Iceland: The Ultimate Knitter's Experience
September 18-25, 2012
Imagine a faraway island with its own breed of sheep and residents who wear colorful handknits every day. Now imagine this island has an exquisite landscape of volcanic peaks, lava fields, fjords, and glaciers. Oh, and did I mention that it also has flavorful butter, yogurt you could cut with a knife, and really good coffee?
This island is Iceland. I just spent the last week there as the featured guest on a Knitting Iceland adventure—joined by 16 other intrepid knitters and one extremely yarn-aware non-knitter.
Our host, guide, and teacher was Ragga (a comfortably shortened version of her beautiful yet quite long and difficult to pronounce Icelandic name). She is the creative force behind Knitting Iceland, and she has been bringing foreign knitters to this island for several years now.
A Reykjavik Romance
The journey began in Reykjavik, where we took a few days to recover from jetlag and gather our bearings. Ragga and I taught classes at the Kex Hostel, a comfortably hip spot by the waterfront. (How hip? Over lunch, Ragga pointed out members of the Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós at the next table.)
Classrooms were funky in an utterly perfect way—although I confess the presence of a well-used punching-bag did make me a little nervous.
I taught a class all about the nuances of fiber and yarn, with a second session focusing exclusively on the wonders on wool.
Then Ragga showed the group how to knit a traditional Icelandic yoked sweater in the round.
The speedier knitters left class that night with a completed sweater, looking forward to cutting their steeks back at the hotel.
Class was cut short by a knocking on the window—our chef from dinner, who yelled incomprehensible words to Ragga. "OK everybody, quick!" she announced. "Northern Lights, class dismissed!"
We ran outside just in time to catch the last few green wisps in the sky. Later I saw more from my apartment balcony.
Head West, Young Knitters!
Soon it was time to leave the city and head west (actually north) to the fjords. Our destination was the Snæfellsnes peninsula.
Bellies full of Skyr (a thick yogurt-like treat) and dried fish dredged in butter, we boarded our bus and headed out of town. Ragga told us she had a surprise: We were going to visit the Istex factory, where nearly all of Iceland (and the rest of the world) gets its Icelandic-wool yarns.
We saw bales of scoured wool being dyed, blended, carded, drafted, spun, skeined, labeled, tucked into plastic bags and boxed for shipment. As in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," each machine seemed to lure a few more of us away. It was the cleanest, most complete and efficient mill I have ever yet visited.
Bales of scoured Icelandic wool were stacked high.
We saw masses of fiber being dyed in giant vats.
But the carding machine is what really lost us.
Although the spinning frame was a close second.
Several steps later, we watched skeins of Lopi being efficiently wound by machines, plopped into little trays, given a gentle squeeze with a padded mechanical arm, and then labeled and slid into clear plastic bags.
Presto, ready to ship.
No factory is complete without a factory outlet. But this one was a little different from what you might expect. More of a showroom, it was located a few miles down the road in the building where the original Alafoss mill was situated.
Alafoss, founded in 1896, went into bankruptcy some 21 years ago. Three of the original employees bought it, and they now have a fourth owner.
They changed the company's name to Istex, which is why you may see Alafoss and Istex used interchangeably—and why your older skeins of Lopi may have the older name attached. While the current owners retain 50% ownership, the other half of the company is owned by the Icelandic sheep farmers association, which currently numbers about 1800 farmers.
The original mill was powered by this stream, and the area's naturally heated water was used to scour the wool.
Back in our bus, wool appetites sated for the moment, we settled in for our drive up to the peninsula. Halfway along we stopped for groceries and were amazed to discover that the store had an actual knitting section—with yarns, needles, patterns, accessories, everything. Apparently all the grocery stores do, and nobody but the American tourists seems to make a big deal out of it.
We stopped for lunch at the Háafell goat farm—really more of a goat preserve—run by a woman named Jóhanna. The early Nordic settlers first brought goats with them to the island. They thrived. But soon the settlers realized they needed more fat in their diet, at which point they brought in sheep, and goats slowly fell out of favor.
The island had a healthy goat population for centuries, but goats got a bad reputation for ruthless foraging. In fact, today their biggest enemy is the older, traditional Icelandic farmer who sees goats as a threat. Yet they represent the oldest native goat breed in Nordic Europe, and Jóhanna is working to preserve it.
Their down undercoat averages a luxurious 16 microns, prompting most people to call it cashmere. Yarn is in the works, though not available yet. You can, however, adopt a goat and pay it a visit throughout the year.
At lunch we got to sample some of Jóanna's goat's milk and goat's-milk cheese, as well as several of the skincare products she makes with materials from her goats.
Up next was a quick stop at a tiny plant farm run by Ragga's friend Páll. He took us into a small room filled with bags of gorgeous hand-washed Icelandic fleeces in various colors. The spinners in the group went nuts.
At sunset we reached our destination, a small hostel tucked between sea and mountains. That's a glacier in the distance.
Those who didn't fall asleep right away stayed up knitting by candlelight in the hostel lounge. I went to sleep to the cozy sound of voices, opening and closing doors, and footsteps in the hallway—familiar to anyone who's stayed at hostels before. Inside, we were warm and cozy. Outside, torrential rains fell and the wind howled.
The next morning the rain had cleared and people explored the beach and knit with their new friends. A few of us split off and went for a horseback ride nearby, sauntering down to the beach, splashing across deep streams, and doing our best to stay on our saddles when the horses went into a trot.
For me, the high point of the entire journey was the rettir, an annual tradition of bringing the sheep down from the mountains, sorting them into their respective flocks, and then getting them back home to their farms for the winter.
Our tour bus bumped down narrow dirt roads until it reached a field where cars and people had already gathered. At the center was a large wooden pen around which were several smaller pens. Along the outside, people perched and chatted. Inside, nervous sheep wondered what was happening next.
Our task was to go inside and start "catching" sheep, which I assure you sounds far easier than it actually was. We were to grab their horns, straddle them tight, read the number on their ear tag, find someone who knew where that sheep went, and then walk/drag the reluctant sheep over to that pen. (Here Ragga demonsrates how it's done.) I honestly had no intentions of participating, but I did, and it was unforgettable.
Rettir is clearly an event for neighbors, family, and friends. Our tour bus was an anomaly. People perched on the rails, chatting in clusters. Toddlers were lifted into the sheep pen and walked around by their parents. Children caught the smaller ones. More experienced farmers did the task with panache, often grabbing a single horn and straddling the sheep so swiftly that it didn't know what had happened. We were perhaps slightly less graceful—there were a few tumbles—but we caught on quickly and did our part.
People lingered on long after the sheep were sorted. Children went into the farm's pens and fiddled with their sheep. We wandered around marveling at all the handknits, furtively trying to snap pictures of our favorites. It was like a living Lopi commercial.
Finally it was time to move the sheep back home to their farms for the winter. This wasn't a matter of backing up the trailers, they simply released the sheep and helped them find their way home. The sheep were all too happy to go.
We followed on foot behind, forming a long stream of sheep, people, and cars.
About a mile later, we turned up a road and headed to one farm. A party was underway in the sheep barn. We were served Icelandic meat soup, a brothy lamb-based soup with root vegetables, accompanied by fresh breads and cakes and the discreet streams of Icelandic folk tunes being played on accordion.
We got friendlier with the same sweaters we'd been stalking all afternoon, and pretty soon people were posing in their Lopis for us. The farm we visited is in the process of setting up an adopt-a-sheep program for knitters abroad—bookmark sheep.is and I'll let you know when it's live.
Muscles tired and bruises not yet fully formed (those sheep horns were quite pointy), we then drove up the road to a quiet mineral pool that we had all to ourselves. The minerals made the pool floor extremely slippery, allowing several of us to carry on a particularly entertaining attempt at water volleyball.
On the ride back to our hostel, we were utterly sated. Nobody talked. The landscape spoke for itself.
Those who didn't fall asleep right away congregated in the lounge and chatted by candlelight, Ragga treating us to a live sweater-steeking demonstration. In the next room, the movie "Grease" was showing on TV, with Icelandic subtitles. When the song "We Go Together" came on, we all started singing together, the knitters in one room, Icelanders in the other.
A Mighty Collection
The next morning, fortified by a hearty meal of smoked and pickled trout, various cheeses and cold cuts and muesli, we drove through yet more stunning landscape—this time causing impromptu choruses of "The Sound of Music." Our destination was the Textile Museum in Blönduós, which had been opened just for us. There we were given gloves and set loose to touch centuries-old garments and fabrics.
Here are several hand-dyed, handspun Icelandic lace shawls.
The museum also had a huge collection of regional costumes, handwovens, quilts, and a flowered wall-hanging, each flower made from a different family member's lock of lovingly preserved hair.
The view outside the museum windows was equally awe-inspiring.
By now the rain and muddy dirt roads had gotten the best of our white bus. Naturally, we did what any self-respecting knitters would do: We added graffiti.
After a lunch, during which the staff jokingly threatened to impose a butter surcharge (as I said, the butter in Iceland is really, really good), we loaded back into our sheep bus and bumped our way over hills, across valleys, and over bridges that grew narrower and narrower at each turn.
"This bridge is one inch wider than the bus!" Ragga teased, and then the bus driver stopped in the middle. "Anyone want to jump?" Amid cries of "No!" he explained that he couldn't open the doors even if he wanted to, that's how narrow the bridge was. We were trapped.
Fortunately we reached the other side, rejoined a larger road, and eventually pulled into the driveway of ethno-botanist and natural-dyer Gudrun Bjarnadottir's home. In her small dye studio, she shared her story and showed us some of the native plants she most uses for colors—here she's showing us lupine.
There was a bit of a feeding frenzy when she finished her talk. (She sells her yarns on Etsy under the name "Hespa.")
Outside, some of us took turns playing fetch with Gudrun's exceptionally well-trained sheepdog.
The day was ending, but we had just enough time to stop at the wool collective in Hvanneyri, where local craftspeople sell their products. Besides the ever-present Istex yarns we also had hand-dyed yarns, some very special plutolopi, heaps of sweaters and hats and mittens, and unusual jewelry made from sheep horns.
The group was quiet and sleepy as we made our way back into the city. Yet the effect is only temporary. By the time we met for dinner the next night, all but one person admitted to having bought even more yarn in town that day.
The Last Supper
After a week that passed in a blur, we'd reached our farewell dinner. Over plates of perfectly cooked Icelandic cod, we toasted one-another and celebrated what we'd just experienced together. Email addresses were exchanged, and promises were made to keep in touch.
Ragga still had one more surprise up her sleeve. After dinner, a row of cabs was waiting outside. They whisked us out of town to a church where a group of local knitters was waiting. Several years ago, Ragga had started a knitting group in this church, and it has been going strong ever since. This was their big autumn gathering, and we were the guests of honor.
The universal act of knitting helped us break through our collective shyness, as we carried on conversations using sign-language, a little English, and only one or two Icelandic words we'd managed to pick up during our trip. These were astonishing knitters. One woman cast-on and finished an adult-sized mitten that night. Another woman, well into her 90s, was already turning the heel of a sock she'd cast on when she arrived. She had 18 grandchildren (one of whom was with her and translated for us), and each year she made a pair of socks for each grandchild. Naturally, this sock was going in the gift pile.
Clearly Iceland is that place knitters dream about. A place where life is slower, wool unique and abundant—and where the handknitting tradition is alive and well.
Read other event reviews
Find a fiber event near you