One thing that people have probably noticed when visiting Iceland is that the lopapeysa really is taken quite seriously here. It was conceived as a very serviceable garment in thick unspun Icelandic yarn, only in natural sheep colors, and usable as a replacement for a coat, with the patterns on the yoke and openings serving a practical function as well as a decorative one. Adding a multi-thread pattern on the edges makes the design less stretchy so the cuffs and hem are more durable, and on the yoke, the double yarn adds warmth to the chest area. In more recent years, the choice of color, pattern, and yarn weight has exploded, and now you can find these sweaters with all kinds of crazy designs- I've seen pink background with skulls, animals, flowers, and the traditional designs reinterpreted in all kinds of thrilling color combinations. With lighter weights of yarn, they're more versatile too. If you want, you can now even design your own on the web, and the measurements will all be taken care of for you.
I started in on my first pseudo-lopapeysa a few years ago, going with the free vórmorgun (spring morning) pattern off the web, designed by one of the biggest names in Icelandic sweater-design, Védis Jónsdóttir. I thought that having no sleeves and a relatively simple color pattern would make this a good starter project, plus, it really is just the thing for Icelandic spring, when you want to wear light colors but the weather really just doesn't cooperate. It didn't take long to make and although I messed up the decreases and found the white wool I chose rather unforgiving to variations in stitch consistency, I wore it a few times before deciding the style really wasn't flattering to my body type. It's now clothing my friend H, who looks fantastic in it.
Round two of the lopapeysa effort was another classic, but again I was overzealous in the measurements and the result ended up rather long, and with curiously lacy underarm stitching. A second vórmorgun vest I made as a Christmas gift finally came out exactly how I wanted, so I moved onto a more ambitious multi-color pattern, the blockbuster Riddari design. I once commented that in Iceland you're more likely to see someone wearing the same lopapeysa pattern than wearing the same skirt, and with this design it's really true. In my choir alone I can think of 5 people that have some variation of this pattern.
This sweater came out perfectly and still looks fresh despite nearly two years of daily winter wear. I'm now on my fifth lopapeysa, this time finally for me, and I'm looking forward to the day I can wear it. I wrote once about the magical warmth of the Icelandic blanket- this is that same coziness in portable form.
I keep coming back to these sweaters because they are so fun to knit, especially in the winter during choir practice. While the sectional rehearsals are going, the altos and sopranos always have several projects going. There's K with her endless and unbelievably rapid sock knitting, A with her beautiful baby sweater, and in the back row of the sopranos before Christmas, smaller projects blossomed left and right. Silent interludes are often punctuated by the ping of a dropped sock needle, and whenever I need help I always know where I can get it. These ladies are endlessly helpful when it comes to sewing up the underarms, figuring out how to unroll a curling hem, or how to interpret some of the pattern abbreviations that are cryptic in any language.
Another reason I like making these is because the value gained by making them yourself is so great. You can see from the link above that in finished form, these sweaters aren't cheap. However, one visit to the Icelandic knitting association downtown and you can walk away with the material to make your own for about 3000isk. Although they might look terribly complicated, the design is really very simple, just three tubes that are merged to form one tube. All you need is familiarity with multi-color knitting, basic increase and decrease skills, and some practice with double-pointed needles. Much easier than lace knitting, and one of the most rewarding kind of sweaters you can make since there's barely any sewing-up that has to be done at the end.
A book came out before the holidays, a sort of Icelandic pattern book greatest hits in hardcover form, and I've been drooling over it at every visit to my local Hagkaup. Like most Icelandic books, it's a bit more than I can justify spending on a whim, but with the beautiful new photographs and the possibility to own all the best patterns in one book has me thinking it won't be long before it's on my bookshelf. I probably don't have long to decide though- these kinds of books are generally only published for one or two runs, so it's likely not going to be available for much longer.
Fortunately, whether or not I have the book, the Icelandic wool sweaters are a warmth that keeps on giving, and identifies Iceland-lovers the world over. Whenever I've just landed somewhere on an Icelandair plane, I can almost always identify a passenger or two who's likely to be Iceland-bound on the return flight. This is definitely one (unofficial) national costume appreciated by both tourists and natives.