In 2007 my husband and I traveled to Iceland. It’s a country that he has always wanted to visit, but I was less than convinced. I was thinking Fiji, or Hawaii, right? I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was the best time of my life, and I did not want to leave. Our trip included hot springs, sheep, music, graffiti, wool, fashion, art galleries, and night clubs.
Craft and art are massive parts of the culture in Iceland, and so is wool. Downtown Reykjavik’s tourist shops are packed with hand and machine-knit 100% Icelandic wool sweaters, scarves, socks, hats, blankets and more. Practically every other shop window in the heart of the the city features handcrafted fiber arts. Craft supply stores and art galleries are staffed with people who love wool and who love to knit. And these aren’t bland, boring products for the average tourist — they are spectacular cutting-edge knitting designs from amazing designers.
(Photo by stuckincustoms)
I consider myself to be a fiber arts geek. One of my passions, the one I built my career on, is crafting with wool, and I have always loved working with the Icelandic variety. Icelandic wool is one of the most extraordinary fibers on the planet. Along with Merino from Italy, and Kashmir from the Far East, Icelandic sheep are known and revered for their unique and luxurious fleece. The sheep are a major economic and cultural part of life in Iceland, representing more than 1000 years of breeding and traditions. They have developed into a well-adapted animal that serves its country well.
The sheep’s wool has evolved many interesting qualities from its time on the volcanic island. The rebel Viking kings who settled there found a land that on the outside appeared to be barren glaciers. The inland areas were, in fact, hot springs, rolling hills, rivers, and verdant meadows. But the landscape, while lush, has always been tempered with seasons of seemingly endless night, wind, and cold. Thus the Icelandic sheep developed a hearty, but soft, dual-coated fleece. The outer coat is called tog, and is more coarse than the inner coat, thel. The two textures give the wool twice the usefulness. Tog is used for durable housewares, rugs, and jackets. Thel is softer and used for sweaters, accessories, and wearables.
Icelandic ranchers have historically let these sheep roam free across the countryside. Each year in the fall they hold a roundup (it’s sort-of like an old western cattle drive). They herd the sheep, and then collectively gather to sort out who owns which animals. It’s an event that involves working, feasting, and celebrating, and is a major part of old school Icelandic ranching traditions. Plus, tourists are welcome and encouraged to take entire vacations built around participating in the roundups. This is definitely on my list for when I return!
Beyond wool, sheep, felt, and knitting, Iceland is filled with my other favorite art, graffiti. I am an amateur graf hunter, and my collection of photos includes Philly, NYC, and SF. I had NO idea that I would find stunning street art in Iceland, and that I would even become friends with one of the city’s crews, DAT. Icelandic graffiti incorporates colors I’ve seldom seen in the states. The artists work with crisp strokes and clear representations. Their work is not only in alleys and on the sides of buildings, but in the galleries and fashion shops. It is a major defining element of the Icelandic urban culture.
We planned our trip to Iceland to attend the Icelandic Airwaves, a week-long festival of bleeding-edge music. Hundreds of bands are booked, and they play shows in every cafe, bookstore, restaurant, club, and the largest venue happens to be the National Museum. We saw hip hop, folk, indy rock, metal, pop, house, and more. In the morning, we soaked in hot springs; during the day, we soaked in hot springs; and in the evenings, we soaked in hot springs. At night, we raged till dawn, with an international cast of characters, and our new Icelandic friends. On the weekend, we toured the countryside, trying to find sheep, and learned about the history and landscape of one of the most amazing places on Earth.
Of course, some things have changed in Iceland since 2007. Their economy was at the heart of the worldwide banking crisis, and their nation fell as far as any, and further than most. But what that means is that with your foreign currency, you have even more spending power. Iceland Airlines is offering flights and rooms at a fraction of their normal price. This is in addition to the normal spending and tax incentives the country has always offered to tourists. I would say it warrants an extra, empty suitcase that you can pack just with yarn for the flight back.
More Iceland Bits:
This looks like a good roundup trip.
Crystal Palace yarn is yummy, and available most places.
Icelandic artists are featured on this website.
Lopi is Iceland’s Rowan.
Airwaves is the best festival on the planet.
Iceland Air has major deals.