then, we needed our sheep to do everything for us: provide milk, meat, skin, and fiber.
The Icelandic sheep met our fiber needs by growing a dual-coated fleece. Long, rugged outer-fibers (“tog”) grow among far finer, warmer undercoat fibers (“thel”). Handspinners separate the two fibers, using each for more suitable purposes. But modern mechanized fiber processing now keeps the two fibers together, producing an intriguing and highly effective structural ecosystem for knitted garments.
Lopi yarn comes in several weights, from bulky (called Alafoss Lopi) to a lighter (Lett Lopi) to laceweight (Einband). This review focuses on the classic bulky Alafoss, referred to as “Lopi” here just for simplicity sake.
If you haven’t yet knit with Lopi, do yourself a favor and choose needles with relatively blunt tips. Once you’ve minimized the risk of snags, you’ll find knitting swift and easy.
Lopi looks like a singles, but it’s actually composed of two delicate strands of barely twisted fibers< that have been twisted together to appear as one.
There are no ply shadows, yet the yarn benefits from the added strength, structure, and evenness that comes from being plied.
My stockinette stitches had a little wobble here and there but were otherwise smooth.
Blocking / Washing
The first thing to know about Icelandic wool is that it felts. Fairly easily, in fact. I’m not saying you should avoid washing your Lopi garments by hand. In fact, to do otherwise could make the fibers more brittle and result in chemicals near your skin. No, I’m just suggesting that when you do wash your Lopi garments, do so gently.
That said, marvelous things happen when you wash Lopi. (Washed swatch shown at left.) During spinning, all the fibers have been twisted and tamed into submission. But once you dunk the finished product into lukewarm soapy water, the unique dual-fiber composition springs into action. The fine undercoat fibers relax, stretch out, and fill all the nooks and crannies between the longer outercoat fibers. The result is the yarn equivalent of spraying insulation between the joists of a house. No cold drafts, just excellent warmth all winter.
Visually, that slosh in water evened out most of my wobbly stitches and gave me a smooth, cohesive fabric. It almost looked like it’d been lightly felted, but there was no change in row or stitch gauge.
Remember those coarse outer hairs I mentioned earlier, the ones that grow among the short fine ones? In terms of wearability, those fibers are our friends. Long and strong, they act as I-beams to protect the shorter undercoat fibers and create a cohesive, remarkably durable fabric.
Based on a lifetime of experience I already knew what would happen to my swatches, but I still wanted to make sure nothing had been changed in the Lopi formula. Nope. During a vigorous amount of abrasion, a few short fibers fell from my swatch but the swatch itself did not pill. More abrasion resulted in a few more fibers flying loose and a more distinct halo emerging from the long, lustrous guard hairs. Finally, after undue thrashing, my swatch released a few faint pill-like clusters that were easily plucked.
That’s the durability side. In terms of touch, Icelandic wool has a reputation for being scratchy. If you know how to spin yarn by hand, you can buy an Icelandic fleece, pluck out the tog and just spin the finer thel. You’ll get an ethereal yarn. Otherwise, you’ll have something extremely warm, lightweight, and durable—with a bit of a crunch to it.
Ãlafoss scours all the lanolin out of its fleece, producing a clean yarn with no hint of sheep in it. But I sometimes wonder if this vigorous scouring goes too far and renders the fibers unnecessarily dry and occasionally brittle. The number of blunt, broken fibers that flew out of my swatch while I was rubbing it may well be testament to this.
When my first niece was born, I knit her a traditional Lopi sweater. She wore it for years, and when she outgrew it, she gave it to her sister—who, in turn, wore it for many more years. The sweater is still beautiful. For me, that is the magic of Lopi.
A medium-sized women’s pullover with colorful patterning will require about 13 skeins of yarn, costing $117. If you’re lucky, you’ll have enough yarn left over for a pair of fingerless mitts.
And unlike those flashy, fluffy instant gratification projects that only last a season, whatever you get will last a lifetime. Or longer.