For a population of just 300 000, Iceland probably has the highest knitter per capita ratio! I tried to look for some statistics and the best number I could come up with was 10%. When planning a trip to Iceland, I hadn’t been thinking knitting, I was thinking spectacular scenery. But the Icelandic have created quite a trade out of knitting over its history. Although its not clear how long knitting was part of the Icelandic repertoire, but there is evidence that hand knitted goods became Iceland’s number one export in the 16th and 17th century. Men, women and children were all expected to contribute to the production of knitted goods! For children their knitting careers started with mittens and they were expected to finish a pair a week. Two women knitting facing each other were expected to produce six sweater bodies or four complete sweaters each week. Women who worked need only produce a pair of socks each day. I’m lucky to finish a pair in a season!!
While dried fish seems to have taken over as the number one export, there is again a thriving hand knitted industry and it’s a great story of reinvention – something the people of Iceland seem to excel at. With the growth of the tourist trade, sweaters handmade in hundreds of homes are available for sale in every nook of the country. The style is very iconic with a circular yoke patterned with two or three colours. The yarn is produced in Iceland and I was surprised how coarse the yarn was. But word has it the yarn is not spun and so contains more air providing better insulation and waterproof garments – for which they are renowned. Seeing the wooly sheep dotted around the landscape when the icy winds blew from the snow-covered highland – I figured it made sense that their wool would be warm and waterproof out of necessity. The one knitter I did manage to talk to relayed a story of Icelandic sheep were sent to New York and after a few years their wool became softer in the warmer conditions! An Icelandic sheep in New York…the mind boggles! Talk about culture shock.
Now learning of the prevalence of knitting and places to buy yarn (I saw it for sale in supermarkets, service stations, stationery shops, gift shops and the airport!) I was looking forward to seeing people knitting everywhere around the country! Surprisingly I only saw one person knitting in two weeks of travel! It seems that knitting is done in front of the TV at night in the privacy of the home! I did meet one older lady who was a knitter (but I did not see her knitting) that ran a little gift/snack bar on a windy peninsula. Sophie knitted with her daughter Gundrun and their little yellow shack was filled with beautiful hand knitted garments.
The prevalence of beautiful handmade jumpers everywhere we went made me itch to make a traditional Icelandic cardigan…so I have come home with a pile of Icelandic wool and a beautiful pattern book full of ideas….now I just need another holiday to get that knit done!