In the 1960s, Meg Swansen spent a month in Reykjavik and fell in love with unusual “plates” of unspun Icelandic wool—which literally translate as “plötulopi.” Instead of being spun, the fibers were simply carded together, peeled away into fine strips, and then wound onto cake-like plates.
Meg shipped a bunch of samples home to her mother, Elizabeth Zimmermann, who fell equally head over heels. She promptly contacted the mill in Iceland and became the U.S. distributor for this unusual yarn. Some 50 years later, Schoolhouse Press is still the place to go for Un-Spun Icelandic.
That’s the history part. What’s this like to knit, and why on earth would you want to use a yarn that hasn’t been spun? Won’t it fall apart in your hands? Most people think so, but you’ll be surprised.
Un-Spun Icelandic is a yarn of many possibilities. The simplest thing is to knit it as a single strand. You can knit a fairly fine, tight fabric using this technique, up to 6-7 stitches per inch.
Your hands may need a few rows to adjust to the yarn’s lack of twist. What’s remarkable is that the yarn really does hold together far better than you’d expect. While most modern sheep have been bred to grow as uniform a fleece as possible, the Icelandic sheep still grows the same dual-coated fleece it did when the Viking settlers arrived on the island nearly 1000 years ago. Two distinct fibers—the short crimpy undercoat fibers called “thel” and longer outercoat fibers called “tog”—team up to create a lofty yet durable yarn.
Should a break happen, though, take comfort in the fact that Icelandic wool is a superb felter. Simply overlap new yarn over your working yarn at the point of break, moisten both ends slightly, and rub them together vigorously in the palm of your hands. The heat and agitation will cause the fibers to felt together, reattaching your yarn without so much as a lump.
The yarn behaved equally well on blunt-tipped bamboo needles and pointy-tipped Signature Stilettos. Even on the sharper tips, the yarn didn’t snag.
Knitting that single strand was easy and pleasant enough, but my hands soon grew antsy. I grabbed the end from the center of the plate, held it along with the end from the outside, and worked the two together. Immediately the fabric plumped up and became far more spongy while still retaining the hardy nuance of Icelandic wool. The added volume made my stitches rounder and gave them better definition, especially with ribbing.
If I’d had more yarn to work with, I would’ve played with holding three, four, or even more strands together. Another thing you can do is strand different colors together to create your own nuanced blends. Un-Spun Icelandic comes in 19 natural and dyed colors. The possible combinations are almost limitless.
Blocking / Washing
My red swatches released an instant poof of red in their warm soapy bath, but the water ran clear in the first rinse. There was no change in gauge from unwashed to washed.
The wash evened out all the wobbly spots in my stitches, leaving a smooth and beautiful piece of cohesive fabric. The warm water caused the crimpy thel to relax, giving my swatches an invitingly fuzzy finish. (Unwashed far left, washed at right.)
Considering the no-twist nature of Un-Spun Icelandic, you may be surprised to know that it wears like iron. The dual-coated nature of Icelandic wool provides its own sort of structural ecosystem for withstanding abrasion. The tog serves as the reinforcing I-beams, the thel as a blown-in insulation that fills in all the nooks and crannies. When you wash your fabric, the fibers relax, enmesh even more, and become semi-felted—not to the point of looking like a fulled garment, but enough to hold everything together under duress.
While I still wouldn’t use Un-Spun Icelandic for a high-abrasion garment like, say, socks, I can tell you that my two-stranded swatch would not pill. Period.
From a touch perspective, Un-Spun Icelandic has the same fundamental qualities as other Icelandic wool yarns—namely, it’s a little crunchy. Tis the nature of the beast. But by virtue of having no twist to harden the fibers, they’re as soft as they can possibly be.
I love the vision of a young Meg Swansen traveling to this remote island, getting excited at the sight of this unusual yarn, and sending armfuls back home to her mother. I love that Elizabeth had the excellent taste in wool that she did, that she managed to snag this yarn for herself, and above all, I love that Schoolhouse Press still makes this yarn available to knitters in North America.
Of all the mainstream Icelandic wool options available to us, Un-Spun Icelandic may be the least-known yet most worthwhile. Not only is the fabric lofty, warm, and well-wearing, but the experience of working with the fibers will teach you something.
Give it a try, won’t you?