The sheep brought to Iceland by the earliest Norwegian settlers 1100 years ago, therefore, had to be hardy...able to survive the harsh climate and dearth of grassland. Luckily, the Icelanders, also hardy-types, were able to stand even the scratchiest of wool to keep them warm.
As with a glass (Half full versus half-empty), there are two ways of looking at Icelandic wool...versatile and useful for many project types or, scratchier than hell. The optimists' high regard for this unique wool type goes as follows:
Regardless of how one chooses to think of Icelandic yarn, a knitters trip to Iceland would be made more complete by a visit to one of the Reykjavik shops run by the Handknitting Association of Iceland.The Icelandic fleece is perhaps the world's most versatile fiber. Handspinners wishing to spin a wide range of yarns for an even wider range of uses from a single fleece, will be delighted to discover this fiber...The Icelandic fleece is dual coated, meaning that it has a long outer coat called tog and a fine inner coat called thel.
The tog is classed as a medium wool with a 50-53 spinning count, or 27 microns. It is wavy with little or no crimp and is therefore perfect for worsted spinning. Pure tog yarns make excellent warp that stands up to the weaving process without breakage.
The thel or undercoat is three to four inches long with an irregular crimp. It is fine, soft as cashmere and lustrous...Lofty when spun, it makes a luxurious warm woolen yarn when used for next to the skin garments.
Icelandic sheep have the widest color range of any breed, including many shades of white, gray and black, and a variety of browns.Historically Icelandic fiber was separated for most uses. The tog was made into twine, rope and embroidery thread. It was woven into canvas sails, saddle blankets, and tapestries. Fine tog was used like mohair and knitted into lacy shawls, used for embroidery work and made into durable items like aprons. Today it is regarded as a perfect fiber for woven rugs. Thel was used for fine, soft, next-to-the-skin garments, including baby clothes, fine worked mittens, and underwear. The two coats when spun together were used for fisherman's sweaters, socks, and caps.
Inside you will find walls of colorful Icelandic yarns as well as completed projects ready for purchase. If you wish to get a feel for the wool prior to making the investment, you can take a seat on the bench outside and give it a whirl.
Should the prices be too steep, try the second-hand sweater shop on Reykjavik's main drag where you can purchase bags of yarn with abandoned projects for a fraction of the cost of new. Finally, meandering in and out of the fashionable knit ware boutiques will open your eyes to the NEW fashions emerging from Iceland utilizing the local scratchy/versatile wool, including my my personal favorite:
Love it or hate it, Icelandic wool has kept a population of people on a rugged island warm and dry for centuries. It also keeps Icelandic knitters happily occupied and tourists just as busily purchasing...helping the Icelanders to overcome their economic woes: a modern challenge rivaling the climatic and volcanic challenges of this country's past.